Monday, 09 April 2012 12:19

OLPC of no use in learning: study

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The first detailed and scientific study of the deployment of laptops by the One Laptop Per Child project has come to the conclusion that it is basically a waste of time.

An expensive waste of time.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) studied the project in Peru where the government spent $US225 million to support the purchase of 850,000 basic laptops for schools throughout the country.

Each laptop cost the Peruvian authorities $US200. The annual cost of primary education for a child in Peru in 2008 was $438.

The 43-page report, produced by five researchers, was the result of a study carried out in 319 schools over 15 months. It found that there was no benefit to the children in learning at all.

There was a marginal benefit in cognitive skills. But when it came to improving their reading or the amount of reading, the project drew a blank – despite having loaded 200 e-books on each laptop. The study also found that there was no increase in attendance after the project began.

The only positive measurable statistic was that the amount of time that the children spent using computers increased.

According to the conservative weekly news magazine, The Economist, which reported the study under the heading Error Message, the Peruvian education ministry announced last month that only 13 per cent of seven-year-olds had reached the required level in maths. When it came to reading, only 30 per cent were up to the standard required.

The OLPC is a project conceived by the head of MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, and driven by the belief in constructionist learning advanced by Seymour Papert. It holds that children can learn better on their own, with minimal input from teachers.

Over the years, there has been a lot of verbal fan-dancing by supporters of the project when asked whether the project is all about education or technology.

The OLPC has now deployed its machines in 36 countries and more deployments are planned. Despite being a non-profit organisation, OLPC does not appear to be short of funds. The chief executive of the One Laptop Per Child Association, Roberto Arboleda, received $US313,788 in compensation in 2010, while vice-president of engineering at the OLPC Foundation, Edward McNierney, was paid $US90,584 in compensation in 2010, the last year for which records are available.


The OLPC laptops have been deployed principally in poor countries. In wealthy countries like Australia, they have been distributed mostly to indigenous children.

Australian politician, Robert Oakeshott, an independent member of the lower house of parliament, is on the record as saying, "OLPC Australia is a contemporary and relevant solution to overcoming educational disadvantage in this country," when machines were handed out in the area where he is local MP.

The last time iTWire had any meaningful interaction with the Australian project was in 2009 when the chief executive, Rangan Srikhanta, spoke to us. At that time, Srikhanta mentioned that the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) would be carrying out a study to gauge the effectiveness of the project.

The organisation has now grown to six employees.

The ACER report is available on the web. But it does not offer any evaluation of its own, being merely a review of the available literature rating the project. It is now in its fourth revision and that was produced in 2010.

However, ACER highlights the fact there is never much formal documentation from any deployment: "most feedback from the OLPC programs has been anecdotal in nature."

The ACER report also cites instances from other countries — the US (Southern California), Colombia and India — where similar projects have been put in place. The Colombian study came to a similar conclusion as the IDB has – there was no benefit in learning, only an increase in computer use.

The Indian study found that it made no difference when it came to maths.

The US study, while speaking of "important changes" did not quantify these. It did, however, admit that there was no effect on standardised test score results.

While some deployments in other poor countries are claimed to have led to an increase in school attendance or motivation in learning, all these conclusions are anecdotal. Nobody, until the IDB did so, has thought it necessary to study the program properly and quantify the data.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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