Peru’s equipping of more than 800,000 public schoolchildren in this rugged Andean nation with low-cost laptops ranks among the world’s most ambitious efforts to leverage digital technology in the fight against poverty.
Yet five years in, there are serious doubts about whether the largest single deployment in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative  inspired by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte was worth the more than $200 million that Peru’s government spent.
Ill-prepared rural teachers and administrators were too often unable to fathom–much less teach–with the machines, software bugs didn’t get fixed, internet access was almost universally absent and cultural disconnects kept kids from benefitting from the machines.
“In essence, what we did was deliver the computers without preparing the teachers,” said Sandro Marcone, the Peruvian education official who now runs the program.
He believes the missteps may have actually widened the gap between children able to benefit from the computers and those ill-equipped to do so, he says, in a country whose public education system is rated among the world’s most deficient.
The volume of “education” computers delivered globally remains modest. Intel Corp. says it has shipped more than 7 million, about a third in Argentina. Venezuela boasts 1.6 million distributed, licensed by a Portuguese company.
Negroponte’s nonprofit OLPC foundation, which pioneered the idea of bootstrapping the developing world with information technology, was never able to achieve the $100 laptop price tag it desired but nevertheless won adherents.
More than 2.5 million of its $200 laptops, not just the green-and-white models for the early grades but also blue-and-white machines with bigger keyboards for older kids, have been distributed in 46 countries since 2007.
OLPC laptops, which are rugged and energy efficient and run an open-source variant of the Linux operating system, are in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mongolia and Haiti, and even in the United States and Australia. Uruguay, a compact South American nation of 3.5 million people, is the only country that has fully embraced the concept and given every elementary school child and teacher an XO laptop, as the machines are called.
No country, however, bought nearly as many as Peru.
“It’s a really great idea,” said Jeff Patzer, a software engineer with a degree from the University of California at Berkeley who traveled from school to school in Peru’s rustic Cordillera Blanca highlands in 2010 introducing and maintaining the laptops. “It just seems like there was some stuff that wasn’t thought through quite enough.”
Inter-American Development Bank researchers were less polite.
“There is little solid evidence regarding the effectiveness of this program,” they said in a study sharply critical of the overall OLPC initiative that was based on a 15-month study at 319 schools in small, rural Peruvian communities that got laptops.
“The magical thinking that mere technology is enough to spur change, to improve learning, is what this study categorically disproves,” co-author Eugenio Severin of Chile told the Associated Press.
The study found no increased math or language skills, no improvement in classroom instruction quality, no boost in time spent on homework, no improvement in reading habits.
On the positive side, the “dramatic increase in access to computers” accelerated by about six months students’ abstract reasoning, verbal fluency, and speed in processing information, the report said.
A study in Ethiopian schools by Dutch researchers from the University of Groningen, published last year in the journal Computers and Education, similarly found that OLPC laptops improved abstract reasoning.
The teachers in those schools had received extensive training in the laptops, which the researchers said introduced an “information-rich novelty” into an environment previously starved for learning material.
The laptops in Ethiopia, like those in Peru, were loaded with books, memory games, music composing software and other programs.
The Education Ministry official who ran Peru’s program until last year, Oscar Becerra, calls the abstract reasoning findings “spectacular” and disputes claims that, overall, the program has been a failure.
“We knew from the start that it wouldn’t be possible to improve the teachers,” he said, citing a 2007 census of 180,000 Peruvian teachers that showed more than 90 percent lacked basic math skills while three in five could not read above sixth-grade level.
Becerra took umbrage at the development bank’s finding that the computers didn’t motivate children to do school work. “In a school that’s a disgrace, with teachers who are ignorant and lessons that are a joke, how is having computers going to improve motivation?”
Each teacher was supposed to get 40 hours of OLPC training. That hardly helped in schools where teachers had never so much as booted up a computer. In Patzer’s experience “most of them barely knew how to interact with the computers at all.”
At the Jose Arguedas primary school in Lima’s gritty San Juan de Lurigancho neighborhood, 40 computers for its 570 students arrived nearly two years ago but few teachers have worked them into their lesson plans.
“It’s been difficult for many teachers to adapt to them,” said Graciela Martinez, the school’s technology coordinator.
Many of Magnus Fajardo’s second-graders struggled when he took them to the computer lab and asked them to write, sequentially, the numbers from 200 to 300 on their laptops.
The children knew their numbers but few knew their laptops. Less bashful children asked a visiting reporter for help. They wanted to know how to advance to a new line, how to increase the font size.
In the higher grades, Martinez said, children’s use of the machines is mostly social. They have internet, and Facebook is big. So are online games.
“For them, the laptop is more for playing than for learning,” she says.
Educators say that’s a clear sign the children haven’t been properly introduced either to the internet or to what is on the machines, which have digital cameras and audi recorders, programming tools and a trimmed-down Wikipedia.
Negroponte thinks the main goal of technology educators should be simply getting computers into poor kids’ hands.
His proposal last year to parachute tablet computers from helicopters, limiting the involvement of adults and “educators,” caused some colleagues to wince. But Negroponte is dead serious, and has begun a pilot project in two Ethiopian villages to test whether tablets alone, loaded with the right software, can teach children to read.
“There are about 100 million kids without schools, without access to literate adults, and I would like to explore a way to get tablets to them in a manner that does not need “educators” to go to the village,” he said via email.
The OLPC team always considered internet connectivity part of the recipe for success. They also insisted that each child be given a laptop and be permitted to take it home.
Uruguay, a small, flat country with a far higher standard of living and ubiquitous internet, has honored those requirements
Peru did not.
Becerra said trade-offs were necessary because it would have cost $1.2 billion to provide all 6 million children in Peru’s elementary schools with laptops. Rural schools, beginning with those where a single teacher manages multiple grades, got priority.
But those schools’ very remoteness complicated matters.
Some parents, mistakenly believing themselves the laptops’ owners, tried to sell the machines, Becerra said.
Others, about a quarter, didn’t want the computers coming home, fearing theft, the development bank researchers found. Meanwhile, two in five children didn’t take their computers home because their school wouldn’t let them.
Some schools didn’t have enough electricity to power the machines.
And then there was the internet. Less than 1 percent of the schools studied had it.
Not only were kids deprived of the chance to widen their horizons and meet like-minded students, they were also deprived of access to updated software purged of bugs.
“In lots of places (in Peru) they still have the software versions from 2008,” said Pablo Flores, a steward of Uruguay’s OLPC program.
Patzer blogged about the frustration he witnessed when kids and teachers struggled with the laptops’ buggy software and, not understanding what to do, “promptly boxed them up put them back in the corner.”
The contrast couldn’t be starker in Uruguay, whose program has been touted by Negroponte and others as a model although no major outside study has been done of it.
Programming festivals that Flores helps organize there have led to the development of applications that teach geography and chess, play radio stations and read to the blind.
Those applications are available for use by anyone, anywhere, including Peruvian children.
Sandro Marcone, the education official who took over Peru’s OLPC program last year, has already made modifications to the program, including making the XO laptop part of Peru’s university teacher-training curriculum this year so young educators are fully familiar with it.
Marcone’s office will continue to support the laptops and replace broken ones.
It plans to expand rural internet penetration and put new support resources online. Part of the new strategy is to encourage regional governments to manage their own educational technology and support.
“The ministry is not going to do another macro project of this type. It is not going to make multimillion-dollar purchases and distribute (computers) like candy.”