Peru's Ministry of Education is buying hundreds of thousands of inexpensive laptop computers, hoping to bridge the huge achievement gap that consigns rural children to lives of poverty.
The people behind One Laptop Per Child – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-based nonprofit that supplies these laptops for almost $200 each – says the basic machines are more than just electronic pencils. The laptops can bring new information and skills to isolated areas. Oscar Becerra, the ministry's technology director, says the machines represent a revolutionary step in children's active learning. "When a child is involved in the construction of a meaningful artifact, when there is an effective relationship between what he's constructing, learning occurs," he says. "That's the key of education."
Lofty ideas helped hatch this international effort to put computing technology in the hands of young schoolchildren around the world. But at least in Peru, which began its laptop program last year, OLPC has some tall mountains to climb before it changes the nature of rural life.
You have to walk slowly as you approach the school in Vicho, a community in southern Peru. At 11,000 feet up in the Andes, the air is thin. The rich agricultural landscape is so beautiful, you almost forget how poor this place is.
Francisca Pacheco is principal of the school, which offers pre-kindergarten through grade 4. She also teaches first and second grade. Just to split her into a few more pieces, Pacheco teaches in two languages: Spanish and the local Indian language of Quechua. She shifts effortlessly between the two.
Add to this mix some newcomers to the class: a passel of laptops, one per child, from the international program.
"Elizabeth, su maquina!" Pacheco shouts as she hands out the machines. The moment these little maquinas emerge, kids gather round them like a warm fire on a cold night.
Priority for those who have no electricity at home! Pacheco calls out. The laptops operate on batteries that need to be recharged periodically. Most kids in Vicho have no power at home, so there's a rush for the few electrical outlets in the simple school building. Like most other Peruvian villages, Vicho has no Internet access nor printers. Computer use with these simple machines is mostly word processing. But the Vicho kids are inventive, and they get the laptops to do what they need. The laptops can take photos. And, during NPR's visit to the school, a college student from Lima installed a new math program, so kids could do arithmetic problems.
People here say that providing laptops is the first meaningful thing the government in Lima has done for them. Sitting in her small office during a break, Pacheco says, "It's been wonderful for the kids to be able to get a laptop. It's a gift."
Pacheco's grin never flags as she scurries between the first- and second-grade sides of her classroom. She is jazzed about the computers, but she's not about to let some project from Lima mess with her lesson plans. "The ministry would like us to use the laptop every day for long periods of time," she says. "But we have decided to set rules in our school. And really, the laptop is only a tool for us." Teachers let students use the computers three days a week.
Nicholas Negroponte, the computer science professor who started the One Laptop Per Child Foundation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says it's "an education project, it's not a laptop project."
Launched in 2005, the nonprofit OLPC aims to equip poor schoolchildren in developing countries with durable, inexpensive, networked laptops. The initial model – known as the XO – costs nearly $200. Eventually, Negroponte hopes the laptops can be produced for less than $100.
The computers are sold primarily to governments, which distribute the machines to youngsters ages 6 through 12. Peru's government contracted to buy 260,000, the Boston Globe reported last December. Because sales to developing countries were slower than expected, the foundation also asked affluent Americans and charities to buy and donate some machines, the Globe noted. Host countries bear primary responsibility for training personnel and maintaining the laptops.
OLPC faces many skeptics.
Some question whether children in desperately poor environments need laptops when they lack health care or, in some cases, electricity. Some doubt that teachers in developing countries will receive proper training to make the laptops effective learning tools. And others wonder whether the project's reliance on open-source software is too limiting. Such software, written in reader-friendly code, allows users to modify and update it easily. It negates the need for expensive, proprietary software.
Despite criticism, OLPC is pushing ahead. It has received orders for millions of laptops — in countries from Peru to Mongolia — in the past three years.
At other schools, the laptops are conspicuously absent. While the government has distributed laptops to the poorest schools in the most isolated areas, the criteria for selection are unclear.
The school in Vilcabamba – down the road and across a rickety bridge over the Vilcanota River – is just as poor as its neighbor in Vicho, and it also serves a largely Quechua-speaking population. But, teacher Sandra Casafranca says, her students have no laptops. "No one told us why we didn't receive laptops," she says.
Casafranca says her students feel forgotten by their government.
While OLPC in Peru aims to make isolated villages more viable, Eduardo Villanueva, a communications professor at Peru's Catholic University in Lima, says the program will only exacerbate the brain drain from rural areas.
"Kids are going to get skills that are going to be useful not in their communities but outside, in cities, and they are going to migrate," Villanueva says. "And they're going to leave those with lesser skills in those communities, and those communities will become poorer and poorer."
A Link To Opportunity
In the town of Arahuay, there's not much to do on a Friday night. At a general store, people wait to use the phone and watch one of the town's few functioning TVs. There seems to be an endless supply of "American Idol" knockoffs.
But down the street, in the home of Gladys Enciso, evening is laptop time. Enciso cooks up some "choclo" — local corn with the biggest kernels you've ever seen. At the kitchen table, her 12-year-old daughter, Gisela, shows off a car she has drawn with her little laptop's paint program.
Meanwhile, 3-year-old Rolando begs constantly for a turn at the computer. He grasps for the machine like a dying man begging for water. His sister pushes him away. She's responsible for the machine, and she doesn't want him to break it.
Despite the discord, Gladys Enciso is delighted her kids have the chance to use a computer. Like people around the world, she wants her kids to get ahead. Enciso and her husband work their own land not far from here. It's 9 at night, and he still hasn't returned from the fields. "No, I wouldn't want my son to work the fields," she says.
With a government-provided laptop, her children "can finish their school, they can finish their education here and they can go to Lima to continue," Enciso says.
For this family, educational advances meant to strengthen this small town could provide new reasons to head for the city. Whatever the intentions of government and educators, the impact these computers have will be up to the kids who use them.
Marisa Penaloza produced this story for broadcast.