Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The One Laptop Per Child Deception

Audrey Watters, writing in Hacked Education, provides an interesting critique of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) movement, starting with the recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank in rural Peru which indicated that providing laptops does not improve test scores.

This should be no surprise. Test scores and academic success are influenced most significantly by socioeconomic factors that affect children well before they have even started school (see here and here), like malnutrition and poor health; exposure to smoke, lead and other environmental insults; and lack of early exposure to reading.

Nevertheless, one might wonder why anyone would believe that computer technology would provide more bang for the nonprofit buck than investing in nutrition- and poverty-reducing programs or building water treatment plants. These investments would not only save children’s lives but help improve their health and nutrition, thus reducing premature births, cognitive impairment and learning disabilities. Furthermore, when one considers that the laptops were not allowed to be taken home, that many of the families lacked electricity and internet access anyway, and the teachers were provided little or no professional development on integrating technology into the classroom, the program seemed doomed from the start.

The mission of OLPC was never about raising test scores or even improving learning. Rather, they believe that providing low-cost technology will “empower” children, make education more “joyful” for them, and provide them a “brighter future.” As with testing, there is no evidence that laptops do any of these things.

The idea of placing fancy, high tech toys (er, tools) into the hands of disadvantaged and marginalized people has the same sort of appeal as winning a shopping spree or the lottery. It’s exciting to imagine computers in the hands of children for whom classrooms and slate and chalk are luxuries. It is absurd, however, to think that this will erase years of hunger and privation or replace quality teaching.

Now let’s move on to the U.S., where the notion of a laptop (or tablet or iphone) in every hand is also a popular notion. Will this save districts money? It depends on whether they are maintaining and replacing the hardware and if students treat the hardware with the same carelessness and abuse with which they treat their textbooks. It will bring in millions of dollars to the big four textbook publishers—Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company) and NCS Pearson—which will be producing the majority of the ebooks, and tech companies like Apple, which will gain greater access to public K-12 revenues and which will lock districts into lucrative service contracts.

Will it improve learning? Not likely. The bulk of the material that will be available will be the same or similar to what is already produced by the big 4 publishers (i.e., digital versions of their existing textbooks). Will students suddenly improve their vocabularies and reading comprehension by virtue of having ebooks and tablets? Also unlikely.

Will it be a boondoggle that will hamstring districts and cut into scarce resources? Most definitely. They will have to purchase the laptops or tablets AND new ebook licenses, with an initial cost that will likely far exceed that of new textbooks alone, even though new textbooks are not even necessarily needed in electronic or hardback versions.


  1. The report in the results section clearly states "Results indicate limited effects on academic achievement but positive impacts on cognitive skills and competences related to computer use." Tell me. Did someone stated that OLPC was about "Math and Language"? Come on people: "positive impacts on cognitive skills"! That is: THINKING! These pupils are better in THINKING!

  2. Of course kids will become more competent with computers with greater access. However, there are much cheaper and potentially more effective ways to improve cognitive skills, particularly in poor countries, like improving nutrition, perinatal care and general health, which reduces premature births, low birth weight, malnutrition, which can all lead to cognitive impairment.