First Debug the Child . . .

The topic of education is an obsession with me for the simple reason that one cannot address any development related issues without reference to education, however broadly or narrowly one defines education or development. My interest in the use — and misuse — of technology in education is a natural extension of that basic interest in development and growth. The One Laptop Per Child comes in for special scrutiny because the implications of such a program are phenomenal for a poor country like India. I have long argued that there are simpler, more affordable and more urgently needed interventions that is needed than is provided by the OLPC program. Here’s one that I recently became aware of.

Timothy Ogden writes, “There appear to be cheaper, more effective ways to improve education in developing nations than the glitzy One Laptop per Child program.” (Link via Marginal Revolution, thanks to Khalid Omar.) It’s clearly a well-written and well-researched article and is a must read. Here’s a bit:

Despite the instinctive appeal of distributing laptops to schoolchildren, there is precious little evidence that making computers available to children improves educational outcomes. The circumstantial evidence that exists certainly doesn’t buttress the one-laptop-per-child approach.
. . .
Two other recent studies conducted in the developing world are even more telling. Economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches studied a program in Romania that distributed discount vouchers for the purchase of home computers to low-income families. When they compared the families that used the vouchers to acquire computers with families that were just above the income cut-off to receive the vouchers, they found that computers had a negative effect on students’ grades and educational goals. Leigh Linden, an economist at Columbia University, and Felipe Barrera-Osorio of The World Bank studied a program in Colombia that increased the number of computers in schools and provided curriculum support and training for teachers — and found no impact on student outcomes. “In this case, despite the curriculum support, it was clear that the teachers simply weren’t using the computers,” Linden says.

Linden also led one of the few experimental studies to show a positive impact from the use of computers — a project in India that provided computers and education software to schools and randomly assigned some schools to use the software during school hours and others to encourage computer use after hours. This study found that using computers during school hours —essentially substituting computers for teachers — actually hurt learning, while using them after hours as a supplement to traditional classroom teaching had dramatic positive effects on the weakest students. Even this outcome doesn’t really support the OLPC mission, though; the software evaluated is very much in the “drill and practice” model that Negroponte has explicitly derided.

Ogden further on in the article mentions a few more effective means of improving educational outcomes.

There are a number of simple, cheap programs that have been proven successful at getting children in developing countries into school and helping them learn more while they are there.

The simplest and least costly of these programs is deworming. Nearly 2 billion people around the world are affected by parasitic worm infections, with children disproportionately affected. While each variety of parasitic worm affects a person differently, they all take a substantial toll on growth, energy and attention, with entirely predictable impacts on school attendance and learning. Harvard economist Michael Kremer has studied the impact of mass deworming in Kenya and India. Delivering deworming medication costs 50 cents per child per year in Kenya but yielded a 25 percent increase in school attendance; a similar program in India cost $4 per student per year and yielded a 20 percent attendance gain. “This is a simple, cost-effective and yet tragically not-done program. It’s a scandal that [deworming] hasn’t been addressed,” Kremer says. There are spillover effects as well. “The most surprising thing about the study in Kenya was the widespread impact,” Kremer says. The program drove down infection rates for several kilometers around the schools, he says, and there were significant improvements in attendance for untreated students, in the treatment schools as well as in nearby schools not in the program.

Go read it all.

Related Posts: Aside from the posts in the category OLPC, you may wish to see —

The OLPC is Inappropriate for India. (May 2009)

Formula for Milking the Digital Divide. (Nov 2005)

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

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