Whatever Happened to One Laptop Per Child?

by Sasha Alyson

UNICEF has announced a “partnership” with Ericsson, the Swedish telecom company, to put more schools on-line. This is merely the latest U.N. project to put more technology into schools.

But the schools keep getting worse.(1) Again and again, new tech-based solutions are announced to great fanfare. Bushels of money flutter around, it all ends up somewhere, but it achieves little or nothing while bringing a hidden cost: Distraction. Everyone from teachers and administrators to politicians and the media switches their attention to the shiny new object, and hopefully a chance to grab a few of those dollars.

Anyone watching the news a decade ago surely heard about the shiniest example of this: One Laptop Per Child. Whatever happened to it, anyway?


“$100 Laptop Project Moves Closer to Narrowing Digital Divide” announced the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) at the World Economic Forum in 2006. Actually the laptop cost about $200, and much more if you include teacher training and maintenance. And the best analysis indicates that the laptops increased the digital divide.(2) That’s only two mistakes, but we haven’t gotten beyond the headline yet.

The laptops came from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, run by Nicholas Negroponte at the Massachusetts Institute of Techology. The prestige of the UNDP and MIT, combined with Negroponte’s connections (his brother John was U.S. Pres. George W. Bush’s U.N. ambassador) gave OLPC a high profile. The announcement continued:

“UNDP will… design and develop programmes to deliver OLPC technology and learning resources to schools in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs)…. The $100 laptop is an inexpensive, robust computer, with open-source software, and very low power consumption. It can also be powered by hand cranking…. OLPC will first implement the program in seven diverse and very large countries….”(3)

It was a bundle of lies and deceit.

The UNDP stated that the laptop “can also be powered by hand cranking.” But the crank fell off when U.N. chief Kofi Annan demonstrated this “robust” technology the previous year. Surely they remembered! The UNDP’s statement was a flat-out lie.

“We have five countries: China, Brazil, Thailand, Egypt and South Africa.” This was Negroponte’s original list of commitments. For the press conference, the UNDP had talked of helping “the Least Developed Countries.” Negroponte’s list, however, was a solidly middle-income list. And it was mostly hot air. Thailand did conduct a small evaluation several years later; the laptops made no difference in school performance. The others never even got that far. The list continually changed. Nigeria later decided to run a test, which it soon regretted. To provide power – hey, didn’t you say there were hand cranks? — the schools had to buy gasoline-run generators which brought their own share of problems. There was an outcry when children were discovered – who could have predicted such a thing? – to be looking at pornography. Nigeria bailed out.

“Kids in the remotest places [will] teach themselves,” said Negroponte. Was there any actual evidence of that? Steve Jobs’s biographer writes that Jobs and Bill Gates “agreed that computers had, so far, made surprisingly little impact on schools.”[3717] And neither allowed their own children to use mobile phones. It’s one thing to experiment with new approaches. It’s quite another to claim that you have the answer, while utterly ignoring past experience, and then stick poor countries with the bill.

“In Peru a large number… of the children are teaching their parents how to read and write,” asserted Negroponte. No one else noticed this. The 40-page evaluation of Peru’s program doesn’t mention it.


Hyperbole

Negroponte later claimed that his deceits were part of a deliberate master plan: “When I started, I had to be knowingly hyperbolic, otherwise we could not have changed corporate strategy or swung governments into action…. It attracted the kind of attention that made this happen.”(4)

In other words, “If I’d told the truth, they wouldn’t have done what I wanted.” Yes, many of us face this quandary. It doesn’t turn us all into inveterate liars. The lies and hyperbole do indeed get attention – and they suck up the oxygen that would otherwise be invested in finding better, home-grown solutions.


Negroponte opposed any evaluation of OLPC as a waste of time. Those paying for the laptops had better sense. The first big evaluation came from Peru. Researchers found:

“no evidence that the program increased learning in Math or Language…. The program did not affect attendance or time allocated to doing homework…. [There] is no evidence the program [the laptops came loaded with 200 books] influenced reading habits.”(5)

Other countries were equally disappointed. Uruguay was the first to provide a laptop for every student nationwide. An evaluation of this costly experiment found that “in the first two years of its implementation the program had no effects on math and reading scores.” An evaluation in Nepal was not definitive but suggested that the laptops had a negative effect on reading, and none on math.


OLPC was born into a burst of media attention. “It’s not the most powerful computer you’ll ever buy, but it just might help save the world,” burbled Time magazine. (Time also got the pricetag wrong.) When OLPC fizzled, that got almost no coverage. There were no press releases to save reporters the trouble of doing research, the world wasn’t going to be saved, and what magazine wants to say, “we got it wrong last time”?

In August, UNICEF and Ericsson announced a “partnership,” with funding from Ericsson, to connect schools in 35 countries and “close the digital divide.” Neither partner gives any evidence-based reason to believe this will increase learning, nor do they even recognize that such a question might be worth addressing. Like Nicholas Negroponte, they’re not interested in evidence. They run on hype.

The result is easy to predict. There will be photos of excited students having their first internet communication with children far away. And then this too will flop, for the same reason that past high-tech cures flop: At best, technology is just one element of any solution. Its success depends on the motivations of those who introduce it, the skills of those who use it, and having the underlying infrastructure to support it. It cannot be put in place simply because Ericsson funds UNICEF to help it gain a foothold.

But then, another high-tech project will rise. It, too, will promise to “close the digital divide.”

Clarification

(If you’ve got another minute….)

Some readers have commented that they, or their family, benefited from computers that came through OLPC or other programs. I agree that computers can play a valuable role in education — we use computers in our school. My objective here was to make three points, which perhaps I should have spelled out more clearly:
(1) The UNDP and OLPC knowingly, deliberately lied and deceived, so as to manipulate governments in developing countries to do what these agencies had decided they should do. (How’s that for spelling it out clearly?)
(2) Where evaluations were done, the benefits were small, non-existent, or negative, while the cost was extremely high.
(3) Education budgets are tight; there are hard trade-offs when deciding whether to invest in technology, teacher development, or something else. It is worrisome that UNICEF and UNESCO, with funding from big tech, are pushing policies which center on technology.

Notes and Sources

Top photo: During its brief test in Nigeria, OLPC distributed this picture. Credit: OLPC (Creative Commons license CC-BY-2.5) The OLPC organization continues, asking for donations and showing pictures of installments, though no longer of Nigeria. It is difficult to evaluate whether any individual implementation is successful, because most coverage is highly biased in one direction or the other. My view is that computers can indeed contribute to the educational process (we use them in the school where I work) but usage should be implemented slowly because there will be kinks to work out. And speaking of kinks, I believe it’s best to keep them off-line for an extended period of time. Putting students online brings a wide range of issues — viruses, pornography, privacy, just for starters — that few schools in these regions are ready to address. When to connect should be decided locally, not by a one-size-fits-all approach pushed by U.N. agencies, backed with funding from a Swedish company that is selling connectivity.

1. I’m writing of schools in developing regions, where the UNDP said this would help, Another story, “Schools in the global South are getting worse” presents strong evidence that overall, the quality of these schools is declining.

2. “The digital divide increased.” With so much money going for hardware, there weren’t funds to give teachers the necessary training. Consequently, children with tech-savvy parents got help at home, and derived greater benefit from having a laptop. Poorer children fell further behind. This and many other issues about technology solutions are thoughtfully discussed by Mark Warschauer and Morgan Ames in “Can One Laptop Per Child Save the World’s Poor?” A text version of that paper is here. For those with academic library connections, a more readable PDF can be downloaded from JSTOR. (In other words, those most affected by all this have worse access to information about it than do wealthy academics.)

3. The announcement was made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It is no longer on the U.N. site but may be viewed at the Internet Archive: UNDP-OLPC Davos announcement.

4. “Nonprofit Laptops: A Dream Not Yet Over,” by Alice Rawsthorn, New York Times, 8 Nov. 2009.

5. Technology and Child Development: Evidence from the One Laptop Per Child Program, by Julián P. Cristia, Pablo Ibarrarán, Santiago Cueto, Ana Santiago, and Eugenio Severín. IZA, Bonn, March 2012. The study did find “some benefits on cognitive skills” but these are the general mental dexterity that we nurture any time we get children out of a rote classroom and challenge their brains. A box of puzzles, costing $2 per student, should help. It doesn’t require a $200 computer with a 50% chance of breaking down during the next two or three years.

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