Friday, February 26, 2010

One Laptop per Child and Peace

By Juan Pablo Hourcade

The goal of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Foundation is to provide low-cost laptops to children in developing regions. These laptops, also known as XO laptops, were designed to support children’s learning inside and outside classrooms, with an emphasis on mobility, connectivity, and low-energy consumption. Were they also designed for promoting peace? I think they were, because of the way they promote education and economic opportunity in developing regions.

When Paul Collier examined the predictors of civil wars, he found that each additional year of schooling reduces the chances of civil war by 20 percent. OLPC is an example of how technologies can promote peace at a large scale by increasing the educational opportunities of children.

I got to see first hand how the XO laptops from OLPC indeed increase educational opportunities for children during my visits to Uruguay. Uruguay is the first country to fully implement OLPC’s vision, giving every child in public elementary school an XO laptop. I have had the privilege to observe the laptops being used in classrooms, as well as speak to the people who have been affected the most by them: the children, their parents and teachers, and those in charge of deploying the laptops and training teachers.

The design of the XO laptops is leading to a revolutionary use of computers for educational purposes. Instead of having children go to a lab at preset times, children and teachers have access to the laptops at any time, inside or outside the classroom. Because of their mobility, children handle them as paper notebooks, easily asking help from the teacher, or learning how to get things done by sitting next to another child. Instead of getting in the way of social learning, the laptops encourage these learning experiences.

Most of the new learning, though, is happening because of the connectivity the laptops provide. On the one hand, teachers told me that the laptops are encouraging children to read more. Before the laptops arrived, children had access to only a few books in their classrooms. After they arrived, they had access to all the content available on the Internet. It is not surprising then, that it was much easier for them to find something to read they were actually interested in reading.

Connectivity also encouraged children to write more, according to their teachers. This may have led to better writing, according to Daiana Beitler, who conducted an analysis of grammar and spelling in children’s blogs. The reason behind the improvement is that teachers were encouraged to ask children to submit compositions and other writing through blogs. The result is that the children knew that in addition to their teacher, their friends, their family and anyone else connected to the Internet could read what they wrote. This global audience not only served as motivation for them to write better, it also enabled children to “peer review” each other’s works, and see how the children who did better in class wrote.

Another positive impact of connectivity is that it has elevated the status of the schools in towns and neighborhoods. This is because the schools have wifi access, and children and parents who want to use the Internet congregate near school buildings after school hours, transforming them into community hubs.

The long-term impact of OLPC may also bring benefits in another area often cited as a precursor for peace: economic opportunity. Because all children get a laptop, OLPC acts as a social and economic opportunity equalizer. It gives the children who have it a better chance of gaining 21st century skills and participating in the global economy.

Further reading:
Collier, Paul (1999). Doing Well out of War.

Hourcade, J.P., Beitler, D., Cormenzana, F. and Flores, P. (2008). Early OLPC Experiences in a Rural Uruguayan School. Extended Abstracts of CHI 2008 Conference (alt.chi). ACM Press: pp. 2503-2512.

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