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The downfall of educational laptops in rural Papua New Guinea

PNG kids & notebooksWAYAN VOTA | ICT Works | Edited

BERKELEY, USA - Back in the day, ‘One Laptop Per Child’ (OLPC) promised a digital revolution in education.

By handing out $100 laptops to children, and for the most part sidelining teachers, the organisers believed children would undertake learning on their own.

OLPC had massive media coverage, and for a while, it looked like it actually would revolutionize education.

I happened to be a major critic of the program, citing the need for teachers and school administrations to be involved with any educational effort that hoped to grow past pilot-itis.

In time, those of us who pointed out its failures were proved right. OLPC was a failure outside of a few special cases.

That doesn’t mean we should stop learning from OLPC’s mistakes. The most recent entry in our continued education comes from Geoffrey Saxe and Kenton de Kirby, at the University of California, Berkeley in their paper ‘Analysing the Evolution of a Digital Technology Intervention’.

It focuses on an OLPC deployment in Papua New Guinea.

The three Oksapmin schools in the OLPC pilot program are managed by the Baptist Union, the national organisation representing the Baptist denomination in PNG. The schools are a half-day hike from each other in a remote, mountainous area with no roads that connect to other parts of the country.

The OLPC laptops, solar panels and other material resources arrived in the Oksapmin area in late 2010 and were distributed to the schools several months later.

The researchers arrived in the Oksapmin area four years later, in the summer of 2014, and their initial observations showed the limited impact of XO laptops at each school.

The researchers identified five sequential threats to the development of One Laptop Per Child that occurred during the 2010-2014 period. They defined ‘threat’ as a set of circumstances that an individual interprets as a risk to the continued use of OLPC technology in teaching and learning.

Threat 1: Computers Alien to Most in the Community

For most Oksapmin people, computers were alien prior to the OLPC program. The uninitiated user, whether a teacher or a student, faced a steep learning curve to use an XO to serve elementary functions, and had many, many questions:

Fundamental ontological questions: what is this? is it a toy? a magical machine, a divine creation (or an evil one)?

Hardware questions: how to open the computer (which is not straightforward), turn on the computer, or power the computer with solar panels and connecting wires.

Software questions: understanding the idea of an application (or as these are named in Sugar, “activities”), the functionality of any one of the many activities, and how to navigate across activities.

Pedagogy questions: what activities to privilege in relation to a curriculum, and how to use the software in productive ways, whether in whole class instruction or individual activities or in small group work.

Support Questions: with so little technical knowledge in the community, whom can one turn to for support when something goes awry?

Efforts to manage the threat occurred both outside and inside the Oksapmin world. Sometimes management efforts were planned and organised; other times they emerged on the spot in efforts to accommodate local challenges.

School staff organised a one-week training session that covered a range of topics related to the operating of XOs and basic teacher training. Technicians installed servers and solar panels.

Crucially, one school headmaster had an enthusiasm and deep interest in computational technologies and one community volunteer had a strong background in computational technologies and education.

Had both not been in Oksapmin at the time of the deployment, the program would likely have met a different fate.

Threat 2: Religious Zeal that Targeted Laptops

Several months after the XOs arrived in 2010 and were distributed to the three schools, the XO laptops became a target of religious concerns by some, a zeal that energized church and community meetings.

In the Oksapmin area, there is a strong and widespread Christian religiosity (introduced in the 1960s) that exists alongside and is fused with indigenous cosmology. This led to local conversations in which people expressed fears of the laptops – fears linked to talk by pastors and others who broadcast concerns.

As a result, some parents were choosing not to send their children to school, a decision that, if spread rapidly, could have jeopardized the continuation of the program

Here the headmaster played a pivotal role.  He engaged in a campaign to quell the concerns, speaking with pastors, parents, and students. His successful focal argument was:

Computers were important for children’s futures;

Computers were used in the world outside of Oksapmin

Computers would help Oksapmin children to succeed.

Threat 3: OLPC’s empowerment vision in a cash poor community

In 2011, a representative from the PNG government made a one-hour stop on a chartered small plane in Oksapmin to celebrate the distribution of XOs to the schools.

During his visit, he made a recommendation that the laptops be owned by children, to be taken home so that they would always be available to them. This was a core tenet of the global OLPC program – the laptop should be owned outright by the students.

This created a problem in the Oksapmin world, where sharing is traditionally a central value to the community, so if children, least powerful members of the community ‘owned’ the laptop, it might well become the property of extended families and sold for cash. The three school headmasters reacted in different ways to this threat.

School Ownership: Tomianap’s headmaster disregarded the representative’s advice and retained the laptops at the school, though he did allow children to write their names on a computer and enter their name in the Sugar software, indicating that the laptop belonged to them.

Student Ownership: The headmasters of Mitiganap and Tekin allowed students to take a laptop home, and over time, fewer and fewer computers returned with students. Some computers were used as currency in trade with outsiders. Adults and older peers appropriated others.

 Solar panels also disappeared into the community. As a result Tekin and Mitiganap had insufficient hardware to support major use of laptops in classrooms.

Threat 4: Reassignment of Headmasters

The OLPC program seemed to be on a successful trajectory at Tomianap, as that school had the most knowledgeable and motivated headmaster. Then, at the end of 2012, the headmaster at Tekin resigned, and Tomianap’s headmaster was transferred to Tekin, resulting in:

The headmaster most knowledgeable in the OLPC technology was transferred to a school with few laptops and solar panels.

A new Tomianap headmaster who had comparatively little knowledge and motivation to actively support the OLPC program.

The sad epilogue was that by the researcher’s visit in 2014, most of the laptops in Tomianap were left in storage at the school, unused, while the laptop-boosting headmaster was left to emphasise the educational value of the XOs by dedicating a room to displaying artwork that students had created using XO software in prior years.

Threat 5: The Nationalisation of Development Funds

The funding of the One Laptop Per Child program in Oksapmin came from the PNG Sustainable Development Program, which in late 2013 cut off funding due to a change in its organisation.

The termination of outside support meant that there was no possibility for replenishment of computers, servers, and other aspects of the infrastructural supports, including software upgrades and additional teacher training. There were local efforts to sustain the laptop project, however, these efforts were limited in their impact on the continued access to OLPC technology.

The project was functionally dormant by the time the researchers arrived in Oksapmin in 2014.


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Sujoy Chanda

Nice post author. Thank you for sharing.

Daniel Doyle

A sad, but unsurprising story. School solar power systems supplied by the Japanese government, also usually disappeared into villages within a year or so or were not maintained properly.

The story makes me wonder about the impact and sustainability of the the Kindle initiative on Bougainville.

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