Is this the nail in the One Laptop Per Child coffin?

Afghan girls being taught how to use computers on an OLPC. (Credit: Todd Huffman/Flickr)

Another day and another hit to the once-celebrated One Laptop Per Child program. The 570,000 laptops handed out in Uruguay did nothing to improve students’ reading and math scores, according to a new report on the program, with the majority of students not using the computers.

“The evidence shows that computers by themselves have no effect on learning and what really matters is the institutional environment that makes learning possible: the family, the teacher, the classroom, your peers,” blogged Francisco Mejía, principal evaluation economist for the Inter-American Development bank, about the research paper.

The proportion of students who regularly used the laptops fell from 41 percent in 2009 to 4.1 percent by 2012. Mejía said the fact that the computers were not used in the curriculum might be partly to blame for the drop. Nearly 70 percent of the students used the laptops less than once a week.

While more than a quarter of the students’ computer time was spent surfing the Internet, there was no measured improvement in the skill of using the Internet, the report found. For the most part, the laptop was a new toy.

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) was founded nearly 10 years ago by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nicholas Negroponte. He was an early computer enthusiast, and made  the case in his 1995 book “Being Digital” that life would be better for humanity as more and more of it goes digital.

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As his predictions came to be true, Negroponte entered the realm of digital education. The establishment of OLPC and its accompanying organizations in 2005 set out to produce a $100 laptop computer that could be used in classrooms from Africa to Latin America. The ambitious project won the early backing of the U.N. Development Program and praise in media reports. The New York Times listed the computer among “The Decade’s Best Design,” in 2009.

Advances were made in the laptop design and price. Recently, OLPC began developing a tablet version that will drive prices down further and reach more people. The program has reached nearly 2 million children. Despite the progress and the hype, OLPC has experienced significant setbacks and harsh criticisms. Roughly half of all staff were let go in early 2009.

OLPC continues to work to get its devices into the hands of children in developing countries, believing that they can help children learn, as seen in this new video about the impact of OPLC on some children in South America:

The relevance of the program was challenged further when the watchdog blog OLPC News announced it was shutting down in March, declaring OLPC dead. The blog contributors, all active in using new technologies to support international development, felt it was time to move on.

“Let us be honest with ourselves. The great excitement, energy, and enthusiasm that brought us together is gone. OLPC is dead,” wrote Wayan Vota for OLPC News. “In its place, is the reality that technology is a force in education, and we all need to be vigilant about when, where, and how it’s used.”

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In the past few years, OLPC has moved into retail. The XO tablet went on sale at Walmart last year and it competes with other children’s educational devices like LeapFrog’s LeapPad. It tried out the buy-one-give-one model that TOMS made famous with its shoes, in the hopes that people would be willing to buy OLPC laptops for their own use and to support a child in another part of the world.

Research on OLPC in Israel, Perú, Romania, Nepal and North Carolina did not help the cause. Like the recent Bolivia study, those regions also saw laptops arrive and no improvement in reading and math. The overwhelming research shows that dropping off laptops into a classroom does not bring the transformative change touted by Negroponte.

Yet, OLPC limps along. In June, 11 computers were donated by OLPC to the Wilderness Safaris’ Toka Leya Camp in Zambia. A blog post from the organization described the success of the distribution and discussed how a laptop with a solar panel could be bought for $350, paid by mail through check or money order.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.