First in a two-part series
In Peru, there are 10,000 one- and two-room schools — and thousands of children who live in homes without running water or electricity. But now, many of those same kids are the proud owners of their own little piece of modern technology: a laptop computer.
The laptops are part of a huge educational experiment. Peru is purchasing hundreds of thousands of low-cost computers developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and leading technology experts as part of the One Laptop Per Child project.
Laptops In Arahuay
The introduction of the OLPC program is meant to flip a switch and link poor, rural villages to the modern era.
Take a small school in Arahuay, a tiny village perched on the edge of the Andes Mountains, 8,000 feet above sea level. A lot about Arahuay makes it feel impossibly isolated: poor roads, steep landscape, limited running water and electricity.
Students at the school received their laptops in the spring of 2007.
Some students live far away from the school — which teaches grades 1 through 12 — and so they must walk for miles. Many swing their laptops as they make the daily trek.
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.
And when they arrive at school and begin to work, the students use their laptops for everything.
For example, when teacher Judith Inocente asks her class of 11-year-olds to write a story about their hometown, they run outside to take pictures with the laptops' built-in cameras.
The laptops have transformed these students, according to Patricia Pena, the school's director.
"They didn't used to participate in the classroom. Students were very, very shy," Pena says. "But the laptops have made them more open, more engaged in what they are doing. They socialize more. They learn from each other. They share."
'Peru Moves Ahead'
Peru's Ministry of Education is placing a big bet on these gadgets. Public service announcements herald the laptop program as proof that education is priority No. 1. In a silky baritone, an announcer promises: "¡El Peru avanza!" ("Peru moves ahead!")
The country has bought and distributed more than 40,000 laptops so far, focusing on the poorest, most isolated villages, like Arahuay.
By the end of 2009, nearly 300,000 will be sprinkled among the thousands of schools throughout Peru. But many people who've worked on education for years say the government is looking for a quick fix to deep-seated problems.
Patricia Arregui, a sociologist in Lima, says the government is skipping over some basic steps.
"Have children [who] are well nourished, [who] don't get to school without a breakfast. Provide roads that make it easier for kids to get to high schools, insurance so they don't get sick at schools that don't have any clean water nor electricity," she says.
Arregui has done consulting work on educational policy for decades. Like many advocates of education reform here, she says the OLPC program is an expensive gamble with untested technology.
Arregui says that every new administration likes to kick off with a glitzy new project that makes people feel good.
"They wanted something that they could wave as a banner, a slogan, a motto," she says.
But Oscar Becerra of Peru's Education Ministry says such criticism of the program's cost is misguided. A $200 laptop, fully loaded with books and even Wikipedia, is a deal, he says.
"It's the cheapest thing we can do with such a powerful effect," Becerra says. "Two hundred books would be more expensive! We are giving them 200 books and 100 other things for the same price."
In the classroom, there is no debate about the laptops. Teachers love them. The students love them.
When asked about his favorite thing about the laptops, one Arahuay student answers without hesitation.
"Internet!" he says.
But many other schools have no Internet access. In some places, students must wait for teachers to process their Web requests: Students tell teachers what Web sites they're looking for, and teachers call up the sites when they use Internet-equipped computers in town. They save the results on portable storage devices.
Arahuay is the poster child for the OLPC program and has received a lot of resources and training.
Yet even here, many of the machines' capabilities are not used. Kids do not hand in their papers electronically — teachers read their work off the screen and then record their grades in a paper notebook. In many other ways, even experienced teachers are still struggling to make the laptops part of the curriculum.
Losing The Magic
Ana Maria Quispe has total command of her class of first- and second-graders in Arahuay. She leads a reading lesson that includes a story about a little girl named Christina who bought some strawberries and was disappointed when her brother, Grimaldo, ate them.
As she speaks, Quispe highlights the "gr" sound in "Grimaldo" and other words. Her students all respond with a chorus of rolled r's.
Quispe tries to reinforce what they've learned by asking them to turn to their laptops.
As soon as they do, the magic spell that Quispe had cast is broken. The group seems to break down into 19 individuals. Some struggle to find an extension cord; others play games while they wait for class to resume.
In the next room, students in Soledad Milagros' third- and fourth-grade class are working on math problems.
The laptops have no dedicated math programs, so students must rely on word-processing software. It's not easy, and the columns of numbers inevitably get jumbled.
Milagros, a new teacher with only a day of training on the laptops, jumps from student to student trying to fix the columns.
One child sits forlorn in the corner without a laptop.
Milagros explains that his is broken.
If the laptop breaks down, a technician is called. But if it can't be fixed, the family foots the bill.
"Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the parent," Milagros says.
Marisa Penaloza produced this story for broadcast.