Effective Computers for Schools

Sam Varghese has written an article that is very skeptical of the educational value of the OLPC project [1].

Are Laptops Any Good for Schools?

Sam cites an article in the New York Times by Winnie Hu about schools removing laptop programs due to a lack of success [2]. Winnie’s article gives an example of a school shutting a program because of getting new teachers who lacked computer skills and some examples of schools which had issues with the repair cost. The solution to that would be computers that are more robust and easier to use – by all accounts the OLPC systems are solidly constructed and easy to use!

It is claimed that using laptops doesn’t increase test scores. Using only test scores to compare educational methods is a way to lose, probably any school which does nothing other than try to increase test scores is worth avoiding. One example from Winnie’s article is a report by Mr. Warschauer of “students at a middle school in Yarmouth, Me., who used their laptops to create a Spanish book for poor children in Guatemala and debate Supreme Court cases found online“. What value can you place on having students develop books for poor children in other countries and debate Supreme Court cases? If this sort of program became popular then it would lead to the countries which do it becoming better places to live in future decades!

Mr. Warschauer also claims that “If the goal is to get kids up to basic standard levels, then maybe laptops are not the tool. But if the goal is to create the George Lucas and Steve Jobs of the future, then laptops are extremely useful“. I would go further than that, I think that providing the educational environment that involves international charity work and analysis of important court cases would lead to students having the skills to become good engineers, designers, and artists who work for people like George Lucas and Steve Jobs. No matter what you might do the vast majority of children will not grow up to be like George Lucas and Steve Jobs, there is a very limited number of positions for such people. But those people employ a huge number of creative people who do interesting and enjoyable work for good pay.

I don’t think that Winnie’s article supports criticism of the OLPC project. I don’t think that Winnie’s article even contains sufficient evidence to match the headline.

Playing Games

Sam also cites an article about the misuse of school computers for playing games [3]. Of course there are ways of limiting access to games based on time etc. For a Linux system you could have a root cron job that runs chmod on /usr/games at various times, and preventing users from easily running programs that they install isn’t difficult.

Not that games are all bad, the flash-based games on do teach kids some things about physics – although I admit that much of that could be learned by playing with balls, skate-boards, etc.

The Problem with the OLPC Project

I think that the policy change to make OLPC systems only available to disadvantaged children was a mistake. The “give one get one” program was a great idea, maybe not the most effective way of getting funding but good for getting developers. While the new Sugar on a Stick project to put the OLPC GUI on a bootable USB device [4] it doesn’t compare well to having dedicated hardware IMHO.

Minimal Use of Computers

I have previously written about the weight of school bags and how laptops can alleviate the risk of health problems related to carrying heavy text books [5]. Since that time ebook readers and tablets have become incredibly cheap. Ebook readers are really light and the recent tablets are also very light (particularly the smaller ones). It seems to me that every school should at least be moving towards every student having an ebook reader and to use ebooks for all books that are part of the curriculum.

At the moment there are a bunch of tablets on sale for about $150, that includes tablets that can access the Internet via Wifi or via 3G – and a cheap 3G plan costs less than $150 per annum. If tablets were used for some of the computer tasks related to schools then a lot of the difficulty of repairing hardware would be removed. Tablets don’t offer as many options for messing up the software configuration and if the hardware breaks it’s easy to transfer the data onto a new tablet from the cloud – with a maximum cost of $150 to replace the hardware.

Also a cloud-based computing model could permit students to access all the same data from school and home while using desktop computers at both locations.

Current Success

Natalie Craig wrote an interesting article for The Age about “The Lab” – a drop-in computer center for kids on the Autism Spectrum run by Dale Linegar and Stefan Schutt [6]. The fact that kids who have communication difficulties can find it easier to communicate electronically should be fairly obvious to everyone in the free software community, but the creation of an organisation to support such kids is noteworthy – I think that such centers should be funded by the government and run in every city.

Salman Khan gave an interesting TED talk about his project the Khan Academy [7] which is an online video-based teaching system that evolved from some Youtube videos he produced to tutor his cousins. Salman pointed out that his cousins said that they would rather watch his videos than have him teach them in person, it seems that they liked being able to pause and rewind the talk as well as avoiding the pressure of human interaction. The Khan Academy has videos in Adobe flash format, but conveniently they have download links so those of us who don’t have the Flash plugin can still view the content [8].

One of the interesting things about the Khan Academy is that in school use the videos are being assigned to kids as homework and the class time is used for teaching children to do worked examples – what has traditionally been homework.

So it seems that there are real examples of special-needs kids and average kids benefiting from different types of electronic learning.


I think that almost everything about the education system is broken. I also think that in many ways the education system has reached a local maximum, so there is no small way of improving things, and adding computers without making any of the significant changes needed to fix the big problems probably can’t do a lot of good. In spite of this computers can provide some real benefits and I expect that those benefits can be better than the benefits of other potential ways of spending the money (IE it’s worth the opportunity cost). I also have no doubt that almost anything can give a negative result if done badly enough, so I don’t interpret examples of computer use failing in a school as anything other than evidence of a failing school.

While the Khan Academy has some results that seem very positive I think that’s only the first step of what needs to be done. It also seems to be based around users who have good Internet access which often isn’t the case in places where the OLPC is being deployed. This implies that we need to get systems like the Khan Academy designed to operate in a disconnected manner, maybe with a remote server that’s not connected to the Internet. This should be possible if funding is available.

Sam suggested that there needs to be a scientific study of the effectiveness of the OLPC. I think that every project which involves significant amounts of public funding should be researched to ensure that it’s an effective use of resources. 400,000 laptops is going to cost something more than $40,000,000 so it seems reasonable to devote a few person-years of research to determine how effective they are and which of the possible ways of using an OLPC will give the best results.

I am confident that a good study of the effectiveness of the OLPC would demonstrate that it provides real educational benefits when correctly incorporated into an educational program. I also expect that such a study would show some significant differences in the effectiveness of various ways of using them. But we shouldn’t be relying on confidence, we need some test results.

2 comments to Effective Computers for Schools

  • Since you’ve taken my article as the starting point, I guess a response is mandatory. You need to forget about me and read some of what Ivan Krstic has to say. You’ll find one very interesting post here:

    He was the heart and soul of OLPC and then quit in disgust. So did Walter Bender.

    Show me one study which provides data to show that children can learn from laptops and I will hold my peace forever about OLPC.

    I’ve taught children using both formal and non-formal methods and worked with villagers in India. This project is attractive to geeks and nerds because of the cute technology. I like the technology too. But it has nothing to do with the three Rs which kids need – reading, writing and arithmetic – to survive in this world.

  • @sam, much has happened since Ivan and Walter left OLPC MANY years ago. First, Walter created Sugar Labs and things have gotten better since. OLPC has the XS, the schhol server, where content like e-books can be stored. You can ask questions on #olpc, and #olpc-help on freenode or email one of the lists (like support-gang) for any other inquiries. OLPC projects requires good teachers, good tech support and good volunteer people, like any project. The laptop is not magic.