Response to the Economist on OLPC in Peru

From OLPC Association CEO Rodrigo Arboleda

The recent Economist article on the Inter-American Development Bank’s recent report on the OLPC project in Peru simply takes the IDB report at face value and rushes to judgment that the project “does not accomplish anything in particular.” Other media have also focused on the negative and pronounced OLPC a failure. But has anyone really read the entire IDB report and discussed its positive findings? Has anyone really examined the government of Peru’s priorities in implementing the project?

OLPC has provided XO laptops to nearly 2.5 million children in more than 40 countries around the world. Across these countries, we have seen significant improvements in children’s enthusiasm for learning and a greater sense of optimism about their future, increased parental involvement in children’s education, and higher levels of teacher motivation and engagement. These outcomes are documented in the OLPC project in Uruguay and other countries.

That said, change management on a large scale is challenging. Most of these countries lack ubiquitous electricity and Internet connectivity. School facilities are substandard. Many of the teachers face educational challenges themselves. In Peru the objectives and the operating conditions are particularly challenging and the following factors need to be noted:

• The government of Peru deliberately established social inclusion as a top priority. It focused the OLPC project on serving the poorest and most remote schools that are the most difficult to serve and are usually left for the last stages of most projects.
• In many of these schools a single teacher has to teach first to sixth graders in the same classroom.
• Although the evaluation focused on schools with electricity, most of the schools lack electricity and Internet connectivity or if they have it, it is quite erratic.
• A January 2007 census evaluation of 180,000 Peruvian teachers showed that 62% did not reach reading comprehension levels compatible with elementary school (PISA level 3); 92% of the teachers evaluated did not reach acceptable performance in math.
• Given these challenges, miracles are not going to happen overnight and progress will occur gradually over a number of years.

The IDB report notes significant change in the development of cognitive skills (a 5-6 months advancement over the 15 months of the study). This goes to the core of OLPC’s mission to develop critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. These skills provide the foundation for academic achievement in other subjects. This positive result, measured in four different ways, is of significance and your article totally overlooked it.

In addition, the IDB report notes that children really know how to use the laptops and are using them to explore and create things, i.e., learning by doing. Digital fluency is a de facto requirement in the 21st century and a child in the mountains of Peru should have the same access to digital learning tools as a child in San Jose, Berlin or Tokyo.
The Peruvian government understands that overhauling its educational system will take time. It continues to invest in interventions to improve teacher and infrastructure quality because it believes that educational progress is the key to a better future for all its citizens.

The government of Peru should be lauded for its efforts to reach out to the most marginalized segment of its population. The OLPC project in Peru has touched the lives of almost one million children who would not otherwise have had an opportunity to expand their horizons. Perhaps we should watch the continuing efforts of the government of Peru to expand and improve the project outcomes, recognize the particular challenges they face and refrain from premature judgments of one of the largest education projects in the world.

6 thoughts on “Response to the Economist on OLPC in Peru

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  4. Thank you for this sensible review of the IDB evaluation and the Economist article on OLPC in Peru. Your response helps to dispel common research misconceptions that seem to be floating around. Simply, I believe too many people are jumping to conclusion without doing just review of the literature and thus coming to quick conclusion to damned the OLPC program in Peru… Please thoroughly read the IDB review and take into consideration the constraints of that review. Please also remember it is not an impact study. The IDB review was done only 15 months into the program. Educational change takes more than 15months and the government of Peru seems to understand this from the start. Further nobody expects their OLPC deployment alone to bring about substantial changes in Peruvian education alone. It takes an across the board culture of education chance to bring about long term and sustainable advancements.

    Thanks for your comment, Tim. Some change should certainly be visibie within 15 months – in our experience it is even in the most difficult deployments – but you are right that the impact of empowering children’s creativity takes longer than a year to affect results on traditional tests, which are not designed to capture or reward original thought.

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