Xbox for the Developing World?

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Xo_intro_v2Is Nicholas Negroponte's $100 XO laptop simply a cheap version of the Xbox? A new paper by economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches suggests this may not be far off the mark. They use data on a voucher program in Romania that helped low-income children purchase a computer. The economists find that children with computers tend to spend less time doing homework and get lower grades than other students. (An article in Slate gives more details on how the economists managed to come to this conclusion.) Is the money that countries like Peru and Uruguay are spending on the XO laptop simply being squandered?

018_arahuayIt's hard to judge at this point. Clearly, computers alone cannot take the place of engaged parents and committed teachers. According to Malamud and Pop-Eleches:

[W]e find that having a stay-at-home mom and the presence of rules regarding computer use do mitigate some of the negative effects of winning a computer voucher, indicating that parental monitoring and supervision may be important mediating factors.

The context in which the computers are used matters, and the developers of the XO laptop have their own particular theories about how the laptop can improve learning outcomes. (The developers at least propose a learning methodology that sounds a little more interesting than Math Blaster or Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.)

I haven't yet seen anything like a rigorous evaluation of the XO in the classroom, though. All I could find was this wiki about the pilot XO laptop program in Peru, but I'm not particularly convinced by it. Perhaps it's time for a randomized evaluation of the XO laptop along the lines of the Romanian experiment before Ethiopia, Thailand, Nigeria, and other countries all throw wads of cash at the next "big thing"?

Update: It appears that the Inter-American Development Bank is in the middle of carrying out an evaluation of the one laptop per child model in Haiti. Cost of the evaluation? $5,100,000.


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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