Shocking OLPC Haiti Pilot Project Report From IADB


When the IDB plans to "evaluate its performance from a quantitative standpoint," it's a good sign that they mean to do just that. The XO project in Haiti, discussed here with a cost breakdown here is bearing a ton (1 pages, to be precise) fruit, with the recent IDB report (PDF).

It reveals some promise, some best practices, and also reminds us of some common problems.

From the "I toldya so" files

olpc Caribbean
Finding an XO laptop spark

Somewhat unsurprisingly, there were some hassles in the basic deployment and daily use of the XOs which have been common topics of debate around for some time now, from dealing with shipping, hardware and infrastructure limitations, and the importance of teacher training.

First, classroom usage in the Haiti project started out as laptop sharing among students due to "an unforeseen shortage," later explained with slightly more detail as "logistical barriers and shipping delays"). The project team made lemonade from these lemons and studied the sharing dynamic, concluding that students more comfortable with the laptop and/or students who already had an stronger academic skills tended to dominate laptop usage; furthering the educational divide.

Green and Cute does not mean Safe

The strong branding of the laptop, ideally destroying the market for stolen XOs may or may not work as a theft deterrent, but most of the Haitian children aren't willing to gamble with theirs: "However, more than half of the fourth-grade students interviewed reported feeling afraid to take the XO laptop home because they might be robbed."

Battery life correlates with attention span:

The evaluation also found great variation in student attention span per XO Camp session, with a rising attention span from 9:00 am until approximately 10:30 am, and declining attention span thereafter. One of the explanations for this variation, as provided by observational data, was the low battery life of the XO laptops, which led to student fights over electrical outlets at approximately 10:30 am.

The actual problem then is not some mysterious mid-morning-onset Attention Deficit Disorder, but the real-world impacts of the reality of the XO battery life. It's great in black-and-white screen mode with wifi off and being used mainly for reading, but in real-life classroom situations; "the fully charged batteries were depleted within 3-5 hours, depending on usage. It is unclear whether this significant difference is attributable solely to a technical default or if the XO laptops were distributed without first being properly charged."

Even when working in a constructivist paradigm, teacher involvement and training helps:

School and MENFP staff also commented on the limits of constructivist pedagogy within the framework of the OLPC pre-pilot project... 42 percent believed that teachers and students were simply not used to a constructivist model of education and needed additional guidance to ensure its success. However, 100 percent of school and MENFP staff interviewees believed that the constructivist model was a good one to follow.

Clearly, however, the path from rote memorization to a more exploratory framework still had some ground to cover, based on not only the above sentiments, but some choice student quotes like "When I use it, I'll understand what I'm working on much better, which will make it easier to memorize."

Haiti also reveals a valuable role for constructivist style, student-led learning in low-resource environments:

Particularly in settings of extreme poverty, where educational materials and resources are scant and teacher quality is lacking, the implementation of child-centered learning can increase students' ability to think independently and to develop problem-solving skills more rapidly. Technology that is explicitly child-centered and designed for individual use has the potential of accelerating educational development in the short term.

The question remains, though, where (if ever?) does that change? With unlimited funds, few would argue that better trained teachers and high-quality teaching materials would not be the best path to improve education, but in the vast middle ground, at what level is do you throw in the towel, and stop focusing on teachers and start finding other tools to improve education?

Training and Localization

Project recommendations focused on training - both technical and pedagogical training for the teachers, including more training on constructivism, with other recommendations towards safety, methodology, and ideas to deal with the power problems.

Some insightful recommendations from the teachers themselves include some of the hardware hassles readers will be familiar with (*cough*touchpad*cough*), some clear UI improvements that more recent software updates have begun to address, and (mainly) localization challenges:

Include a map of Haiti. Include a game in which sentences appear out of order, thus requiring students to arrange the words in proper order. Include the Cut, Copy, and Paste features typically available on computers. Improve the touchpad, which quickly loses sensitivity and proved difficult for students and staff to use effectively. Include a longer-lasting battery, since the current battery lasts only about 2 hours. Include activities specific to Haitian culture. For example, when teaching about science, it would be useful to have an XO laptop activity that compared the traditional or natural medicines of several countries, including Haiti.

Some Good News

olpc Caribbean
Haitian kids ♥ XO laptops

The software was not a problem - core Sugar Activities like Record, Write, Browse and Paint were well woven into curricula and represented the vast majority of classroom usage. Students would explore the other programs, but this exploration declined when activities were used in class. Also, introduction to the Internet "drastically reduced usage of the Paint and Record programs after being formally introduced to the Internet and receiving an essay-writing assignment." If you think that's a steep drop off, just wait till you show them Facebook, Twitter, and LOLCATS.

The decline in exploration is unfortunate, but could indicate student comfort and expertise levels increasing in programs they use more often. I certainly am a bigger fan of Excel than Access, and Photoshop more than MSPaint:

"when a clear activity was presented to the students and the students were given projects to work on using specific software programs, use of those programs increased steadily, while exploratory usage declined."

Actual skill and teaching improvements

The role of technology - and how to evaluate it - is the topic of lively debate. The Haiti OLPC project team did an impressive job gathering a mixture of hard numbers, survey responses and basic observations. Even so, educational progress with the laptop remains hard to measure. Some high points were clear improvement in spelling (possibly thanks in part to spellcheck) and improved writing (perhaps simply a better tool to write with?).

Regardless, there were clear process improvements for teachers:

Students wrote daily journal entries on the XO laptop. Like their written assignments, these were edited by the teachers. During interviews, most teachers said it was easier to edit students' work done on the XO laptop. Thus they were able to spend more time working one-on-one with students and less time lecturing. Increased individual attention may have thus been a significant factor in the perceived improvement of student's reading and writing skills.

Still, the potential value was best stated by the students themselves:

Students believed the XO laptop could be used to facilitate the learning process through the use of tools such as the Internet and a calculator because, as student #40 stated, "Everything you need is on the laptop."

Well, almost everything.

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The earthquake in Haiti is a stunning disaster in a country already in crisis from decades of disastrous governments and natural calamities. The poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, this new devastation we see every night on TV makes you want to ... [more]


Interested in discussing work in Haiti with someone from your organization. My husband has NGO and has been doing work in Haiti for past 15 years. Has many Haitian contacts and interested in pilot at Port au Prince school and possibly another in a remote village north of Jacmel. (Seguin) I can be contacted at

Valerie Keesee

Very interested in the system and its deployment in the Central Plateau. Please contact me to discuss further

Jacques Parent

to be honest their issues are society issue not because of economic levels or because is haiti. i got my laptop stolen in the airport and usually have to deal with low power. i tend to explore more during offline time on my n800 pda than when i found an active connection.

While the stolen laptop at the airport is an isolated incident, the issues still remain that Haiti is an area of need and had been neglected for too long.

Even if Haiti is an extreme poor country (more than Dominican Republic for example). I still don't find anything on this reports that show a different reality from let say New York city or Mexico City.

Kids in general have to deal with cellphone theft (every kids already has a cellphone here). And every laptop user, can only last 3-5 hours in general regardless of the brand, and the situation.

Cuba for example, uses solar energy to power schools and they seem to do it well since you only need a 8 watts lightbulb. But powering 20-30 laptops even when they are low powered is a different story.

I must caution you that DR is light years away from Hait. Two different places with needs that are on a different scale.

Wasn't that what I said?

The issue which presents itself is that Haiti is unique and of itself. While one can find hope in New York and New Mexico; even when conditions are worse there, on an even scale; New Mexico is much more advance thatn Haiti. Do you agree?

I didnt said mexico, I said mexico city, even if americans want to make it a US territory still not a 'new mexico state'.

And about hope, well that topic is too subjective, I know many Cubans that live much better than americans. Not because of material goods but just because they are healthy, and happy with what they get from the land (not the government).

My point here is that the report is not specific to Haiti, so far the misshappens are pretty much also found on Peru (where the laptop is not being held in schools).

Now the IADB report issues are appliable to any common computer user, regardless of their nationality or economic level. Laptops will last 3-5 hours is not a surprise, my 2,000 dls laptop also last 3-5 hours unless I get a 200 dls 9 cell battery to give me extra 3 hours.

So this is really not an issue, the good thing is that this kids get 3 hours of quality education with more updated material than what they did in years before.

The THING here, is that is not only Haiti that have very old material, but most education systems (in Mexico, Peru, Honduras, Dominican Republic) are also outdated.

I have teacher friends in all this countries and have told me that the quality in the educational material (books) are extremely outdated.

I would be more interested in seen their current syllabus before the XO and what they were getting, compared to what kids in Cuba/DR/Puerto Rico have. Which is a more qualitative assessment.

You didn't expand on why this is at all "shocking".

I found the report interesting, a bit short on raw data, but not at all shocking. Wayan's simply good at writing shocking headlines - like writers for many popular city papers, I might add.

I'm waiting for the first 120-pt headlines to show up...