So is One Laptop Per Child working or not?

Over at the United Nations’ blog UN Dispatch, Allana Shaikh argues that One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the non-profit program aimed at getting low-cost laptops into the hands of children in the developing world, is largely a failure. According to Shaikh, the problems with the ambitious program are manifold:

  1. Laptop orders took much longer than expected to arrive in the developing world. Thousands of orders simply vanished.
  2. OLPC doesn’t offer training to teachers on how to incorporate the machines into their classrooms. Neither is there any technical support for the laptops.
  3. Although children report liking the laptops, the computers don’t appear to help them learn.
  4. The laptops are supposed to cost $100 each. The price has yet to drop that far.

Read Shaikh’s whole piece here. She also points to a very good article by Philanthropy Action editor-in-chief Timothy Ogden called “Computer Error?” Ogden argues that treating parasitic worm infections in children, a relatively inexpensive undertaking, would improve their classroom achievement much more than new laptops.

Meanwhile, OLPC’s founder Nicholas Negroponte unsurprisingly takes issue with the views expressed above. In the comments to Shaikh’s post, Negroponte tells her:

“I suggest you look more carefully at Uruguay, Peru and Rwanda. In the case of Uruguay, every child has one. That is pretty amazing. Peru is headed there. Rwanda too. In fact, we have moved our learning group (as of early June) to Kigali [Rwanda’s capital] perminently, to be in the field and get the kind of feedback [about whether OLPC improves achievement] you claim we ignore.”

CNN touted the program’s importance in Afghanistan earlier this year.

My take: Low-cost laptops are not a panacea for all that ails the developing world’s educational systems. In fact, without proper tech support and training for teachers, the computers are likely to do more harm than good. However, these problems will be solved sooner or later, and I predict we’ll soon see netbooks (like typical laptops but smaller) that cost less than $75 or even $50.

When the price comes down that far, and when schools have the kind of training they need to transform the laptops from glorified toys into effective learning tools, we could start to see third-world education finally turn the corner.