OLPC XO Laptop: Constructive or Distractive?


Nicholas Negroponte calls the OLPC "an education project, not a laptop project" (though the new CEO would disagree). The question is, are those two goals incompatible?

Nigeria OLPC
What's Khaled Hassounah's opinion?

Ray Fisman in Slate argues yes. In an article last week, "The $100 Distraction Device", he wrote about a Romanian program that gave vouchers for a computer to families with income under $17. The results?

Children in families that received a voucher spent 3.5 fewer hours in front of the tube [television] per week. But computer use also crowded out homework (2.3 hours less per week), reading, and sleep. Less schoolwork translated into lower grades at school--vouchered kids' GPAs were 0.36 grade points lower than their nonvouchered counterparts--and also lower aspirations for higher education.
This sounds precisely the opposite of the goal of the One Laptop per Child program. Granted, the Romanian program has some significant differences from the OLPC's mission.

First off, OLPC does more than just give kids a computer. It pushes to integrate the laptop into classroom learning. By integrating community involvement into the program, they allow for the students to be steered towards more productive endeavors and ones that relate to their studies. As Fisman notes, "...their [the computers] usefulness relies on parents being around to assure they don't simply become a very tempting distraction from the unpleasantness of trigonometry homework."

Furthermore, the Sugar user interface allows for greater control over what can be done with the system. The programs being created for it (with the possible exception of Doom) are designed to help children create, explore, wonder, strategize, and learn.

This is why I fear that some the unique educational potential of OLPC will be lost with the conversion to Windows. The platform, and, at least as important, development community, would no longer be so focused on programs that were created for learning and thereby lose the strongest advantage the OLPC had. For all its issues, Sugar is an amazing endeavor.

What I would find to be a more interesting study would be compare the progress of students who receive the Sugar XOs versus those who receive the Windows versions.

Herbert is an Economics major at Swarthmore College. She writes at Eyes Open and 500 Flavors of Doom (her eschatology blog)

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>>>gave vouchers for a computer to families with income under $17

>>>vouchered kids' GPAs were 0.36 grade points lower than their nonvouchered counterparts

Correlation is not causation.

@Dax - I agree (though to note, in a proper study correlation can suggest causality with a fair degree of accuracy). One thing I did not mention, for limit of space is my nitpicking of the study. While the arbitrary cut off of $17/day income does allow for some similarity of populations, the fact is that those without the vouchers are, in general, of a higher socioeconomic background, which can strongly skew the data set. Before data of the GPA and academic plans does not seem to have been collected by the researchers.

Of course, the researchers did not assign the computers themselves in a random distribution that would have produced results that is less distorted. But that could possibly be cruel. This was an observational study; not an experiment, so causation could not in any regard be determined with any conclusiveness, merely suggested.

The actual study (which I admit I have only skimmed) can be found here: http://www.columbia.edu/~cp2124/papers/computer.pdf

Another note on GPA: in European countries, they are calculated on a scale of ten. Furthermore the standard deviation of the recorded GPAs was 1.025.

There's a great handbook on monitoring of ICT for education projects that InfoDev just released that has some shockingly bad statistics on the data to date; most ICT4edu projects correlate negatively with educational performance, and you really have to control tightly or have a very targeted educational outcome to change that.

I assume you're aware that Ivan Krstić has discussed the Romanian study: http://radian.org/notebook/distraction-machine

@Jon - I was not aware of that post. Thank you for pointing it to me!

I wonder who wrote this article.

The picture has title "What's Khaled Hassounah's opinion?", although KH is not mentioned in the article, and the article is tagged KH -- does it mean that KH is the author? The picture must be related somehow to the article, after all.

But after the article it is explained who is Herbert (is it nick or name?). Herbert is "She", and KH apparently is male, so they can't be the same person.

@m - I did, of course. My bio (with an explanation of the nickname Herbert) can be found here: http://herbertanzer.wordpress.com/about/

No relation to the KH person.

@m - forgot to mention - the caption on the photo was automatically generated. I didn't even noticed it was there. It also does not link to what I linked it to (which was the photostream the photo came from).

"This is why I fear that some the unique educational potential of OLPC will be lost with the conversion to Windows."

Well, it depends. Porting the Windows gui to the XO is not so hot, though it may be useful as a transition stage. A lot better is runing Sugar on top of the Windows OS.

Herbert makes some interesting points regarding the distraction value of the computer in a learning environment. Should an electronic device used by students for schoolwork be allowed to have distractive influences?

Obviously the advantage of using a computer are many. The Exploration and Learning potential coupled with Internet access gives a child far more scope than would ever be specified in school curriculum. Could that be why set school studies designed to learnt then applied to SAT scores or other methods of measure would always be at odds with Constructivism?

How does one measure a childs learning ability or potential? Surely not by GPA! Should we use the IQ testing method? The ability for abstract thought and problem solving is always going to be superior to GPA.

Should Teachers be taken to task for poor student performance? Ask any teacher and they would say NO! If a student does not want to learn its not the Teachers fault.

Its not surprising that new teachers come from the bottom third of graduating University students. Its not surprising that teachers did not major in University in the field they teach in. Maybe we need smarter teachers. Maybe we need computers to take over from poor quality teachers.

OLPC is amazing in theory, but Im just not sure if it really helps out that much. In my ED205 class we are talking about the "digital divide" and how to teach kids by intergrating technology into their education when not all kids have computers at home. OLPC is a great way to steer away from this problem...all kids could participate in a class discussion board at home, work on projects etc. However, dont you think most kids will use the laptops way more for things like facebook and myspace? If I were a high schooler and had a laptop to use whenever I wanted, Im not sure how disciplined I would be at using it for homework only. I would be interested to see some more statistics about students grades after they used the OLPC program.

I, Sarah205, posted the above. (I forgot to put the 205 on there the first time)

Of course if these kids were finding really interesting and
useful things to do on their computers then you'd expect exactly
this situation: lots of time on the computer and hardly any
interest in the local schools.

The study uses regression discontinuity analysis which is a useful tool when applied correctly. I believe that it has been wrongly applied and that the results are invalid. I describe at http://tonyforster.blogspot.com/2008/06/home-pcs-lower-education-results.html
how the study has assumed an underlying linear relationship where one does not exist.

Though good points have been made about the difference between the Romanian project and the OLPC, I think it is important that the study itself should be examined, we are going to hear it quoted again and again saying that "computers at home are bad for education".

Is my analysis correct? We need to know. If the study is bad science it should be widely known.