Wednesday, 18 April 2012 11:11

No evidence, but OLPC continues 'education' spin


Last week, a number of technology publications reported on a study about the deployment of OLPC laptops in Peru, the largest such rollout in the history of the project.

The study, done by five qualified people and carried out over 15 months and taking in 315 schools, came to the conclusion — justified by the data it had collected — that the OLPC project had no benefit to education at all.

But just days after these reports were published, the chief executive of OLPC Australia, Rangan Srikhanta, was quoted by Techworld as saying that the organisation was pioneering a new initiative to build an educational ecosystem around the laptops.

However, it turns out that this program, called One Education, would certify a child as being qualified to use one of OLPC's XO laptops and offer support for the device. Two certifications would be offered, one for children who could do both, and one for children who could only offer support, fault diagnosis and repair.

There was no mention of children improving in their reading or mathematics skills – which the Peru study had clearly pointed out as not benefitting one whit from the OLPC program.

The principal of Doomadgee State School in Queensland, Richard Barrie, was quoted in the same article as claiming that the OLPC laptop deployment had helped improve the school's NAPLAN results.

Intrigued by this, I asked Srikhanta over the phone whether he had some empirical evidence to offer that would prove that the project does benefit education.

It turns out that he has no data at all to make any claims about the OLPC and education.

Barrie, in response to an email, said that my question about empirical evidence would have to wait until 2013 when a study currently underway by the University of the Sunshine Coast was completed.

I also sent the author of the article which quoted Srikhanta and Barrie, Techworld Australia editor Rohan Pearce, a query, asking whether he had read the Peru study as several claims in his piece appeared to contradict scientific conclusions from the study.

Pearce has not responded to my queries.

OLPC Australia has been in existence since 2006. Srikhanta said the organisation had changed its focus and was concentrating on working with schools only after the teachers had been trained in using the OLPC laptops. He said a class-by-class approach had been adopted for deployment.

He said an internal report from the Northern Territory showed that there was some positive impact on education. But he said he could not publicly release the report.

OLPC Australia was now beginning a study to gather facts and figures about the efficacy or otherwise of the OLPC project, Srikhanta said. A researcher from the University of Wollongong, Sarah Howard, and another person from Swinburne University, Ellie Rennie, would be involved, the latter concentrating on what he called the community aspect of the project.

OLPC Australia began deploying the laptops in 2009; when iTWire spoke to Srikhanta that year, he said that the Australian Council for Educational Research was carrying out a study to gauge the efficacy of the project.

It turns out that the ACER report is merely a review of the available literature rating the project. This report is now in its fourth revision and that was produced in 2010.

Even while reviewing others' documentation, ACER cannot avoid the fact there is never much formal documentation from any deployment: "most feedback from the OLPC programs has been anecdotal in nature."

The ACER report also cites instances from other countries — the US (Southern California), Colombia and India — where similar projects have been put in place. The Colombian study came to a similar conclusion as the Peru study has – there was no benefit in learning, only an increase in computer use.

The Indian study found that it made no difference when it came to maths.

The US study, while speaking of "important changes" did not quantify these. It did, however, admit that there was no effect on standardised test score results.

While speaking to Srikhanta I had to repeatedly bring the conversation back to the point – was there empirical evidence to support his contention that the OLPC project was assisting education?

After a while, Srikhanta accused iTWire of biased reporting. He argued that any report on the use of laptops in education should look at the use of laptops sold by commercial companies as well; else, it had no validity, he said.

When I told him that my inquiries were occasioned by the fact that he had made claims that ran counter to a very well-documented scientific study, he said that it was the wrong line of inquiry; rather iTWire, in his opinion, should be doing a story about technology in education.

I told him that he was under no compulsion to answer my queries; after a while, he said he did not wish to speak to iTWire any more.

Barrie did not directly respond to my queries whether he had set up a formal control group to measure the improvement he had claimed or whether there were any statistics to back up his conclusion.

He provided a detailed account of how the laptops had been deployed in his school, emphasising that it had taken place only after understanding the pedagogy of the XO laptop.

While Barrie claimed that within six months of the first XO deployment "we started to see more regular attendance and improved reading scores," he was quick to add: "To be fair, this was attributable to a range of factors: the school's nutrition program, the interventions from our partner university, the growing maturity of our teaching staff, support for the teacher aides and the school's development of a RATEP program to ensure sustainability of all of these changes in the community."

Given all these factors, how one could judge the deployment of the XO and improvement in NAPLAN scores as being in any way related without a control group being set up is rather mystifying.

Barrie added that teachers and teacher aides had taken part in Vacation Institutes at the University of the Sunshine Coast, with a focus in literacy, numeracy and the XO laptop. "This program is ongoing and is supported by University staff who visit our school and community on a regular basis to support ICT integration in literacy and numeracy," he said.

"In 2012, the University commenced a small pilot study to understand what is happening at Doomadgee, with the question 'what works'  at the top of their list. This tertiary partnership was extended to further schools in April 2012. But your question about empirical evidence will have wait until 2013 when the University study is completed."

It looks like his claims are a bit premature as well.

OLPC Australia has six staff, all of whom are paid by the project; this is no charity, this is a non-profit. In the US, those who lead the two organisations that look after OLPC are well paid. In Australia, since there is no requirement that non-profits file anything with the government, one cannot pinpoint how much the head of OLPC Australia is paid.

The laptops consume funds from governments and donors, among them the Commonwealth Bank, funds that could well be used to support traditional methods of education that have proved to be useful over decades, if not centuries.

People seem to be oblivious to the fact that the children who are guinea pigs in the OLPC program, especially those from poorer areas, are the most vulnerable individuals in society.

OLPC Australia appears unwilling to stop and consider that it could well be eating up valuable years of a child's most important developmental years with experiments in constructionist learning that have no scientific basis at all.

We lament aplenty when reports of children being taken advantage of appear in the media. With OLPC, we don't make the connection. Or maybe we just couldn't care.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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