by Christoph Derndorfer
On a global level One Laptop per Child (OLPC) has so far delivered somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million of its XO laptops running the open source Sugar operating system —at a cost of roughly $188 each— in approximately 40 different countries. More than half of these laptops can be found in Latin America with a number of countries and regions such as Argentina’s La Rioja province, Colombia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay having seen projects launched in the past few years. Additionally countries in the region have also started other large laptop projects with Argentina’s Conectar Igualdad program set to distribute 3 million netbooks in part of its secondary school system by the end of 2012 and Brazil’s government opening a line of credit for provinces to purchase up to 1.5 million netbooks over the coming years.
Given this context it is hard to imagine a better place than Latin America to try and understand how these large-scale ICT for education (ICT4E) projects are progressing. So in mid-2010 I spent more than six weeks travelling through Uruguay, Paraguay and Peru to get a hands-on impression of the impact the respective OLPC projects were having, the problems they faced, and how these were being addressed.
The visit did not follow any specific formal process. Rather it was founded on an heuristic approach based on the previous three years of being involved with the global OLPC efforts in a broad variety of ways. The majority of my impressions are based on interviews and discussions with key stakeholders, including Ministry of Education staff, independent researchers, principals, teachers, pupils, and volunteers. I also visited several schools in each country and attended teacher training sessions where possible.
The resulting findings are categorised in a framework of six criteria for successful implementations of ICT for Education projects in developing countries which was compiled by Tanja Kohn, a PhD researcher at University of Innsbruck, and me in early 2010:
3. Contents and materials
4. Community inclusion
5. Teacher training
The aim of this framework is to help break down the complexities of ICT4E initiatives into more manageable areas and thereby facilitate discussion and dissemination of relevant information. This dissemination was also an important aspect of aforementioned trip through Latin America as the findings were published on OLPC News and EduTechDebate as well as presented at an event at The World Bank in Washington, D.C. and at other conferences and talks.
One computer, different approaches
It is important to understand that although many different countries in Latin America use the XO laptops there are significant differences between the respective projects. These differences can be categorized according to four dimensions: the goals, the context, the implementing organization, and the size of the project. As I had previously written in August 2010:
“What has become clear over the past two or three years is that while “one laptop per child” might be the ultimate goal for the majority of the initiatives associated with OLPC, the paths choose and reasons why they’re chosen are often quite different. Hence it’s no longer sufficient to talk about OLPC as opposed to other projects in the information and communication technology for education (ICT4E) space. Yes, the XO might be a common denominator but in almost every other aspect you’ll find different approaches and I for one am excited to see how the various projects pan out over the coming months and years.”
In many ways no country has taken the idea of ‘one laptop per child’ as seriously as Uruguay. By late 2009 all of the approximately 380,000 pupils as well as almost 20,000 teachers in Uruguay’s public primary schools had received an XO laptop as part of the country’s ‘Plan Ceibal’ initiative. In 2010 distribution of laptops began in the first grades of secondary school and for 2011 some smaller projects are planned to be started in kindergartens.
Rather than being solely focused on education, Plan Ceibal is primarily a social inclusion initiative aimed at bridging the digital divide in the country. Hence the provision of connectivity was also cornerstone of the program with approximately 98% of all Uruguayan schools now having Internet access.
It is impossible not to be taken back by the sheer momentum of Plan Ceibal. A dedicated TV program was created to demonstrate to teachers how to use the laptops in school. Several independent organizations and communities have been started around the core project to work on digital content, open source educational software, and providing support to teachers, pupils, and families. And last but not least, it is impossible to spend more than a few days in Uruguay without running into groups of pupils working on their XO laptops.
There is no doubt that obstacles —such as the high number of broken XO laptops and the challenges of fully integrating the available technology into the teaching process— remain. Yet Plan Ceibal has repeatedly demonstrated its potential to overcome such obstacles and given the existing basis I am confident that it will continue to make progress over the coming months and years.
As the first country to equip each pupil and teacher in its public primary school system with a laptop Plan Ceibal’s impacts and experiences will likely also shape discussions around ICT4E in the coming years.
The OLPC project in Paraguay is not run by the government but rather by an independent non-government organisation called ParaguayEduca. The project is currently in the process of equipping every child enrolled in primary school in the city of Caacupé with an XO laptop. By late 2010 approximately 4,000 pupils and their teachers had received a laptop with the remaining 5,000 scheduled to be distributed in the first half of 2011.
The core strength of ParaguayEduca’s approach has been its strong focus on teacher training as well as in-classroom support. All teachers receive 150 hours of training prior to the distribution of XOs laptops in their schools. Additionally the teacher trainers work with them once the XO laptops are in the hands of the children. It was also great to see that this training and support was focused on how to use the XO laptops for learning activities, rather than learning how to use the laptops themselves. All too often the opposite is true which leaves teachers without the knowledge of how to integrate the technology in the classroom routine.
To enable these efforts ParaguayEduca’s educational team is working on developing ways in which teachers and pupils can leverage the affordances provided by the XOs. A strong focus hereby is the Scratch software environment which was specifically developed to support constructivist learning approaches.
When it comes to the technical area the organization has taken great care in establishing a solid foundation for its current project and possible further expansion. On the software side of things ParaguayEduca has built up the resources which allow it to customize the Sugar operating system based on its own requirements. Additionally a software system to track issues, network performance, and support overall maintenance efforts was developed. In terms of maintenance itself the issues encountered are similar to Uruguay and are currently addressed via a repair team based in Caacupé.
The key question for the foreseeable future will be whether ParaguayEduca will be able to turn what is an effective but relatively small project into one that scales efficiently. There is no doubt in my mind that the work undertaken in the past years has created a foundation which is solid when it comes to both education and technology. In any case I think other OLPC and ICT4E projects should take a close look at what is going on in Paraguay as there are many valuable lessons to be learned there.
Peru was one of the first countries to start an OLPC pilot project in 2007. Since then hundreds of thousands of XO laptops have been distributed across the country as part of the national ‘Una Laptop por Niño’ initiative. The program has a strong focus on some of the most critical school environments which are rural multi-grade schools with a single teacher.
To say that the context in which these schools operate is challenging would be an understatement. Due to the state of many aspects of its education system, its geography, a lack of infrastructure, and a broad variety of other factors implementing ‘one laptop per child’ in Peru presents a very different set of difficulties to those that Plan Ceibal or ParaguayEduca are encountering.
My personal opinion —which is based on my experiences in the country as well as a number of reports from different sources published since then (e.g. a preliminary report of an extensive multi-year evaluation lead coordinated by the Inter-American Development Bank) and reports by former OLPC interns— is that these difficulties are only very partially being addressed. The lack of basic infrastructure such as electricity and connectivity in combination with limited training and support of teachers are two of the core areas of concern. As a result the conclusion in my original report of Peru’s OLPC project started began:
“Undoubtedly Peru’s Una laptop por niño offers many valuable lessons for ICT4E projects however in the grand majority of cases these will be how NOT to do something.”
The article and my conclusions lead to extensive discussions with almost 150 comments being posted on the original story as well as it receiving coverage in Peruvian media outlets. It goes without saying that my assessment was also heavily criticized, particularly by Una Laptop por Niño’s lead Oscar Becerra and Sugar Labs’ Walter Bender.
It would be intellectually dishonest to simply ignore this critique, so rather than restate my opinion in a more compressed manner I would strongly encourage you to read my original report as well as the extensive discussion below it.
In early April 2011 and during a ceremony celebrating the distribution of the 500,000th XO laptop outgoing President Alan Garcia announced a commitment to double the project’s size by the end of the year. At the same time it was revealed that Peru was working on efforts to produce OLPC’s next generation laptop —the XO-1.75— in the country.
In my initial reaction to these announcements I expressed cautious skepticism, particularly when it comes to the manufacturing of XO laptops in the country. Some of my key concerns were addressed by OLPC staff – yet I will keep a close eye on the developments on the ground over the coming months. If my skepticism turns out to be unfounded then this announcement will truly mark the beginning of a new chapter in OLPC’s development.
At the same time there is no doubt in my mind that significantly more resources are needed to provide adequate infrastructure and support to the children and teachers using the 500,000 XO laptops which have been distributed already. Otherwise I am afraid that Una Laptop por Niño runs the risk of being a large-scale but low-impact initiative.
Conclusions and outlook
Looking at the many initiatives going on in Latin America at the moment it seems clear that ICT4E in that part of the world as well as other so-called developing countries around the world is here to stay. In that regard the discussion in these regions and, unlike in most parts of Europe for example, has shifted from ‘should we start such an effort?’ and ‘which technology do we use?’ to the significantly more complex core question of ‘how do we really integrate ICT in education and learning?’
In parallel, many of the ongoing projects are also discovering that the truly hard part of ICT4E is indeed the ‘for education’ aspect of it. It is by no means trivial to distribute hundreds of thousands of laptops and set up the accompanying infrastructure in some of the remotest areas of the planet. However as various projects such as Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal clearly demonstrate it can be achieved though getting all the details just right requires more resources and time than initially expected.
At the same time it is less clear how to fully exploit the potential that ICT provides as a tool for learning and education on a large scale. Effective teacher training, the creation of high-quality learning materials and digital content, curriculum integration, and changes to the underlying educational system are only some of the many aspects which need to be considered.
The various OLPC and other ICT4E initiatives in Latin America as well as past and present projects in other parts of the world are providing valuable lessons and insights into what to do —and what not do— in this area. However I would argue that we are only at the beginning of the process and more efforts from practitioners, researchers, and other stakeholders are needed to address this issue. Additionally independent short- and long-term monitoring efforts and evaluations of these initiatives are needed in order to understand the impacts they are having.
Another observation which is being made already is that there is only so much that one can learn from small pilot projects. A pilot project with 200 or 1,000 pupils will be a vital learning experience yet it is important to emphasize that the implementation of province- or country-wide ICT4E projects pose unique challenges. So rather than scaling from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of users within two years —as it happened in Uruguay and Peru— an incremental approach seems more reasonable.
At the same time there is no doubt that in Europe and around the world many ICT4E initiatives never expand beyond an often short-lived pilot phase. Scale in combination with a long-term strategy by governments matters significantly when it comes to building confidence and vital support among key stakeholders as well as the broader community.
Overall I strongly believe that the ongoing OLPC and similar ICT4E initiatives in Latin America and around the world should be considered as part of a larger learning process for all parties involved. One continued concern here is that not enough lessons are being learned from past and present failures, both big and small, which leads to them reoccurring over and over again. Alan Kay put it more elegantly when he wrote that he is worried about the tendency of many people in both computing and education simply “reinventing the flat tire”.
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