“The digital gap is shrinking in Peru” [German review]

a translation of Julio Segador’s report for ARD Buenos Aires

Four years ago, we launched OLPC in Peru – now the largest primary-school initiative of its kind in the world – to distribute laptops to 810 000 children. The first results of the project are emerging: The laptop does not automatically lead to better test scores for the children, but may still be useful.

Barely four years ago in Peru, one could hear on every street corner a happy children’s song that came from a promotional film on the Internet. In the video, girls and boys had small green and white laptops in their hands, tapping on them and laughing. 810,000 of them, specially adapted to the needs of children, have since been distributed, primarily to students from economically-disadvantaged families. “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) is the international project behind it, from creative director Nicholas Negroponte of MIT in Cambridge.

Now interim results of the project in Peru have been published. An expert team from the Inter-American Development Bank put rural primary schools under the microscope for 15 months.
The results are mostly positive, says Eugenio Severin, one of the researchers: “The students who have gotten the laptops had cognitive abilities develop a good five months faster during the 15-month study period.”

Hear the German-language audio of author Julio Segador, or read on for the rest.

Lack of suitable software for children

An increase in the development of so-called cognitive abilities – in plain language this means that students participating in the program have significant advantages in solving logic problems and communicating with each other intensely. But that was not the only positive result of OLPC, says Severin: “The second finding is that the digital gap has shrunk. In the past, Peru had one computer for every 900 students; through the program nearly every student has one. And poor families too now have access to computer technology.”

A green, free laptop for kids

Children were equipped with such laptops in Peru. Researchers have recognized the educational benefits, but they were not reflected in grades. The results show that using the OLPC laptop does not automatically lead to better grades, nor a commitment to more lessons. Eugenio Severin was not surprised: “The OLPC program was initially designed to distribute the laptops and make sure they arrived safely in the schools. It was not as central that they learn to use accompanying software for familiar school subjects.” In practice, the students often use the laptops to surf the Internet, write texts, or play games.

The fact that the scores of children did not improved significantly, led to some papers questioning the OLPC project. The British magazine “The Economist” wrote an article with the word “error” and called it a failure.

Poorly qualified teachers in Peru

Both the education experts of the Inter-American Development Bank and Oscar Becerra, the longtime head of the [OLPC] project in Peru, responded with alarm. Becerra holds something else responsible for the lack of improvement in student grades: “The teachers in Peru are generally underqualified, and have little education themselves. Two-thirds of all teachers in public schools barely understand what they read; they have a primary school level education.”

92 percent of math teachers reach at most secondary school, notes Becerra. This was the result of years of indifference from society and politics in education: “And we all know that without good teachers, improving student performance is very difficult.”

Major issues in rural areas

810,000 laptops were distributed in Peru in the past four years. In the future, the biggest challenge for the project will be introducing children from rural areas to the computer. Less than one percent of rural schools in Peru are connected to the Internet, and they often lack electricity. These are the worst possible conditions for successful education.

Education researcher Eugenio Severin identifies three measures that are necessary for moving the OLPC project in Peru, and the children in the school forward: “Our recommendations are: There must be more funding put into the education system, in particular more teacher education. And beyond closing the digital gap, there should be a focus on software for language teaching and for mathematics.”

From other South American countries that have participated in the OLPC project, there are yet no [comparable] results. The next country to come under the microscope will be Uruguay. There, all primary school students were equipped with laptops.

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