Sonntag, 31. Oktober 2010

OLPC in Peru: A Problematic Una Laptop Por Niño Program

At first sight the Peruvian OLPC project “Una laptop por niño” is quite similar to Uruguay’ Plan Ceibal. In both cases the projects are national initiatives which are strongly pushed by the respective governments.

Datum: 27.10.2010
Autor: Christoph Derndorfer

Home | Project | OLPC / Ondalivre | Video und Berichte

In terms of their current size the projects are also comparable: Uruguay has so far distributed approximately 400,000 XOs and is currently adding 100,000 more laptops to its secondary school system. Peru on the other hand has distributed slightly less than 300,000 XOs to date and recently announced its intent to add another 300,000 over the coming year.

This however is where the similarities end. Uruguay’s 400,000 XOs result in full saturation of the country’s public primary school system whereas Peru’s 300,000 only cover a small double-digit percentage of its primary school pupils. This example already demonstrates what I consider to be a key difference between the two countries: the size of the challenge to make “one laptop per child” a reality.

Of course it’s not just the size of the population (Uruguay: 3.5 million, Peru: 29 million) which makes a big difference here. In many ways Peru’s population is also more varied than Uruguay’s as exemplified by the fact that Peru has two official languages: Spanish and the indigenous Quechua.

When it comes to the current state of the education system Peru is also in a different situation than Uruguay. Whereas Uruguay’s literacy rate is 98%, Peru’s is estimated to be between 90% and 92% with rural areas being closer to 80% where children often also don’t have the opportunity to proceed beyond the first few years of primary school.

Last but not least Peru’s geography – being roughly seven times larger than Uruguay and consisting of the desert coast, high Andes mountain ranges, and inaccessible jungle – and the associated difficulties of building and maintaining infrastructure such as roads, an electricity grid or Internet connectivity also present additional challenges to a project such as Una laptop por niño.

It’s within this context that Peru first announced that it was interested in OLPC in 2007. Similarly to Uruguay and Paraguay the first step was a small pilot project with 60 XOs which started in the village of Arahuay in May 2007. What is important to note at this point is that Una laptop por niño was originally specifically targeted at rural multi-grade schools with a single teacher. While this focus has shifted in the recent past I feel it is worth pointing out that within an already difficult environment Peru certainly picked the most challenging target schools one can possibly imagine.

1. Infrastructure
As already indicated in the introduction the setup and subsequent maintenance of any sort of technical or logistical infrastructure faces tough challenges given Peru’s geography.

On the technical side these challenges certainly haven’t been adequately addressed as a recent evaluation by the Inter-American Development Bank found that almost 5% of the schools which have already received XOs don’t even have electricity yet. In terms of Internet access only 1.4% of the schools are connected at the moment. It’s clear that such a situation makes the implementation of a 1-to-1 computing in education project very hard indeed.

The fact that laptops were distributed to schools without electricity points to several underlying issues. The first one is that the Ministry of Education’s data on the infrastructure available at schools doesn’t seem to be up to date and accurate enough. One example is that a school with a single outlet in the principal’s office is officially listed as having electricity yet obviously this isn’t going to be enough to power several dozen laptops.

Secondly it seems like not enough time was spent on planning the implementation of Una laptop por niño. An example in this area is the way Peru handles the activation and anti-theft system on the XO laptops. Uruguay keeps a database of which child owns which specific laptop (identified by its serial number) which allows for laptops to be remotely disabled when they’re reported stolen. Peru’s database however only includes information as to which batches of laptops were sent to which schools. This lack of granular information means that an anti-theft system such as the one used in Uruguay simply can’t be implemented.

Some of these problems might also be explained by how the implementation of Una laptop por niño is organized. Whereas Uruguay, Paraguay, and most other countries have separate entities focusing on their OLPC efforts in Peru it’s only one of several initiatives that the Ministry of Education’s DIGETE (Dirección General de Tecnologías Educativas – Directorate General of Educational Technologies) is tasked with. In combination with a relatively small number of staff this results in seemingly not enough time and resources being available for Una laptop por niño.

Overall it’s quite obvious that the infrastructure within which Peru’s OLPC project is taking place leaves much to be desired. Whether it’s very obvious problems such as the lack of electricity at schools which received XOs or less obvious ones such as the lack of a central database matching pupils to laptops it’s clear that they will negatively impact the project and make things significantly harder.

Many of these issues seem to be the result of planning oversights and while these can undoubtedly be corrected it will require a significant overhaul of the whole strategy as well as the availability of additional resources. A first step into that direction was the purchase of 45,000 solar panels which are currently being distributed to schools without electricity access. While this will certainly improve the situation in many cases it’s still not a perfect solution given that many of the schools are located in regions with extended rainy seasons which will render solar panels useless for extended periods of time.

2. Maintenance
When it comes to maintenance Una laptop por niño is very much relying on existing infrastructure and responsibilities within the education system to deal with XOs that aren’t working.

On the lowest level teachers receive some basic training to deal with issues such as failures of the activation system or other software problems which can be fixed relatively easily. If a problem that can’t be solved at the school itself is encountered, the next level of support is provided by the local UGEL (Unidades de Gestión Educativa Local – Local Education Management Unit). On this level, generally one person who is responsible for all technology-related education projects has received additional training to deal with more complex software issues as well as simple hardware repairs.

The next step up the ladder is the DRE (Direccion Regional de Educacion – Regional Directorate of Education) which provides a stock of spare XOs which can be used as replacement units or as a source for spare parts. Only if none of these entities is able to fix the laptop, is it then sent to a central repair facility in Lima.

While this system might look good on paper it runs into a variety of issues in practice. The first problem is that many teachers don’t have a USB flash drive which allows them to store the data needed to fix simple software issues. Secondly these repairs also seem to overwhelm teachers, many of whom had never used a computer before they received their XO. The fact that the commands required to fix common issues are in English, in combination with the lack of handouts or digital guides, provides another barrier.

As a result many laptops remain unusable once they’re broken as teachers aren’t able to repair them themselves and when their schools are located in remote regions, it might take several weeks or months until they can be handed over to the respective UGEL. Similarly the UGELs and DREs often don’t have the spare parts or extra machines to deal with breakages either, and getting new stock from Lima often takes more than three months.

The overall result of this situation is that broken machines don’t get reported and don’t get replaced, which means that there are pupils who often have to share their XO with someone else rather than having their own laptop. While I’m not aware of any larger evaluation of this situation, my own experiences as well as those of people I talked to indicate that this is indeed a country-wide problem.

In the end Una laptop por niño demonstrates that even a theoretically well planned maintenance system can run into serious issues in practice. The lack of USB flash drives for teachers for example may seem like a neglectable detail at first but it has a significant impact on the whole system.

3. Content and Materials
When it comes to content and materials Una laptop por niño’s approach is similar to Paraguay as the focus is very much set on how to use the existing Activities on the XOs to teach certain subject material, rather than developing new interactive learning content. Una laptop por niño’s Web site provides about a dozen or so guides which cover how to use the laptops to teach topics such as geometry, writing poems, and dental hygiene.

Additionally DIGETE has also produced several manuals and guides which focus on how to use the XO laptop, what functionalities the various Activities provide, and similar topics.

Other materials which could be very useful for teachers include the ”La laptop XO en la aula” (“The XO laptop in the classroom”) manual which was independently written by Sdenka Z. Salas, a teacher in the South of Peru, and contains a lot advice and suggestions on how to use the various Sugar Activities for teaching.

The problem is that neither the teachers – nor the teacher trainer – who I spoke to were aware of the availability of these materials. Since almost none of them have Internet access at school and only very few of them have USB flash drives there is no way for them to access the content and materials that DIGETE and others – such as for example the OLPC projects in Uruguay and Paraguay – create.

In my opinion this issue really exemplifies why ICT4E projects that don’t provide its participants and stakeholders with Internet access are very hard to implement. Of course there are other offline distribution methods such as USB flash drives and printed materials. However in most cases these alternatives require an additional logistics infrastructure and associated resources compared to being able to point people to a Web site and ask them to check it regularly as part of training efforts.

In light of these circumstances Una laptop por niño recently purchased large quantities of USB flash drives – several hundred thousand from what I gather – to distribute to teachers and pupils. These USB flash drives will come preloaded with a selection of educational content, most likely the documents which are currently available on Una laptop por niño’s Web site. This would provide teachers but also pupils and parents with a baseline of materials to build on. At the same time it would enable teachers and administrators to independently exchange materials which they could access in Internet cafés or while they’re visiting local or regional offices.

It’s clear however that until these USB flash drives are distributed, the grand majority of Peruvian teachers simply will not have access to any content and materials that help them integrate the laptops in the teaching process. As a result the overall impact and usefulness of the few resources that are available today is very small.

4. Community involvement
Unlike its counterpart in Uruguay, Una laptop por niño so far hasn’t created a broader community of people and organizations involved with the country’s OLPC efforts. This isn’t necessarily due to a lack of interest by the broader society but rather seems to be the result of a lack of support for people and groups who are independent of the Ministry of Education.

One group that does exist is Sugar Labs Peru which is based in and around the southern city of Puno and consists of several teachers as well as software developers. Sugar Labs Peru is involved in a variety of activities such as creating manuals for teachers on how to use the XO in a classroom and organizing workshops focused around Sugar Activities.

Another effort that is somewhat community related is OLPC’s Intern program in Peru. The program regularly enables mostly North American students to support teachers in schools with XOs over the course of several weeks.

Other individuals and groups who had been interested in contributing to Una laptop por niño in various ways were often discouraged by a lack of support from DIGETE. One such example are students from one of Lima’s private universities who were interested in working on thesis and research projects but ended up going into another direction after their repeated requests for information and official support remained without a reply.

Hence it comes as no surprise that overall the number of people outside the traditional education system contributing to Una laptop por niño is relatively small. Given the limited resources available to DIGETE and the need for a broad variety of support measures – and the impact they have in countries such as Uruguay – this is a shame and an example of a missed opportunity. Again, this is an area were improvements are still possible, however it seems that a lot of the initial good will and desire to support the initiative might have been lost already.

5. Teacher training
As mentioned in the introduction as well as the subsequent articles about OLPC in Uruguay and Paraguay I consider teacher training to be a key component of a successful ICT4E initiative. Similarly to Paraguay I was again lucky enough to be able to attend a teacher training session during my stay in Peru.

In general teacher training in Peru consists of two components: One training session which ideally takes place before the laptops are handed out and then a yearly refresher course. The training that I observed was a voluntary 2-day refresher for teachers who had received the XOs roughly one year earlier.

The initial training consists of 40 hours during a week-long course. Given that many teachers have never used a laptop before the training starts with the very basics such as how to turn on the XO, how to keep it charged, how to navigate using the touchpad, how to type on the keyboard, etc. Since a significant amount of time is spent on these topics there is little left to discuss the educational use of the laptops in the school setting.

In the refresher course which I attended again a lot of time was dedicated to dealing with fundamental questions about how to resolve minor software issues and learning how to use some of the Activities. While some ideas on how to use the laptops to teach certain subject matter were discussed overall again too little attention seemed to be given on how to integrate the laptop with the curriculum that teachers need to get through.

The lack of quality teacher training, combined with the aforementioned lack of support materials and manuals or the ability of teachers to exchange ideas or access content online, results in teachers being inadequately prepared to use XO laptops in the classroom.

The effect of this situation is that if teachers use the laptops they mostly ask pupils to transcribe a text from the blackboard or school book in their word processor. Similarly in many cases the use of the XOs seems to drop off significantly two or three months after they are first handed out. This can be interpreted as a sign that the novelty factor is wearing off without teachers seeing a purpose in really using the laptops in schools.

Teacher training could be a way to compensate for many of the infrastructure and content related deficits and difficulties that exist for Una laptop por niño. However in its current state it doesn’t seem to be able to convince the majority of teachers that the laptops are a valuable tool for learning let alone address these additional complexities.

It is worth pointing out that progress in an environment where many teachers have never used a computer before will undoubtedly be slow. However a more intensive initial training combined with regular follow-ups as well as support in the form of manuals could go a long way in enabling teachers to effectively start using the laptops inside the classroom.

6. Evaluation
In terms of evaluation of Una laptop por niño the most significant effort is being undertaking by a consortium consisting of the Peruvian Ministry of Education, the Inter-American Development Bank, and GRADE, a Peruvian NGO. The first preliminary report (in Spanish) from that evaluation was recently released and the results are quite sobering.

Similarly to what I outlined above the evaluation for example found that there’s a strong demand for better and more extensive training and technical as well as educational support for teachers. As a likely result of the lack of these supportive measures the use of the laptops drops off significantly after two to three months. The study also indicates that the learning outcomes by pupils who had received a laptop aren’t significantly different to their peers. Additionally it also revealed that only slightly more than half of the pupils are allowed to take the laptops home thereby significantly reducing the potential amount of time that the pupils can use them. Overall the two main vectors that one might consider positive at this point are that pupils’ abilities to use computers has increased and that parents and teachers have a more positive attitude towards schools.

Apart from that ongoing effort some Peruvian researchers previously also published results from independent evaluations that they worked on. While these are obviously based on a much smaller sample of schools, about a dozen or so in some cases, their findings are in many ways quite similar to the IADB evaluation. One such example is a report by Carlos David Laura of Peru’s Economic and Social Research Consortium (CIES) which found that teacher training is lacking and that pupils’ learning achievement hadn’t improved.

One lesson to be learned from Una laptop por niño is that small independent evaluations can often provide first indications and vectors about how an ICT4E project is going before larger and longer-term studies are available. In this sense they can provide a much needed external monitoring tool which provides information and insight which can be the basis for modifying implementation details and strategies.

Overall the efforts in Peru are a good example of the value that both small, short-term and large, long-term evaluations can provide to ICT4E initiatives. Of course considering its size one would expect to see more independent efforts looking into both the educational as well as social impacts of Una laptop por niño. However as described in the community involvement section this also requires institutional support which at least in some cases wasn’t provided in Peru.

Summary and Outlook
Undoubtedly Peru’s Una laptop por niño offers many valuable lessons for ICT4E projects however in the grand majority of cases these will be how NOT to do something. There is no doubt that of the three South American countries I visited, Peru is the most physically challenging environment for a nation-wide 1-to-1 computing in education project. Even with a perfect implementation this would be a difficult undertaking, and with the plethora of issues and problems that the project’s execution has exposed, the results and impacts – or lack thereof – are bound to be underwhelming.

This is not to say that everything about Una laptop por niño is bad. It has undoubtedly opened enormous possibilities for thousands of teachers and pupils which will come up with interesting and creative ways to use the XOs and learn a lot in the process. Yet there’s no doubt that the majority of teachers and pupils as well as other stakeholder such as administrators and parents will hardly see any benefit from the initiative.

While not necessarily directly related to the early lackluster evaluation results, it is interesting to see that in mid-2010 DIGETE significantly changed the strategy of Una laptop por niño. While the main target until then had been rural multi-grade schools with a single teacher, the upcoming 300,000 XOs will be distributed to larger and often urban schools. At the same time this phase of the project will no longer be traditional 1-to-1 computing. The new XO laptops will be used to set up CRTs (Centro de Recursos Tecnológicos – Center for Technology Resources) – basically mobile computer labs – at every remaining primary school in the country. This is indeed a very intriguing development, and I’m sure many people will closely watch how this new strategy works out compared to the old one.