Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce OLPC: no proof, but more spin on 'education'

OLPC: no proof, but more spin on 'education'

When an organisation rolls out unproven technology in a given area, who is responsible for ensuring that the testing ground has been made ready for the success of its experiment?

One would think, logically, that the organisation in question would be the one holding the can. One would also think that the technology would never be rolled out until all factors were optimal for its success.

But this does not seem to apply to the One Laptop Per Child project. That is the only way one can explain its most recent effort to try and spin the devastating results of a detailed and scientific survey in Peru which shows clearly that the program does nothing to help education.

Five qualified individuals wrote the study, after surveying 315 schools over 15 months. Peru has the largest deployment of OLPC laptops; there are 850,000 deployed at a cost, to the government, of $US225 million.

Ever since the media wrote about the study - and conclusions were uniform across the spectrum as to the fact that the OLPC program is of zero value in education - the OLPC has been trying to spin this way and that in order to try and hose down evidence that is out there on the net, evidence that clearly indicates that the whole project is just tampering with the early years of the most vulnerable in our world - children in poor and developing countries.

The most recent bid at trying to obfuscate the evidence from the survey comes from Oscar Becerra, former chief educational technologies officer in the Peruvian Ministry of Education. Becerra first wrote a rejoinder to The Economist (its write-up of the study was headlined Error Message).

He then wrote an article for OLPC News, a site that says of itself "dear reader, you should know that the editors behind OLPC News are not objective reporters of the latest news. We are most definitely biased." I don't think I need to specify in which direction the bias lies.

Firstly, when quotes are used from a document, then those exact phrases should be found in the original. Becerra takes some liberties with his quotes; one for example is his claim that the phrase "positive effects were found in general cognitive skills" exists in the survey. The actual phrase is "some positive effects were found in general cognitive skills" (emphasis mine) which does tend to change the meaning to a large extent.

But what exactly does the study say about the increase in cognitive skills? From the footnotes the tests used were, "The Ravens (Progressive Matrices test) are aimed at measuring non-verbal abstract reasoning, the verbal fluency test intends to capture language functions and the Coding test measures processing speed and working memory."

To quote (and correctly): "On the positive side, the results indicate some benefits on cognitive skills. In the three measured dimensions, students in the treatment group surpass those in the control group by between 0.09 and 0.13 standard deviations though the difference is only statistically significant at the 10 percent level for the Raven's Progressive Matrices test (p-value 0.055)." The p-value for tests such as these is usually 0.05, going by scientific convention. In this case, the p-value, or the probability that the null hypothesis is right, is more. How can one then crow about this result?

Becerra's other claims of positivity - increased computer use and competence in using laptops (once again his exact quotes cannot be found anywhere in the study) - do not come under the category of education. Indeed, I could have taught the Peruvian children how to climb coconut trees and then claimed that it was a useful skill (it is, in many Pacific countries) and hence I should receive a grant to teach the entire student population to do so.

Becerra offers up the excuse that the teachers were not up to the mark. Why then were the laptops deployed if, according to him, conditions were sub-optimal? We are talking about $US225 million of public money, not a small sum for a country like Peru despite its increased riches from mining.

He fails to get the point that if the experiment - and it is nothing but that - has proved of no educational benefit, then it has wasted some of the best years of learning for 850,000 children in Peru. Who accepts the responsibility for this form of child abuse?

When one teaches children, no matter what degree of technological change has occurred over the years, the basics are always the same - reading, writing and arithmetic. The ability to absorb anything in later years is totally dependent on these three skills.

The OLPC project does nothing for these skills - in Peru, despite there being 200 e-books provided on the laptops, there was no increase in reading. Neither was there any improvement in maths and language skills.

Why are people so reluctant to accept bare facts like these when they are presented so clearly? Do we need to educate the people behind the project first?

If the OLPC is so confident about the educational impact of its project, why doesn't it do something about the disastrous state of school education in the US?


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.


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