Whatever the status and future of the iconicinitiative 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?
Recent headlines from places as diverse as Kenya ("6,000 primary schools picked for free laptop project") and California ("Los Angeles plans to give 640,000 students free iPads") are just two announcements among many which highlight the increasing speed and scale by which portable computing devices (laptops, tablets) are being rolled out in school systems all over the world. Based on costs alone -- and the costs can be very large! -- such headlines suggest that discussions of technology use in schools are starting to become much more central to educational policies and planning processes in scores of countries, rich and poor, across all continents.
Are these sorts of projects good ideas? It depends. The devil is often in the details (and the cost-benefit analysis), I find. Whether or not they are good ideas, there is no denying that they are occurring, for better and/or for worse, in greater frequency, and in greater amounts. More practically, then:
What do we know about what works,
and what doesn't (and how?, and why?)
when planning for and implementing such projects,
what the related costs and benefits might be,
and where might we look as we try to find answers to such questions?
Few projects to introduce ICTs at scale across an entire education system have received as much global attention as that of Plan Ceibal in Uruguay, which has (among other things) provided free laptop computers to all public school students.
Anticipating that some of the lessons learned in Uruguay may be relevant to scores of other countries (developing and developed alike) in the years to come, we at the World Bank have been keenly following related developments in this small South American nation over the past half-decade. In additional to maintaining the typical sorts of on-going dialogues we have with countries around the world on education issues, last year the World Bank sponsored a study tour for policymakers from Armenia and Russia to visit Uruguay and see with their own eyes what has been going on, and to talk directly with some of the people who have helped make it all happen. We also helped coordinate an online 'ideas festival' to help connect educators across Latin America to share lessons about 1-to-1 computing initiatives, with a special focus on Uruguay. A presentation on Plan Ceibal by the president of the initiative, Miguel Brechner, at one of the previous global symposia on ICT use in education that the World Bank co-sponsors each year with the Korean Ministry of Education and KERIS each year in Seoul, remains one of the highest rated sessions in the six year history of that event.
That said, there has not been a terrific amount of information available in English about the project for global audiences. Those handy with online translation tools can perhaps make their way around the information-rich Plan Ceibal site (and may stumble across the occasional report in English, like this one [pdf] summarizing official results from the first national monitoring and evaluation exercise). Dedicated readers of the EduTech blog, as well as sites like the independent OLPCnews.com web site, will probably have read some of periodic posts looking at various aspects of the Ceibal program. YouTube fans may have come across some of the related subtitled videos available on that popular site (like this one), many of them on the dedicated Canal Ceibal channel, or of presentations by Miguel Brechner at events like WISE 2012 or ALT-C.
Such information sources, while certainly useful, are by their very nature backward looking. A fascinating new report commissioned and recently released by Plan Ceibal aims to help chart the way forward for the project. Ceibal: Next Steps [pdf], written by Michael Fullan, Nancy Watson and Stephen Anderson, provides very useful short summaries of the first two phases of pioneering Uruguayan initiative before offering four concrete recommendations to help guide the project as it enters its 'third phase' of activity, which Fullan and company have labeled "focused implementation".
This report is highly recommended for people with an interest in learning more about the Ceibal project, as well as for those wondering about potential examples of what might most usefully come 'after' the initial period rolling out and supporting hardware and software infrastructure that defines most large scale 'big bang' attempts to introduce ICTs across an education system.
Considering potential 'next steps' for Uruguay may help shed some light on emerging issues and options potentially relevant to other countries. This may be especially true for middle and low income countries which, while perhaps currently not as far along in the process in rolling out ICTs and connectivity as Uruguay is, would do well to consider what they may want to do after they have declared their initial large scale roll-outs of hardware, software, digital content and initial teacher training to be a 'success' -- and are then faced with the more difficult ongoing challenges of utilizing these investments to help bring about more fundamental and long-lasting changes to teaching and learning practices inside and outside of schools.
Few 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?
A 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".
At a recent workshop in Montevideo convened by UNESCO and the IDB and hosted by Plan Ceibal on "The Role of ICT/Education Policy in Education Transformation", a new publication was unveiled that included short case studies of a number of countries -- including Uruguay. (This publication is expected to appear on the UNESCO web site shortly -- we'll add a link in the comments section below once it is available. Presentations from the complementary 'open seminar' are available here.) Later this year, the World Bank expects to publish a short case study looking at how Plan Ceibal has developed as an institution, and what some of the key issues might be for an organization like this going forward.
Why all the attention on what's happening in Uruguay, you may ask? Regular readers of this blog will know the answer, as the Uruguayan experience has been the subject of a number of EduTech posts over the past two years, and featured at a number of high profile international knowledge sharing events supported by the World Bank, the Inter-american Development Bank, the OECD and other international institutions. Judging by our server logs, we have picked up a lot of new readers in recent months, and so we thought we'd have another quick look at what is happening in the only country in the world where all students in publicly-supported primary schools have been provided with their own free laptop computer.
Now that (almost) all Uruguayan schools are connected to the Internet and work is well underway to put free laptops in the hands of all public secondary school students, Plan Ceibal is in many ways entering phase two of its ambitious initiative. The technical infrastructure is (largely) there -- the challenge now is to maintain it, to improve and enhance it, and, more importantly, to ensure that it is used effectively to support a variety of new and improved teaching and learning practices that will help Uruguayan students developed the knowledge, skills and attitudes to succeed in increasingly globalized, knowledge economies.
The 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.
What happens when *all* children and teachers have their own laptops -- this is usually phrased as a question, but a few places are allowing us to begin to reformulate this into a declarative sentence. One such place is the state of Maine in the northeastern United States; another is the South American country of Uruguay, where under Plan Ceibal all primary school teachers and students in government schools now have their own free laptops (previous blog posts about the Uruguayan experience can be found here and here).
Alicia Casas de Barrán, the director of the National Archives of Uruguay, spoke yesterday at the World Bank about what is actually happening under Plan Ceibal. Through various examples, she highlighted the fact that many of the 'externalities' resulting from this ambitious initiative may in fact be central to its eventual value to Uruguayan society.
For the next three days, representatives from most of the prominent initiatives rolling out '1-to-1 computing' initiatives in education systems around the world are gathering in Vienna, Austria. This meeting is believed to be the first global event of its kind to bring together the principals from such projects together in one room to share knowledge and experiences. Until recently, most initiatives of this type have taken place in Europe and North America, but some middle income and developing countries are beginning to make (or seriously considering) massive investments in providing every student with her/his own personal computing device (usually a laptop).
While many initial investments in this area were, truth be told, based more on faith in a concept than on hard evidence, lessons and models are emerging to help answer questions such as:
The Sri Lanka Ministry of Education (MOE) recently decided to pilot the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program by purchasing laptops from the OLPC Foundation, with funding from the World Bank, and distributing them to 1,300 students in selected primary schools throughout the country. The scheme may eventually be scaled up, depending upon the educational benefits of the pilot stage.