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Two new rigorous evaluations of technology use in education

Michael Trucano's picture
Look, right there, there it is: Impact! (I think ...)
Look, right there, there it is: Impact! (I think ...)

Last week saw a flurry of news reports in response to a single blog post about the well known One Laptop Per Child project. It's dead, proclaimed one news report as a result; it's not dead yet, countered another. Recalling Mark Twain's famous quotation, Wired chimed in to announce that Reports of One Laptop Per Child's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Whatever the status and future of the iconic initiative that has helped bring a few million green and white laptops to students in places like Uruguay, Peru and Rwanda, it is hard to argue that, ten years ago, when the idea was thrown out there, you heard a lot of people asking, ‘Why would you do such a thing?’ Ten years on, however, the idea of providing low cost computing devices like laptops and tablets to students is now (for better and/or for worse, depending on your perspective) part of the mainstream conversation in countries all around the world.

What do we know about the impact and results of initiatives
to provide computing devices to students
in middle and low income countries around the world?

Interactive Educational Television in the Amazon

Michael Trucano's picture
a road map -- er, river map -- for the expansion of educational opertunities in rural Brazil?
a road map -- er, river map --
for the expansion of educational opertunities
in rural Brazil?

According to figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, "Countries will need an extra 1.6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015 and 3.3 million by 2030". The 2013/4 Global Monitoring Report provides a useful discussion of the consequences of this deficit, as well as some strategies for overcoming it.  There are, unfortunately, no 'quick fix' solutions here. We didn't get ourselves into this mess overnight, and we won't get out of it overnight either. While longer term efforts tackle this challenge in multiple ways over time, recruiting new teachers and upgrading the skills of others, it is probably also useful to ask:

How do you teach children in places where there are no teachers?

Many proposed answers to this include some consideration of the use of information and communication technologies. Some groups have offered that it may be most efficacious to simply introduce technologies that help enable students to teach themselves, bypassing teachers altogether. That is certainly one approach, but one with, to date, a rather checkered history of success in many instances (although not all), and one that is consistent with a worry that teacher union officials have expressed to me many times over the years: that many of their members fear that they are being, or will be, replaced by new technologies. Rhetoric from certain politicians (I'll refrain from adding a link or three here, but a few minutes with your favorite search engine should help you locate a number of them yourself) and projections from some ministry of finance officials (informed, one suspects, in some cases by data from the marketing departments of certain technology firms) do little to alleviate such concerns. In some cases, the introduction of new technologies undeniably *does* replace certain specific functions or roles that teachers currently perform, or have performed in the past (especially related to what are essentially clerical or administrative functions -- this replacement is presumably not always such a bad thing). In my experience, introducing new technologies in schools actually makes the role and function of teachers more central and critical, but that is perhaps a topic for another blog post.

Faced with severe, in some cases quite extreme, deficits of qualified teachers, especially in remote communities and in subjects like mathematics, science and foreign languages, many countries are in engaged in long term efforts to recruit and train more teachers and upgrade the skills and content masteries of 'low-skilled' teachers already in their system.  They are exploring how ICTs can be leveraged to help in these efforts. Where there are pressing needs *now* for teachers that can not be met through conventional approaches or according to the traditional timelines dictated by the capacity and effectiveness of their teacher training institutes, there are looking to see how technologies can help reach students today in schools without qualified teachers -- or in some cases, without any teachers at all.

Let them eat laptops?*

Michael Trucano's picture

in my hand I have a very precious gift for youAs a result of reading the recent IDB study on the impact of the One Laptop Per Child project in Peru, my World Bank colleague Berk Ozler recently published a great post on the World Bank's Development Impact blog asking "One Laptop Per Child is not improving reading or math. But, are we learning enough from these evaluations?

Drawing insights from his readings of a few evaluations of technology use (one in Nepal [PDF] and one in Romania) he notes that, at quick glance, some large scale implementations of educational technologies are, for lack of a more technical term, rather a 'mess':

"The reason I call this a mess is because I am not sure (a) how the governments (and the organizations that help them) purchased a whole lot of these laptops to begin with and (b) why their evaluations have not been designed differently – to learn as much as we can from them on the potential of particular technologies in building human capital."

Three members of the team at IDB that led the OLPC Peru evaluation have responded ("One Laptop per Child revisited") in part to question (b) in the portion of Berk's informative and engaging post excerpted above.  I thought I'd try to try to help address question (a).

First let me say: I have no firsthand knowledge of the background to the OLPC Peru project specifically, nor of the motivations of various key actors instrumental in helping to decide to implement the program there as it was implemented, beyond what I have read about it online. (There is quite a lot written about this on the web; I won't attempt to summarize the many vibrant commentaries on this subject, but, for those who speak Spanish or who are handy with online translation tools, some time with your favorite search engine should unearth some related facts and a lot of opinions -- which I don't feel well-placed to evaluate in their specifics.) I have never worked in Peru, and have had only informal contact with some of the key people working on the project there.  The World Bank, while maintaining a regular dialogue with the Ministry of Education in Peru, was not to my knowledge involved in the OLPC project there in any substantive way. The World Bank itself is helping to evaluate a small OLPC pilot in Sri Lanka; a draft set of findings from that research is currently circulating and hopefully it will be released in the not too distant future.

That said, I *have* been involved in various capacities with *lots* of other large scale initiatives in other countries where lots of computers were purchased for use in schools and/or by students and/or teachers, and so I do feel I can offer some general comments based on this experience, in case it might of interest to anyone.

Evaluating One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) in Peru

Michael Trucano's picture

learning learningFew would argue against the notion that the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC, originally referred to by many as the '$100 laptop project') has been the most high profile educational technology initiative for developing countries over the past half-decade or so. It has garnered more media attention, and incited more passions (pro and con), than any other program of its kind. What was 'new' when OLPC was announced back in 2005 has become part of mainstream discussions in many places today (although it is perhaps interesting to note that, to some extent, the media attention around the Khan Academy is crowding into the space in the popular consciousness that OLPC used to occupy), and debates around its model have animated policymakers, educators, academics, and the general public in way that perhaps no other educational technology initiative has ever done. Given that there is no shortage of places to find information and debate about OLPC, this blog has discussed it only a few times, usually in the context of talking about Plan Ceibal in Uruguay, where the small green and white OLPC XO laptops are potent symbols of the ambitious program that has made that small South American country a destination for many around the world seeking insight into how to roll out so-called 1-to-1 computing initiatives in schools very quickly, and to see what the results of such ambition might be.

The largest OLPC program to date, however, has not been in Uruguay, but rather in Peru, and many OLPC supporters have argued that the true test of the OLPC approach is perhaps best studied there, given its greater fealty to the underlying pedagogical philosophies at the heart of OLPC and its focus on rural, less advantaged communities. Close to a million laptops are meant to have been distributed there to students to date (902,000 is the commonly reported figure, although I am not sure if this includes the tens of thousands of laptops that were destroyed in the recent fire at a Ministry of Education warehouse). What do we know about the impact of this ambitious program?

One-to-one computing in Latin America & the Caribbean

Michael Trucano's picture

unoA recent paper from Eugenio Severin and Christine Capota of the Inter-american Development Bank (IDB) surveys an emerging set of initiatives seeking to provide children with their own educational computing devices. While much of the popular consideration of so-called "1-to-1 computing programs" has focused on programs in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Australia, One-to-One Laptop Programs in Latin America and the Caribbean: Panorama and Perspectives provides a useful primer for English-speaking audiences on what is happening in middle and low income countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad & Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela.  (There is of course a Spanish version available as well.)

While some of these cases are becoming better known globally -- most notably those of Uruguay and Peru, where the IDB has not coincidentally been quite active -- I expect many people from other parts of the world will be surprised to learn about the extent of activity in the region. Indeed, a lot is happening in the region.  While the report does not aim to be comprehensive (indeed, ministry of education officials in a few Caribbean island nations have already noted that their 1-to-1 pilot initiatives are not included in the survey, and those knowledgeable about the field may note that there are, for example, programs from U.S. states that are not listed here), it does consolidate for the first time related regional information in one place for easy reference, while noting that "promising in concept, one-to-one initiatives thus far have had little implementation time and varying results".

Learning from a randomized evaluation of OLPC in Peru

Michael Trucano's picture

some times the goals are clear to see -- it's just challenging to get there | image credit: Martin St-Amant - Wikipedia - CC-BY-SA-3.0The Inter-american Development Bank (IDB) recently released the first set of results from its on-going, multi-year randomized evaluation of the impact of the OLPC project in Peru.
Experimental Assessment of the Program "One Laptop Per Child" in Peru (Spanish version here) is the first rigorous attempt to examine the impact of the largest '1-to-1 computing' initiative in a developing country.  This evaluation, done in concert with the Ministry of Education, looks at the ambitious program to provide computing resources to multi-grade rural elementary schools in some of the poorer communities of Peru.