Peru’s ambitious laptop program gets mixed grades

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A study in Ethiopian schools by Dutch researchers from the University of Groningen, published last year in the journal Computers and Education, similarly indicated that OLPC laptops improved abstract reasoning.

The teachers in those schools had received extensive training in the laptops, which the researchers said introduced an “information-rich novelty” into an environment previously starved for learning material.

The laptops in Ethiopia, like those in Peru, were loaded with books, memory games, music composing software and other programs.

The Education Ministry official who ran Peru’s program until last year, Oscar Becerra, calls the abstract reasoning findings “spectacular” and disputes claims that the program has been a failure.

“We knew from the start that it wouldn’t be possible to improve the teachers,” he said, citing a 2007 census of 180,000 Peruvian teachers that showed more than 90 percent lacked basic math skills while three in five could not read above sixth-grade level.

Many of the teachers had never so much as booted up a computer. In Patzer’s experience “most of them barely knew how to interact with the computers at all.”

At the Jose Arguedas primary school in Lima’s gritty San Juan de Lurigancho neighborhood, 40 computers for its 570 students arrived nearly two years ago but few teachers have worked them into their lesson plans.

“It’s been difficult for many teachers to adapt to them,” said Graciela Martinez, the school’s technology coordinator.

Many of teacher Magnus Fajardo’s second-graders struggled when he took them to computer lab and asked them to write, sequentially, the numbers from 200 to 300 on their laptops.

The children knew their numbers but few knew their laptops. Less bashful children asked a visiting reporter for help. They wanted to know how to advance to a new line, how to increase the font size.

In the higher grades, Martinez said, children’s use of the machines is mostly social. They have Internet, and Facebook is big. So are online games.

“For them, the laptop is more for playing than for learning,” she says.

Educators say that’s a clear sign the children haven’t been properly introduced either to the Internet or to what is on the machines.

Negroponte thinks the main goal should be simply getting computers into poor kids’ hands. Last year he proposed parachuting table computers from helicopters and he has begun a pilot project in two Ethiopian villages to test whether tablets alone, loaded with the right software, can teach children to read.

“There are about 100 million kids without schools, without access to literate adults, and I would like to explore a way to get tablets to them in a manner that does not need “educators” to go to the village,” he said via email.

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