A few years ago, a group of affluent people in a first world country decided that the kids in third world countries need to be educated, and they are the right people to revolutionize education in those countries and help with their social and economic upliftment. The leader of this group – the founder of a world-renowned technology lab in an elite university – wanted to hand over an electronic device to millions of kids so they can search for information on the Internet, collaborate with their peers, and be responsible for their own learning. A number of big organizations too supported this initiative.
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program was launched in 2005 by two non-profit organizations and chaired by Nicholas Negroponte. It was implemented in several poor countries including Uruguay, Peru, Mexico, Ghana, and Rwanda. It was rejected by the Indian government, which later decided to build an even cheaper tablet.
It was a noble mission destined to fail from the beginning. The mission of OLPC was to let every kid have access to a laptop when the mission should have been to educate the kids. OLPC was supposed to be a means to an end, but it, unsurprisingly, didn’t fulfill the dream. The socio-economic and other factors in these countries proved to be an insurmountable barrier.
The foundation planned to develop $100 laptops and sell it (not donate!) to governments for deploying in schools. People that don’t have enough money for food, don’t have access to drinking water and electricity, schools that don’t have continual Internet connection, kids’ homes not connected, teacher not trained on how to use the laptops in class, a Linux-based OS (Sugar) with buggy software, and other issues didn’t let the schools take full advantage of the laptops. This proved once again that it’s not the technology that helps people learn; it’s the pedagogical methods and good, engaging content, and of course, qualified teachers with ongoing training and support.
A recent study – Technology and Child Development – conducted in Peru concluded that there has not been a statistically significant improvement in the children’s reading and math scores after the implementation of the OLPC program. Some might say that test scores are not the real measures of the program’s impact and things like engagement and motivation cannot be quantified. There might be other benefits to the schools and children, but until those benefits are somehow measured over longer periods of time, the vision and promise of OLPC would remain unfulfilled.
It is, however, encouraging that many countries, organizations (Khan Academy, Intel’s StudyBook), and schools (the flipped classroom, iPads/tablets) are experimenting with different pieces of technology to engage and educate children.