Can tech really transform the third world? A One Laptop Per Child report card

one laptop per child girls
What does it mean to bring education into the digital age, and what would it take to ensure that children worldwide have access to the revolutionary kinds of learning made possible by computer technologies? Since around 2006, the non-profit organization known as One Laptop Per Child has tried to tackle these ambitious questions. In pursuit of its mission, OLPC distributes low-cost, high-durability laptops across the globe, arming each student with their own individual PC in trademark white and lime-green colors.

There’s no denying that OLPC boasts a number of inspiring success stories from Uruguay, Paraguay, and other early adopters of laptops in the classroom. Yet debate continues about the implementation of the project’s goals, especially in impoverished areas with limited electrical infrastructure and other pressing concerns, such as sanitation. To reveal a clearer picture of just what the OLPC project has been able to accomplish to date and how its mission continues to evolve today, we spoke with OLPC’s CFO Robert Hacker as well as OLPC education affiliates from classrooms as far-flung as North Carolina, Rwanda, and Australia.

 The educational backbone: XO and Sugar

To provide a little background, OLPC has helped distribute more than 2.4 million XO laptops in more than 40 countries to date. Recently, the organization made waves at CES by unveiling its newest laptop, the hybrid XO 4.0 Touch, which comes equipped with a multi-input Neonode touchscreen and a swiveling hinge that enables both laptop and tablet modes. Each XO laptop comes equipped with a Linux-based OS and a suite of about 300 learning applications known as Sugar, which cater to a variety of visual and interactive learning styles to help students absorb information, even independent of a teacher’s input.

one laptop per child three kids

To OLPC’s CFO Robert Hacker, however, one feature of the XO stands head and shoulders above the rest. “The main advantage is connectivity to the Internet,” he said. “When we think about the causes of poverty, access to information is essential.” Moreover, according to Hacker, Internet connectivity gives the XO laptop a distinct advantage over traditional textbooks and libraries. “If five children download 10,000 books onto one of our laptops, then they’ve got a library of 50,000 books, and with the technology on our machine, they can exchange them,” said Hacker. “That opens up a huge resource for learning.”

Field reports on the XO’s appeal

Apparently, it’s not difficult to get students excited about the newest addition to their classroom. “Kids always ask, ‘When can we get the green machines?’” said Rangan Srikhanta, CEO of OLPC Australia. Once the XO laptops are successfully deployed in a new area, “engagement increases, and children come out of their shell,” said Srikhanta.

Rwagaju Desire, a Learning Development Organizer with OLPC Rwanda, concurs. “There is no exception in Rwanda – kids, they are always kids. They are gadget-friendly,” he said. Desire reports being particularly impressed by the young students’ intuitive approach to computing, especially compared to the university-level computer literacy courses he took himself. “They were so self-guided in learning how to use and apply laptops to their needs,” he said. “It was fascinating to see how kids, after one week, were able to share with teachers, to draw, to paint, to write text, to go to [the] Internet, to browse some famous websites here in Rwanda.”

one laptop per child outside

Indeed, Hacker believes that student excitement for the new technology provides several under-appreciated educational benefits. For instance, when the OLPC program came to Nicaragua, teachers reported that “school attendance went up …  and student behavior made a real jump when they were using the laptops.” Hacker sees these social benefits as crucial, especially in many South American countries where students often drop out of school around the sixth grade. “Everyone focuses on whether the students are learning math [on the laptops],” he said. “They tend to forget that the kids also go to school more often.”

Teaching the teachers

Of course, enthusiasm can only take students so far if they don’t have teachers capable of channeling their love for tech. When it comes to teacher training, Hacker said the program recommends a “train the trainer” approach, sending OLPC educators recommend best practices to regional officials, who impart them to  local teachers in turn. However, Hacker also recognizes that “teachers have a lot of respect for other teachers,” meaning that “if you can get teachers to upload their lesson plans on a forum, then the best lesson plans will get adopted by many teachers … and that’s really powerful.”

In Charlotte, North Carolina, where an OLPC partner called Project L.I.F.T. is set to distribute 2,000 XO laptops on February 26, teachers are already pioneering collaborative and peer-reviewed teaching methods. “There are opportunities to share lesson plans, successes and adaptations via professional development courses, digitally or in regular meetings,” said Denise Watts, Zone Superintendent for Project L.I.F.T.

one laptop per child teacher

Similarly, Srikhanta said that under OLPC Australia, teachers must complete a 15-hour certification before directing an XO-based classroom, which leads to well-trained instructors who are empowered to influence their communities. “Teachers can lead the program locally and become a good case study,” he said. “We see a viral effect.”

Adapting to on-the-ground realities

In addition to beefing up teacher training, OLPC has adjusted its distribution methods to reach students more effectively. According to Hacker, OLPC originally worked solely through national-level education ministers from each participating country. However, “over the last three years, we’ve broadened the universe of prospective partners,” he said. “We no longer work exclusively with national governments – we will work with state governments and city governments [alongside] outreach to corporate partners.” In addition to community meetings prior to distributing new laptops, this increase in localized participation helps make sure everyone involved in the project is fully on board.

… every XO laptop supports a variety of alternate charging methods.

As part of OLPC Rwanda, Desire agrees that community awareness campaigns that involve local administrators, police, and church officials help ensure the success of OLPC’s mission. Ultimately, he said, “the project has to be owned by the community, rather than by the central government.”

According to Srikhanta, the OLPC Australia program encourages grassroots-level involvement through what he calls an opt-in scarcity model. “We don’t give [laptops] to every teacher and every classroom, straight off,” he said. “Instead of forcing adoption for teachers that aren’t ready for it, if teachers don’t complete the training, we don’t deliver the technology.”

Practical logistics of rural computing

Community involvement becomes essential when solving the logistical problems posed by introducing laptops to developing areas. Most notably, the program requires access to Wi-Fi, electricity, and repair services. While providing at least one school-based Wi-Fi hotspot is normally an essential part of any new OLPC deployment, Hacker did note that some areas rely on satellite-based Internet for connectivity.

Additionally, although Hacker said that “electricity is a really fundamental requirement,” he also emphasized that every XO laptop supports a variety of alternate charging methods. “From the very beginning, the computers were engineered so they could be recharged by solar power, by wind power, using hand cranks … bicycles can even recharge the computer,” he said.

one laptop per child two boys

In Rwanda, where providing a widespread electrical grid is an ongoing governmental project, students are able to recharge their laptops at a public charging station outside the school. Meanwhile, when it comes to repairs, according to Desire, OLPC Rwanda “provides basic training to teachers who can solve easy, fixable problems with laptops,” especially software-related errors. “These teachers, they are like champions at schools.”

Srikhanta testifies that OLPC Australia also relies on community-based repairs, offering badges to students for each XO skill certification – almost like a geeky version of Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. “That’s pretty much how a program dies, when the machines start giving up,” said Srikhanta. “It’s our job to give them the tools and the knowledge to engage themselves … the kids are actually repairing the machines.”

Visions for the future: a global digital revolution

As you might imagine, Hacker has big plans for OLPC’s continued progress. At this point, nearly every country in South America has some version of a one-to-one laptop program, even if it’s not through OLPC; but Hacker is not willing to stop there. “I’m actually most excited that we’re really gaining traction in Africa,” he said. After all, the digital age is “making all of us a lot easier to reach, and [it’s] more important for us to reach each other,” he added.

one laptop per child screen

Indeed, it’s hard not to feel excited at Desire’s description of digitally-connected children in Rwanda. “At home, on the way to school, after-school time, that’s when individual learning really happens … picture-taking, video recordings, sharing music,” he said. “It’s a great experience when you see kids out on the road, on the way home, having fun around something which is not the usual football. I don’t know if you know – in Africa, every kid plays football in the road. The laptops are changing that.”

[Image credit: OLPC Rwanda 1]

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