On OLPC and the diversity educational environments

A reply to S. Varghese

One of the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations is to offer a sound elementary education to all children of the world by the year 2015 and to increase their access to information and communication technologies. One Laptop Per Child has worked since 2006 on this urgent educational mission in collaboration with public and private organizations in some forty nations, mostly in developing countries.

The great diversity of educational environments – or the lack of them – is the principal challenge here, and needs careful programming based on local conditions and human resources. OLPC is founded on five principles: ownership, early ages, saturation, connectivity and free and open source collaboration. This is the result of decades of research and development in advanced centers of study, and the XO laptop and the Sugar platform are two remarkable products of this international collaborative work. Other products will come soon as OLPC evolves to give answers to the increasing demands of education.

The central question is how to scale up the OLPC program from a town to a province to a country, in order to satisfy the educational requirements of different student populations. The agenda is getting more complex with the expansion of the geographic area involved. The local authorities must establish a detailed agenda in several steps, to provide a sound educational program to different cohorts of students, continuous training of teachers, and distribution of laptops to all children and teachers. Also the implementation of servers and internet connectivity in schools and public places, the logistics of repair or substitution of the laptops, etc. This whole process is part of a dynamic “cultural evolution” that produces a great variety of results, some unpredictable and innovative.

In Latin America we have several implementations at different scale levels that follow the OLPC principles. Among them, the city of Caacupé in Paraguay, the province of La Rioja in Argentina, and Plan CEIBAL in Uruguay, the first country in the world to be fully “saturated” with the XO laptops in primary and secondary schools. What we have seen is that each particular scale of “saturation” opens new opportunities for change and creativity in education.

Periodic evaluations, internal and external, are needed to measure the success or failure of every section of local OLPC programs, to correct errors and improve goals already attained. A good example is the periodic evaluations of CEIBAL in Uruguay since 2009. Education is essentially about the universal values of truth, beauty and goodness, but sometimes traditional evaluations are unable to test the new cognitive capacities of the child, unfolding in our digital era.

What we need are new instruments to evaluate entire cohorts of students at a very large scale, and during the whole period of schooling, primary and secondary. In a saturated OLPC community we can directly evaluate the individuals of a whole community, not only those included in small samples and control groups. And children need time to construct their own cognitive instruments in permanent social interaction. This complex and marvelous process has been studied in depth by developmental psychologists and educators since the pioneering work of Piaget in Geneva and Seymour Papert at MIT.

This well-established scientific context contradicts S. Varghese’s claim that OLPC supports the idea that technology is an answer to learning. It is just the opposite: OLPC has never supported a techno-centric program but a child-centric one. What is totally new is that the digital environment permits the unfolding of a formidable learning and teaching power in the most needed regions of the world. If we deny this opportunity for equity, we challenge a human right. Many governments are conscious of the unjust “digital gap” and trying to provide an answer to the quest of a sustainable education within a digital environment. This is the case of Peru, which started with a very important deployment of 800,000 XO laptops for a population of some 6 million children in elementary schools.

The Peruvian project has been evaluated recently by the Inter-American Development Bank in a sample of 319 schools in rural areas. It must be said that not all OLPC principles were satisfied in this particular sample. The results show no significant improvement in math and literacy skills measured by standard tests in a period of 15 months, but an important acceleration in three fundamental cognitive processes: non-verbal analytical capacity, executive functioning and language, and processing speed and short-tem memory.

It is clear that this first evaluation cannot support S. Varghese’s conclusion that “the deployment of laptops in Peru by the One Laptop Per Child project failed because the organization did not bother to find out if conditions were optimal for such a deployment before it went in”. Any cultural initiative such as OLPC evolves well beyond the initial conditions and expectations, through constant innovation and creativity. The Peruvian model will continue to evolve accordingly for the benefit of the children and their families. The challenge is considerable and deserves all the support of the community.

2 thoughts on “On OLPC and the diversity educational environments

  1. I am currently bringing down some laptop computers to a community not far from Iquitos. I’m wondering about the appropriate math, science, art educational software currently available for kids 5-17? I don’t believe wi-fi or internet access available. best regards, Lola Zinke

  2. Pingback: OLPC France » L’activité Facebook de la semaine

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