SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Five years ago, Peru became partners with the global one laptop per child initiative, which wants to improve education among impoverished children by giving them computers. The government purchased more than 800,000 low-cost laptops to distribute to school children. The cost was $200 million. But now, Annie Murphy reports there are a lot of questions about how successful Peru's efforts have been, especially in rural areas.
ANNIE MURPHY, BYLINE: Getting to the village of Lacachi means first taking a country bus two hours from the nearest town away from the shores of Lake Titicaca, then hiking a few miles through cold, windy hills. Lacachi is a cluster of mud brick homes, pens filled with cows and pigs, dusty footpaths and a small elementary school painted pistachio green.
The school has about two dozen kids. They wear sweatpants or long skirts to class and sandals made of recycled tires. Each morning they line up outside in front of the mountains to sing the national anthem.
GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)
MURPHY: In many ways, Lacachi feels lost in time. Electricity arrived just a few years ago, and it goes out a lot. About half of the houses still don't have power. Potable water is supposed to arrive next year. There's no cell signal. But because of Peru's efforts to bring technology to schools, including rural ones, all the kids here have laptops - sort of. Their teacher, Eleazar Pacho, hands out the computers.
ELEAZAR PACHO: (Foreign language spoken)
MURPHY: He walks around asking kids to connect the machines, wiping dirt off their keyboards. But many are broken or need software updates. Several laptops have disappeared. So Pacho often puts the kids in groups on the computers that are still working. Because they can't go online, they use a program to draw shapes.
PACHO: (Foreign language spoken)
MURPHY: Pacho's young, 28, and he makes a big effort to stay up to date with technology. He's familiar with the laptops, but he says many Peruvian teachers aren't.
PACHO: (Through Translator) The laptops have become, above all, as much of a challenge for the teachers as the students. A lot of teachers aren't able to use them.
MURPHY: And even if a teacher is comfortable with computers, that doesn't fix a lot of issues, like the problem this student ran into about 10 minutes into class.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Through Translator) The screen has a line down the middle, and on one side it's just black. On the other side it's fine, but on one side you can't see anything.
MURPHY: Jeff Patzer is a software engineer in San Francisco. A few years ago, he was hired to repair laptops in remote parts of Peru. The biggest challenge, he says, was the lack of Internet. Because you couldn't go online, everything had to be done in person. Patzer spent most of his time busing and hiking from village to village, often just to reinstall software with a USB drive.
JEFF PATZER: Imagine that you've got, you know, hundreds of these little villages that take two or three days to travel to. I mean, the logistical nightmare of the whole thing is just like, this is bonkers.
MURPHY: But Oscar Becerra, who used to run the laptop program at the Education Ministry, says it's still an improvement.
OSCAR BECERRA: If you bring a computer to a kid that's living in the 15th century, you're bringing him to the mid-20th century.
MURPHY: Just by having it.
BECERRA: Yes. With no connectivity. Is it bad? It's wonderful.
MURPHY: About a year ago, Sandro Marcone took over the program. He admits there's been some success: A study done by the Inter-American Development Bank found Peruvian kids with laptops were six months ahead of their peers in reasoning and verbal ability. But that study also failed to find any improvement in key areas like math and language, classroom instruction and reading habits. Marcone says that's because, until recently, the program didn't actively involve local communities.
SANDRO MARCONE: (Through Translator) The computers are there, and they should get used. I wouldn't have done things the way the last government did. We need to be more sensitive to the realities of each region, empower local government in those places so that in the future this project is really theirs.
MURPHY: Marcone's job now is to come up with a plan to make that happen. He says the government will finish handing out the laptops and that it's also working on better training for teachers and on getting Internet to more rural schools.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Foreign language spoken)
PACHO: (Foreign language spoken)
MURPHY: Until then, Eleazar Pacho and other rural teachers are doing the best they can. In Lacachi, that means bringing students to the city once or twice a year, to use the Internet for an hour. Some of the kids in Pacho's class are already planning what they'll do with that hour. Like Roger Aykachicondori. He wants to use Google Earth.
ROGER AYKACHICONDORI: (Foreign language spoken)
MURPHY: He says, I'd like to find out what the planet Earth is like, to see what it looks like. They say that on the Internet, you can see the whole planet. So for now, even with a laptop, for many kids like Roger, the Internet, the main reason most of us have computers remains out of reach, more like a distant planet itself than a tool.
For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy in Peru.
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