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.