Can One Laptop per Child Solve the Education Problem?



Six years ago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nicholas Negroponte announced his vision of distributing a $100 laptop to every child in the developing world. The ambitious One Laptop per Child program was born and soon garnered the support of the United Nations Development Program, Citigroup and other private companies. Among its founding members are Google and Ebay. It was supposed to revolutionize learning and empower young people through technology.

The OLPC developed its own low cost laptop called the XO. Named by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2007, the XO has a lower processing power than other laptops in the market but has 12 hours of battery life and was designed to be shockproof, waterproof and dustproof. It can also be converted into an e-book reader and its screen can still be readable even in direct sunlight. The price however is closer to $200 and the OLPC has not been able to reach its target yet of lowering it to $100.

The concept of providing universal access to technology is a fairly recent addition to the heaping plate of development goals. At a time when early adopters can barely keep up with the latest releases of iPhones and iPads, it comes as a glaring inequality that a lot of children in poor countries haven’t even touched a computer. Attempting to bridge this technological divide through One Laptop per Child is a noble aim but the program is not without its critics and, like all other development goals, it’s not without its failures.

When Negroponte pitched the OLPC program at a TED talk in 2006, his target for production and distribution was impressive: 7-10 million laptops in 2007 and 100-200 million by 2008. As of today however, the OLPC has distributed only about 2 million laptops in 31 countries. About 80 percent of the laptops have gone to countries which are classified as upper-middle income.

The targets may have been too grand and unachievable in so short a time. Negroponte has admitted to bluffing on the numbers to create momentum for the program. “You need scale to change people’s minds,” he said. Another reason is the demand was less than originally expected. The main distribution model of OLPC is to sell the laptops to governments although it has also partnered with non-governmental organizations. With a sales price of $181 per unit, affordability could have been an issue for low-income countries.

Lessons can be learned though in countries that did implement the program. In July 2010, the Inter-American Development Bank released an assessment on the OLPC program in Peru. The study found out that infrastructure problems hindered the effectiveness of the project. Internet access is an integral component of the program and yet only 1.4 percent of the schools have an internet connection. About 4.8 percent of the schools also don’t have electricity.

Teachers complained about inadequate training and lack of technical support. It was also observed that once the initial excitement over the novelty of the laptop has subsided, its use also decreased. The students also don’t bring the laptops home for fear of being liable for their damage. This is contrary to the original project design which promotes a new way of learning by enabling students to use and explore the gadgets on their own.

On the positive side, parents and teachers have shown increased enthusiasm when the OLPC program started. They believe that the laptops help in improving the children’s education and training, and motivate them to attend school. Teachers also find it easier to prepare class materials and lesson plans with the use of the laptops.

When Negroponte started promoting One Laptop per Child, he introduced it as an education program, not a laptop program. If the Peru experience can teach us anything, it’s that it should be treated as such. This means that implementation should be holistic and should involve all aspects of the education system, from teacher training to curriculum design to infrastructure. We may want to revolutionize the learning process by just giving away computers for kids to tinker with but the fact is they will still have to rely on the so-called traditional components of education and social services as a whole. If these components remain weak, no amount of spanking new inventions will make up for it.

In April this year, the IDB published another study on one-to-one laptop programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. In its conclusion, it said: “there is no silver bullet in education. There is no device or strategy that applied on its own resolves the complex challenges that education faces. Change in educational practices, student-centered learning, and personalized learning experiences can all be facilitated by technology when integrated holistically into an education system.”

Technology grants us new ways of tackling problems and exploring solutions but we should be realistic in what it can and cannot do. Otherwise, we may just end up dumping 200 million laptops in poor countries and our children are still none the wiser.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-1917/Susan Markisz. Kimberly Deonanan, 15, from Trinidad and Tobago (foreground), and Ibrahim Adamu, 17, from Nigeria (background), type on laptops inside the 'Our Stories' recording booth at UNICEF House. Ibrahim is working on a One Laptop per Child computer, created for use by children in all parts of the world.

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