Una Laptop por Ni?o

Friday, April 25, 2008

The success of OLPC can no longer be judged against ?Negroponte’s early predictions and plans, nor by the technical merits of the laptop itself. Peru is what matters now. When I was in Lima, OLPC’s former chief technology officer, Mary Lou ?Jepsen (she has formed Pixel Qi, a startup dedicated to making even lower-cost displays for OLPC’s computers and others), visited the education ministry to offer help and show staffers how to repair the machines. But she acknowledged that OLPC’s future doesn’t revolve around the hardware she helped bring about. “Laptops are easy; education is hard to transform,” she said. “I don’t even speak Spanish. How can I even start to transform primary education in Peru?”

In truth, she can’t. But Peru now has a chance to help Rosario, Cecilia, Nilton, and 486,497 other kids–and, maybe, someday, the little girl on the traffic island in Lima.

By David Talbot

The philanthropic effort dubbed the $100 Laptop has not met its grand initial goals. But its first deployment, in Peru, may turn skeptics into believers.

A fleeting roadside scene in Lima, Peru, sticks in my mind. A very little girl, perhaps four, stood on a narrow traffic island bisecting a congested thoroughfare amid choking dust, soot, and fumes. With the girl was a woman I took to be her mother. The mother, a street peddler, was unpacking a crate full of something. (I couldn’t see what, but other peddlers offered avocados, toilet paper, and toy rats.) Around them roared 1970s-era buses and battered vehicles, passing below concrete habitations creeping up dismal, denuded hillsides in one of the city’s vast slums. The child was energetically scooping up plastic bags for her mother, her shaggy brown hair flopping forward. Not far away, an old woman picked through a pile of smoldering refuse. Against the squalid tableau, the girl was tidying her little corner of Lima as she spent her morning helping Mom at work.

I thought of her as I passed through steel gates manned by armed guards at Peru’s Ministry of Education to talk to Oscar Becerra, general director for educational technologies. Peru is poised to deliver 486,500 laptops to its poorest children under the One Laptop per Child program–a figure that could swell to 676,500 if the Cuzco region buys in. It is the largest such OLPC purchase in the world (see “OLPC Scales Back“). I asked Becerra whether children in Lima’s slums would receive the green-and-white machines. “No,” he said. “They are not poor enough.” At first I thought he was making a hard-hearted joke. But he went on to explain that Lima residents generally have electricity and (in theory) access to city services, even Internet caf?s. The laptops are headed to 9,000 tiny schools in remote regions such as ?Huancavelica, in the Andes, an arduous 12-hour bus ride over rocky roads southeast of Lima, and villages such as Tutumberos, in the Amazon region, days away. By the standards of children in those areas, the girl on the traffic island enjoyed enviable opportunity.

What Becerra told me drove home the true scope of what OLPC is trying to do in a country that, according to a survey by the World Economic Forum, ranks 130th out of 131 countries in math and science education, and 131st in the quality of its primary schools. “There is a long-term social cleavage in Peru that has been around forever,” says Henry Dietz, a political scientist and expert on Peru at the University of Texas at Austin, describing the country’s income inequality and rural poverty. “You get out of those provincial capitals, a half-hour in any direction, and you are in rural Peru, and things are pretty primitive. Electricity is a sometimes thing, and the quality of education–the school is four walls and a roof and some benches, and that is about it. There is very little there to work with.” In some cases, the laptop deployment will tie in to an existing program to bring Internet access to certain schools. But for the most part, the machines are entering an educational vacuum.

And they’re bringing with them a whole new pedagogy. The computers come loaded with 115 books–literature such as Mi Vaquita, about a rare porpoise, but also classics, like some of ?Aesop’s fables, novels (at least one by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa), and poetry (including verse by the early-20th-?century Peruvian poet C?sar Vallejo). The laptops’ flash drives also store introductions for teachers, reading-comprehension programs and other educational software, a word processor, art and music programs, and games, including chess, Sudoku, and Tetris. The rugged, low-power hardware includes a camera that can capture video or still images. The computers are Internet ready and can wirelessly relay data to one another.

These tools will land in the hands of first through sixth graders who in many cases never even had books–at home or elsewhere–and whose teachers themselves had little education. They will not come cheap; Peru is spending about $80 million on the laptops–nearly a third of the education budget normally available for capital expenditures–plus about $2 million for teacher training. Becerra characterized the sum as a special appropriation meant to bring schools up to date. “To distribute all these books would cost five times the cost of the machines,” he estimates. “We are reaching the poorest schools in Peru for the first time in history.” The hope is that more children will make lives for themselves beyond subsistence farming or menial labor.

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Source: Technology Review (link opens in a new window)