Region's one laptop per child plan has a future


By Andres Oppenheimer
Four years after Latin America made headlines by becoming a world leader in giving out free laptops to millions of schoolchildren -- an idea that has since been embraced by more than 20 African, Asian and Eastern European countries -- the first results are in, and they give some reasons for hope.

An evaluation of the nearly 1 million computers given through the One Laptop Per Child program in Peru, conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the largest of its kind, gave ample ammunition to both supporters and detractors of the program, a charity led by M.I.T.'s technology guru Nicholas Negroponte that has its operational headquarters in Miami.

In addition to Peru, several other Latin American countries -- Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Mexico and El Salvador among them -- have launched massive national or local government plans to give a laptop to every child in public school. Uruguay became the world's first country to give all of its elementary school children a laptop two years ago.

The IADB study of more than 300 schools in rural Peru shows that the three-year-old program in that country has narrowed the technological gap between rich and poor, and has helped improve the elementary-school students' learning abilities.

But it also showed that the more than 900,000 children that received free laptops from the government showed no improvement in their math and reading skills.

In an article about the report, The Economist magazine opted to see the glass half-empty. In an April 7 story entitled "A disappointing return from an investment in computing," it said that far from revolutionizing education, it "does not accomplish anything in particular."

Last week, I asked IADB education expert Eugenio Severin, one of the lead authors of the report, whether he would recommend Peru and other countries to go ahead with the one-laptop-per-child program.

"These programs are a work in progress. Our recommendation is to continue them, and to improve them," Severin said.

The good news is that the program allowed both children and teachers in rural areas who had never seen a computer get access to technology, inserting them overnight into the digital age. Also, the laptop-equipped children in Peru showed some improvement in their learning abilities, including their vocabulary and capacity to solve logical sequences, he said.

The bad news was that, in addition to now showing any concrete results in math and reading tests, there was no evidence that the laptops motivated children to study more, or to attend school more regularly, he said. The machines by themselves are not improving educations standards, he said.

"Negroponte's idea that throwing laptops from a helicopter into a village would dramatically improve education standards didn't pan out," Severin told me. "At least in Peru, it's not happening."

To make these programs work better, Peru and other countries will have to provide school children with more educational software, especially to teach math and language skills, Severin said.

In addition, countries need more teacher training before they start giving out school computers. In many Peruvian schools, teachers got only 40 hours of training before facing their newly digitalized classes, which barely helped them to learn how to use the machines, he said.

Rodrigo Arboleda, chairman of the Miami-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation, says that the IADB study shouldn't be judged primarily on whether laptops improve test scores because the Peruvian government's main goal was improving social inclusion.

"Many of the Peruvian rural schools that were looked at in the study did not have electricity nor Internet access," Arboleda said. "If you did that same study in Lima, you would have seen an increase in school attendance, and a decline in drop-out rates, like the ones other studies have found in Uruguay, Paraguay and Nicaragua."

My opinion: Education is a long-term project, which takes years to translate into better test results. And the IADB's conclusion that the school laptops in Peru's rural areas help bridge the social gap and improve some learning abilities are nothing to be sneezed at.

The massive laptop distribution plans have been a social success, in that they are giving poverty-stricken children self-esteem and a sense of opportunity. And they are helping shake many of Latin America's outdated education systems, if anything else because they force teachers to update their skills in order not to lose face in front of their computer-savvy students.

Now, it's time to take the next step and turn these programs into an educational success, complementing them with educational software, teacher training programs and higher academic targets. If that's done, they will become a Latin American success story.