• Nina Hansen researched one laptop per child project

    What does a laptop achieve really?

    In Paraguay a truck would drive into a village. Aid workers would hand out special laptops from One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to all the children present. The aid workers would then drive off because their job was done, wasn’t it?

    One laptop per child

    One Laptop Per Child is a non-profit organization that developed a laptop meant to cost no more than EUR 100 and be extremely strong. The idea was to distribute these cheap laptops amongst children in developing countries, to give them access to modern education. Since the start in 2006 over 2.6 million laptops have been distributed to children all over the world. They never managed to reach the EUR 100 goal, though. The laptops cost about USD 200.

    Too often OLPC laptops are distributed in this way. The idea behind the project – to give children access to education – is great, but even though millions of laptops have been handed out, for a long time nobody has really addressed the question of the psychological and social effects of all that charity. That is nobody except for Nina Hansen.

    The University of Groningen psychologist, who is specializing in cultural change, had just spent a couple of weeks on holiday in Ethiopia when she heard that Ethiopia, together with the German government, was taking part in the OLPC project. So she went to see the people in charge and asked whether they would be interested in a social scientist monitoring the results of their actions. Did the laptops really help educate people and what about other, possibly unexpected, after effects? What happens to a community when it is suddenly invaded by the modern world in this way?

    ‘They welcomed me’, says Hansen. ‘The Ethiopian government really wanted to do it right. They didn’t distribute the laptops randomly, but selected schools to take part in the project. They also trained teachers, so that everybody could benefit as much as possible.’

    Intriguing result

    Hansen contacted the four schools taking part in the project, two in the capital Addis Ababa and two in the countryside. She also included some schools who didn’t receive laptops in her sample and a school where a number of children got to work with a laptop and others didn’t.

    She collected data for two years. The project has now finished, the data has been analyzed and she has started to publish the results. They are quite intriguing. For example, Hansen found that the laptops were hardly used in the classroom, with less than three percent of the children working on the laptop with their teacher. Was that disturbing? ‘Well, I was surprised at first and even the Ethiopian minister for capacity building was shocked. However, there was no reason to panic. Those children did use the laptops, but the education system in these schools was very teacher-focused. The teacher spoke and the children made notes or repeated his words. You don’t change that system easily.’

    However, during school breaks over 56 percent of the children used the laptops to read schoolbooks or an offline version of Wikipedia, or to use programs that allowed them to draw or compose music. ‘Also interesting is the fact that they didn’t use them alone. More often than not they used them with their friends.’

    They taught themselves

    That’s nice – but did their grades improve as expected? Again, Hansen’s results were a bit disappointing at first, because the laptops didn’t have any significant effect at all. Anyway, as mentioned above, teachers hardly used the laptops for teaching purposes. ‘However, there were indeed changes, not in the children’s grades, but in their way of thinking. Their abstract reasoning abilities improved.’

    Hansen was able to measure this with non-verbal intelligence tests. The traditional way of learning in Ethiopia is based on collectively repeating what the teacher says. Now the children were not only able to access learning materials by themselves, but they also had to find out how to do this alone. ‘They received a very short introduction on how to use the basic programs on the laptop. More importantly, though, they taught themselves, or each other, how to use more advanced programs. When the laptop had a problem, they had to solve it by themselves too.’  There was no helpdesk.

    There’s more to education

    That’s what made such a huge difference, Hansen found. The children learned independently what interested them and developed a sense of agency and independency – as was proved by their increased reasoning skills, their stronger concept of independence, and their stronger sense of gender equality and cultural values. The computers stimulated the development of an agentic self, an important step in being able to engage in actions that matter, which was a result nobody had expected from the OLPC project.

    The ‘laptop’ children started endorsing more modern, independent values, such as being successful, but also caring for others. Yet they still retained traditional values, such as following their religion and listening to their parents. They believed they could not only make a difference to themselves, but also to their village.

    It’s all very exciting, Hansen believes, and very important. However, Hansen is also quite critical, because even though the OLPC results are potentially very hopeful, too often the full effect was not achieved. Even the Ethiopian government who tried to plan the project so carefully forgot that there’s more to education than a laptop.

    Spare parts

    ‘For example, some laptops broke down’, Hansen said. ‘There were no spare parts available and no one was able to repair them.’

    One school had a deal with a local company that gave them free electricity. The company changed its mind, though, after a while, so the whole laptop project came to a halt. With no electricity to charge the laptops, they couldn’t be used. The children kept on taking them to school, though, she noted, as a status symbol.

    On the positive side, there was also a school with a very enthusiastic and devoted teacher. He set up a small school server to update the programs and a group of students who collected the parts of broken laptops to repair others. That was a great example of how it can work.

    Still, when there’s no aftercare, the laptops never reach their full potential and that’s really sad, Hansen says. OLPC has become an industry that pushes out laptops by the thousands, but more aftercare would ensure that they really achieve something.

    So what happens now? Well, nothing. Hansen would have loved to continue monitoring the effects of the OLPC project in Ethiopia, but she can’t. ‘The German-Ethiopian intergovernmental cooperation in the project has stopped’, she explains. ‘So there’s no need for my services anymore.’