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Smackdown of the OLPC smackdown

Ryan Hahn's picture

Last month I wrote a post called OLPC smackdown, for which I received a number of critical comments. The item pointed to an article by Jon Evans in The Walrus Magazine criticizing the One Laptop Per Child program. Commentor Osimod thought the article wasn't even worth discussing: "I was never really convinced by OLPC, but that article is so *superficial* that I don't think it's worth publicizing it." I'll grant that the article was a superficial analysis, although I still think it brought up some valid points. (And I just pointed to the article - you should see the reaction that Jon Evans got!)

But if you're looking for rigorous analysis, I'm glad to oblige. A new working paper on The Use and Misuse of Computers in Education looks at the results of a randomized evaluation of the use of computers in classrooms in Colombia. (I should note that the computers in this particular evaluation were not provided by OLPC, but the evaluation should still tell us something about the utility of computers in the classroom.) The results were underwhelming, to say the least:

There are three main conclusions of this evaluation. First, the program successfully increases the number of computers in the school (by 15 computers) and increases students’ use of the computers. Second, despite this success, the program has little impact on students’ math and Spanish test scores. The program also has little effect on a host of other academic variables including hours of study, perceptions of school, and relationships with their peers. The reason seems to be that despite the program’s focus on using the computers for teaching students in a range of subjects (but especially Spanish), the computers were only used to teach the students computer usage skills. The evidence suggests that students use of the computers for their intended purpose was limited -- only 3 to 4 percent of the students in both treatment and control groups reported to use the computers in the language class for example.   


Submitted by Wayan on
Sadly, many computers-in-schools debates and implementations are too focused on teaching the students how to use computers, under the rubric of "21st Century Skills". OLPC had a fair share of that with talk of the need for a "real computer", or the use of cell phones, like the Jon Evans' article. Maybe one day we'll move from focusing on the hammer to learning how to build the educational house.

Submitted by Jon on
Naturally no one argues for replacing real literacy with computer literacy. The paper itself acknowledges the obvious: "introducing technology alone will not change the teaching and learning process" (p.5). But in a way ICT outreach does satisfy the condition of 'building the house' rather than 'focusing on the tools'. The case literature referred to in the working paper addresses computer PROGRAMS that were designed as teaching aids for particular subjects (Spanish, math, reading, etc.). So the first order of business should be to establish the effectiveness of the program itself as a teaching aide, rather than attempt to extrapolate to the generic 'impact of computers' in the learning environment. There are good programs and bad programs, just as there are good history books and bad history books and nowhere does this study actually explore the quality of the teaching program itself. Rather than see computers as the 'end' of an ICT intervention, computers need to be understood as the 21st century equivalent of a student desk. It's what's inside that counts; the computer is just furniture. The training argument acknowledged in the conclusions of the paper is very important - even in a computer saturated country like the US, there is no consensus on how to deploy computer resources in the classroom. Do you use them to administer tests? Do you require students to make presentations in Hypercard (in my day) or Powerpoint (today)? Essentially, pedagogical methods have not kept pace with either technological innovations (especially those making the mass deployment of computers affordable) or with policy imperatives (particularly political pressures generated by fears of 'falling behind the curve' in education). Ultimately, the most valuable feature of putting computers in developing country classrooms is exactly what the report identifies - increasing familiarity with technology and increasing computer literacy. Exposure to technology conditions social and political environments, not to mention cognitive function as some recent neurobiology studies suggest. So, whether or not a computer itself correlates to improved Spanish may be immaterial; to the degree that it promotes convergence in the worldviews between North and South with respect to the power of technology, it may be decisive.

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