The use of technology in our lives will only increase over the next few years. Everything around us will be connected one way or another. Internet access is already embedded in automobiles and, a few decades from now, viewing the Internet while inside the car will be as ordinary as switching radio stations.
As that inevitable future approaches, today it is somewhat more difficult to go online if you happen to be in the vast majority of the rural areas on the planet. How many schools have Internet available? Or electricity, for that matter? How about computers?
All of these questions have been a matter of concern for governments for quite a few years. At the turn of the past century, they gave rise to the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Project aimed at empowering every student with a laptop to bridge the Internet access gap between the richest and poorest segments in any given country.
As with every great proposal, OLPC has not escaped controversy. There has been much criticism, ranging from claims that computers are not as cheap as it was once believed (because the lowest price point is only achieved by placing large orders) to accusations that the devices are simply ugly.
Other criticism targeted towards the project’s management or the extravagance of some of its proposals, such as dropping the computers from a helicopter in remote areas with few access routes.
Aside from the controversy that may surround this organization, what is important about OLPC is the notion that became firmly established in the sense that it is possible to hand a computer to every child in their school years in any given country. From my perspective, this is the most important legacy we have received from this organization.
Oddly enough, until little more than ten years ago, there were a large number of skeptics about the feasibility of OLPC. This perception has gradually changed either by virtue of technological breakthroughs enabling the distribution of tablets instead of laptops, slashing costs in the process, improvements in wireless technologies or the emergence of successful models worth replicating.
One such model is, undoubtedly the Plan Ceibal in Uruguay, which has delivered a laptop– called ceibalita– to every student in the country aimed at eliminating the Internet access gap in the South American country. Plan Ceibal has been so successful that experts from Armenia, Colombia, Dominica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay and Rwanda, among other countries, have looked into the project with a view to emulating its positive outcomes.
I think that one major achievement of Plan Ceibal has been the fact that the distribution of computers to the schools was not meant to be the end of connectivity but rather the beginning. Subsequent announcements of ongoing deliveries or the inclusion of new educational software receive less media coverage than in other regions.
Part of the project’s success is the sustained monitoring of the impact on students and the establishment of an on-going support network to provide infrastructure maintenance, device repairs and coordinated software updates on the devices.
As an example, a study from the Scientific Research Sector Committee from the University of the Republic in Uruguay found that the delivery of ceibalitas had a positive impact on the children’s performance. In turn, research conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has found that the reduction of the digital divide between the students attending public schools and those attending private schools is mostly due to Plan Ceibal.
This data is not negligible when you consider the existence of numerous studies that minimize the impact of OLPC programs, such as one conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in more than 300 rural schools in Peru, which concluded that access to computers did not improve students’ academic test scores.
An article in Colombia’s Semana magazine reached the same conclusion by showing a correlation between the results from a comparative study on education among Colombian students and the use of technology:
“One growing concern is how technology is being used. In the Pisa test, Colombia scored worst on reading material on the Internet. Colombian children now have computers at home and at school, and yet they fail to read critically. They lack searching skills. A huge effort has been made to provide technology, but these thousands of tablets are not enabled with appropriate content, neither are teachers being trained on how to use these new tools. Computers are used for chatting and playing, and the paradox is that the children who use them most are the ones getting the lowest scores. Redressing this state of affairs may have a significant impact.”
On the other hand, the conclusion of a recent study published in the academic publication Computers in Human Behavior indicated that the sustained use of technological devices by children may have adverse consequences on the development of their interpersonal communication skills. For this reason, during the educational process, the use of the device should be guided in such a way as to encourage interaction among students.
These results are not too different from the IDB recommendations stating that computer delivery should be accompanied by specialized educational programs that serve as teacher support tools. Obviously, if students are to benefit from the technology, this should be furthered by teacher training processes and the deployment of the necessary infrastructure. If the Internet connection is not fast enough, it is impossible for 20 or 30 computers to browse the web simultaneously.
It is clear that for OLPC initiatives to be successful, the work has to go beyond the mere handing of PCs to include a focus on the on-going monitoring of its impact and the promotion of the use of educational software to supplement the teachers’ job. At the end of the day, one should never overlook the importance of the human factor.
The preceding article is a guest contribution by an industry thought leader on a topic relevant to Colombia and other countries. The contributor is solely responsible for its content. Opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Finance Colombia, it’s editors, or staff.