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One Laptop Per Child Case Study Answers

A few months ago, the first randomized evaluation of the (OLPC) came out as a (you can find a brief summary by the authors ), after circulating in the seminar/conference circuit for a while. Many articles and blogs followed (see a good one by Michael Trucano and find the short piece in the Economist and the responses it generated from OLPC in the comments section) because the study found no effects of OLPC in Peru on test scores in reading and math, no improvements in enrollment or attendance, no change in time spent on homework or motivation, but some improvements in cognitive ability as measured by Raven’s Progressive Colored Matrices.

At the (ADEW) I attended last week at Monash University in Melbourne, another on a smaller pilot of the OLPC in Nepal presented similar findings: no effects on English or Math test scores for primary school children who were given laptops along with their teachers (This study has some problems: the schools in the control group are demonstrably different than the treated schools, so the author uses a difference in difference analysis to get impact estimates. There are worries about mean reversion [Abhijit Banerjee pointed this out during the Q&A] and some strange things happening with untreated grades in treatment schools seeing improvements in test scores, so the findings should be treated with caution). What I want to talk about is not so much the evidence, but the fact that the whole thing looks a mess – both from the viewpoint of the implementers (countries who paid for these laptops) and from that of the OLPC.

First, though, let’s go back and think for another second about whether it would be reasonable to expect improvements in mastery of curricular material if we just give each student a laptop in developing countries. (gated, WP version available ) that was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics last year found that children who won a voucher to purchase a computer had lower school grades but higher computer skills and improved cognitive ability. Interestingly, parental supervision protecting time spent doing homework was protective of test scores without reducing the improvements in computer literacy and cognitive ability. So, if you just give kids a computer, we find out that they’ll use it. The use is likely heterogeneous in the way described by Banerjee et al. in “The Miracle of Microfinance?”: just as loans can be used for consumption or investment, computers can be used the same way depending on the child’s type and circumstances. But, without substantial additional effort, it seems unlikely that the children will read books on these computers (the OLPCs were loaded with a large number of e-books in the programs mentioned above)or do their homework using them. If parents pay attention, the time spent on the computer may come out of other leisure activities; otherwise, it will likely come out of time spent on learning how to read and do math, leading to the sorts of effects described above. (There is more on the use of technology in education with mixed results – I will not review the literature here, but it seems to me that Michael Trucano keeps an active and informative blog on this issue).

The reason I call this a mess is because I am not sure (a) how the governments (and the organizations that help them) purchased a whole lot of these laptops to begin with and (b) why their evaluations have not been designed differently – to learn as much as we can from them on the potential of particular technologies in building human capital. Let’s discuss these in order:

My understanding is that each laptop costs approximately $200. That’s a lot of money, ignoring any other costs of distribution, software development, training, etc. The Peru study suggests that the Peruvian government bought 900,000 of these laptops. Couldn’t spending US$180 million on these laptops wait until some careful evaluation was conducted? In I talked about moving from efficacy to effectiveness in social science field trials. This is the opposite: there are now a couple of studies that did the best they could given that the governments were already implementing programs built around OLPC (measuring effectiveness, kind of), but how were they convinced of the efficacy of OLPC to start implementing these programs in the first place?

Bruce Wydick, in a he did for us a few months back, suggests one explanation: some interventions are hyped without proper evidence: under that state of the world, the XO laptop becomes the next shiny solution to our problems in one area – a panacea. When I searched for the evidence that OLPC may significantly improve learning, I got this sentence on their website, with no links to any studies or corroboration: “Extensively field-tested and validated among some of the poorest and most remote populations on earth, constructionism emphasizes what Papert calls “learning learning” as the fundamental educational experience.” Based on what evidence did the UNDP, as far back as 2006, sign with OLPC to support national governments to deploy these laptops in schools?

If I was running OLPC, I would hire a credible third party evaluator to run an efficacy trial. Whatever aspect of human capital it is that I am proposing my laptops improve (reading, cognitive, or non-cognitive), I would measure all of those things carefully under ideal circumstances: I would vary the intervention by having trained teachers or not, specially designed software for learning or not, internet access or not, allowing children to take the laptops home or not, etc. I’d also have a thorough review of the literature that suggests what kinds of long-term improvements in welfare, poverty reduction, growth, etc. such potential improvements may cause. If the trial showed no effects or effects below a certain threshold to be meaningful or cost-effective, I’d go back to the drawing board. If they showed larger effects, then I could start working with governments to evaluate pilot versions of what would look like scaled-up versions of these programs: problems with internet access, stolen laptops, teacher capacity, etc. These steps would help me deploy many more laptops, which furthers my goal as a non-profit organization.

But, at least we can understand why OLPC did not undertake these steps: they already believe that these laptops are good for children (apparently even at the current price tag) and there are already governments buying large quantities with the help of international development organizations. But, why didn’t the governments in Latin America, where apparently most of OLPC deployments happened so far, insist on better evidence before embarking on this path? In Peru, they may now reconsider the program but more than $180 million has already been spent; in Nepal, the Department of Education was wise enough to do a small pilot first and hence spent a small amount on the laptops, but they did not give enough thought to designing the evaluation properly. Many of the authors of the Peru study are from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), who seem to have collaborated with the Peruvian government in evaluating the OLPC there – perhaps they can comment on the process.

One important role larger development organizations like the World Bank or IDB can play is in testing big ideas like these across multiple countries or settings. No one with a pulse in 2012 thinks that cheap laptops are not a good thing: we’re just trying to decide whether we should be spending precious funds on subsidizing them for families with young children. Same with Millennium Villages: perhaps the ‘big bang’ approach has merit. But every such idea needs to be assessed properly, allowing us to learn as much as possible from each study. The bigger the idea and the hype, the more important the evidence becomes.

We have come some distance from the days when we used to implement projects and programs with the belief that they would work – without much in the way of thorough evaluations. These days, an array of tools are available to examine program impacts and policymakers are much more sympathetic to tweak program implementation to facilitate credible evaluations. But, donors and governments are still vulnerable to spending large sums on the latest fads, the magic bullets – only to have the evaluations to follow not precede…

We are also still being mainly opportunistic in what is being evaluated: we get a call from someone saying they are about to start implementing project X or program Y, and we jump in if it sounds interesting. That’s still too late and quite haphazard when it comes to learning the answers to important questions. As researchers and as policymakers, we all have to be more proactive in producing evidence before decisions are made. Until then, studies like the ones covered here will be second-best solutions putting out fires instead of preventing them.

Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of One Laptop per Child, answers questions about the initiative.

What is the XO?

The XO laptop is Linux-based, with a dual-mode display—both a full-color, transmissive mode, and a second display option that is black and white, reflective, and sunlight-readable at three times the resolution. The XO-1.5 has a 1GHz processor and 1GB of DRAM, with 4 GB of /Flash memory; it does not have a hard disk, but it does have three USB ports and an SD-card slot for expansion. The laptops have wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a mesh network; each laptop is able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network. The laptops are designed to be extremely power efficient, enabling the use of innovative power systems (such as solar,  human power, generators, wind or water power).

Why do children in developing nations need laptops?

Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window out to the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to learn learning through independent interaction and exploration.

Why not a desktop computer, or—even better—a recycled desktop machine?

Desktops are cheaper, but mobility is important, especially with regard to taking the computer home at night. Kids in the developing world need the newest technology, especially really rugged hardware and innovative software. Recent work with schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one’s studies, as well as for play. Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.

Finally, regarding recycled machines: if we estimate 100-million available used desktops, and each one requires only one hour of human attention to refurbish, reload, and handle, that is tens of thousands of work years. Thus, while we definitely encourage the recycling of used computers, it is not the solution for One Laptop per Child.

How is it possible to get the cost so low?

First, by dramatically lowering the cost of the display. The first-generation machine will have a novel, dual-mode display that represents improvements to the LCD displays commonly found in inexpensive DVD players. These displays can be used in high-resolution black and white in bright sunlight—all at a cost of approximately $35.

Second, we take the fat out of the systems. Today’s laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways.

Third, we market the laptops in very large numbers, directly to ministries of education, which can distribute them like textbooks.

Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What’s wrong with community-access centers?

One does not think of community pencils—kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to own something—like a football, doll, or book—not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.

What about connectivity? Aren’t telecommunications services expensive in the developing world?

When these machines pop out of the box, they will make a mesh network of their own, peer-to-peer. This is something initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab. We are also exploring ways to connect them to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost.

What can a $2000 laptop do that the $200 version cannot?

The XO laptop is built for learning and designed specifically with children in mind. Because of this, the features deemed most valuable for its purposes are as good (and in many cases, better) than comparable features on a $2000 laptop. For instance, the XO’s screen can be viewed as clearly as a newspaper in broad daylight, and the wireless range of the XO is several times longer than your average laptop. It’s also more rugged, resilient and power efficient than most other laptops on the market. While other features, such as power and speed, cannot compare to a $2000 machine, they meet the necessary requirements for learning.

How will these be distributed?

In the general case, the laptops will be sold to governments and issued to children by schools on a basis of one laptop per child; using this model, we began deployments around the world at the end of 2007. An additional allocation of machines has been used to seed the developer community, to enable a broader community of participation.

Who is the original design manufacturer (ODM) of the XO?

Quanta Computer Inc. of Taiwan has been chosen as the original design manufacturer (ODM) for the XO project. The decision was made after the board reviewed bids from several possible manufacturing companies.

Quanta Computer Inc. was founded in 1988 in Taiwan. With over US $10 billion in sales, Quanta is the world’s largest manufacturer of laptop PCs; the company also manufactures mobile phones, LCD TVs, and servers and storage products. In addition, Quanta recently opened a new US $200 million R&D center, Quanta R&D Complex (QRDC), in Taiwan. The facility, which opened in Q3 of 2005, has 2.2 million square feet of floor space, and a capacity to house up to 7,000 engineers.

How is this initiative structured?

The XO is being developed by One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a Delaware-based, non-profit organization created by faculty members from the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute laptops that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education. OLPC is based on constructionist theories of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert and later Alan Kay, as well as the principles expressed in Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital. The corporate members are Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Brightstar, Chi Lin, eBay, Google, Marvell, News Corporation, Nortel, Quanta, Red Hat, and SES Astra.

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