Evaluating One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) in Peru

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Hat Tip to Michael Trucano over at EduTech.  

IDB just released an evaluation of the One Laptop Per Child intiative in Peru.  Impressive in both its scope and also that it used a fully-randomized methodology.  Some highlights:

  • The results indicate that the program increased the ratio of computers per student from 0.12 to 1.18 in treatment schools. This expansion in access translated into substantial increases in use both at school and at home. 

  • No evidence that theprogram increased learning in Math or Language. 

  • The time allocated to activities directly related to school does not seem to have changed.

  • The program did not affect attendance or time allocated to doing homework. 

  • There is no evidence the program influenced reading habits which was a surprise to the authors because access to reading materials was greatly expanded through the program. 

  • Logs suggested most of the laptop us was using word processing, calculator, games, music and recording sound and video.

  • On the positive side, there were some positive effects found in general cognitive skills as measured by Raven’s Progressive Matrices, a verbal fluency test and a Coding test.

There were also some surprising findings to me.  Not all the students took home their laptops and apparently that wasbecause schools prohibited it (42 percent), followed by parents preferring that the student not take the laptop home to avoid computer malfunction and theft (27percent).

I'm not really surprised by the findings.  In fact, they seem to reinforce my belief that laptops (or any device) by itself is going to do very little to improve instruction.  The value for any device is mostly derived from the applications or online services and how those are used in an instructional model.  My iPhone is a great device with a great screen, but it is the apps that make it useful.  

It appears that the Peru laptops came with very little instructional software, much less anything to personalize education, so it shouldn't be surprising that we didn't see a bump in student achievement.  In the U.S., it isn't the laptop that is generating instructional gains - it is the student interacting with a FLVS teacher, or taking an adaptive learning course through GrockIt, or receiveing a personlized reading plan through Read180.  The software/service - not the laptop is what makes the difference. 

The study's authors acknowledge this:

However, to improve learning in Math and Language, there is a need for high-quality instruction. From previous studies, this does not seem the norm in public schools in Peru, where much rote learning takes place.  Hence, our suggestion is to combine the provision of laptops with a pedagogical model targeted toward increased achievement by students.

There's a good debate about the study and the intiative over here.  

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