One-per-child laptops flop in Peru

Five years ago Peru partnered with One Laptop Per Child to give low-cost laptops to 800,000 public school students, writes Innosight’s Michael Horn. Digital technology was supposed to improve learning and fight poverty. The $200 million initiative “has largely been a flop.”

In an eSchool News story, one person “wonders if it may have even widened the gaps between rich and poor students in the country,” Horn notes.


Yet this was entirely predictable ahead of time.

. . . Technology by itself does not transform anything in any sector. What tends to matter far more is the model in which the technology is used.

The One Laptop Per Child initiative in particular gathered significant publicity and hype for its admirable goals, but people implementing it in many countries appeared not to have thought through the professional development teachers would need or, even more importantly, a redesign of the schooling model itself to leverage the considerable benefits that digital learning can deliver.

The U.S. spent well over $60 billion to equip classrooms with computers with little to show for it, Horn writes.  A potentially disruptive technology has been used to sustain the existing education model, not to transform it.

There is a long history of schools using technologies to, in effect, sustain the chalkboard and prop up the 20th-century factory model classroom with the teacher in front of 20 to 30 students of the same age. The recent hype over electronic white boards has been only the latest incarnation of this.

“Districts spending wildly on iPads and other devices should take note” of technology’s limits, concludes Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class


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  1. Learning the wrong lessons….It isn’t technology per se that’s the problem. It was ignoring market signals and operating on principles of central planning–utopians trying to impose their theory of what is needed most right now. If the $100 per machine had been made available for people to decide what the most helpful next step might be, what might they have chosen?

    We have a fully-equipped television studio built last year going unused where I work–no teacher available–while we are struggling to find enough paperback copies of titles in our core English classes. The money for the television studio was federal–Carl Perkins money. It can be used only in ways that people in Washington–our servants–deem is best for us.

    • Michael,

      The employees at my school need no prompting from our evil Politburo to buy scads of technology. The uber-capitalist ad machine from Silicon Valley has infected their brains with mindless tech mania.

      • I’m familiar with mindless tech mania, and it is rampant among educators, who continue to be susceptible to trend-following and buzzwords.

        However, it remains the case that tech can help us do a better job in lots of ways. I use a lot of tech in my own ways–mainly to increase efficiency and productivity. I haven’t wasted precious minutes standing at a photocopier or manual scoring a multiple choice quiz in years. I better ways to use my time.

        But I still think that to draw the lesson from the current story that tech is mostly false premise would be a serious mistake. The mistake was with the model used for planning and deciding what to do.

        I look at a lot of tech–get more familiar with things within budget–then make my own decisions about adoption and time lines depending on what I’m trying to accomplish and what else needs attention. If Microsoft showed up with a tech solution for me, it’s unlikely in the extreme that it would work. The market, however, does work.

  2. I remember reading that this initiative *was* a success in Uruguay, but it sounds like that country put a lot more preparation in place, developed a model that was appropriate for remote country schools without electricity and a special operating system that was a disincentive to theft b/c it could only be used via a school interface or some such. They rolled the program out incrementally, providing teachers with training and resources. Having worked in a remote village one year (not in Uruguay!), I can certainly understand how these tools could really assist the students who also lack books, tv, and traditional resource materials.

    Teachers on one of my online groups who were from Uruguay replied that it made a significant difference to student engagement AND achievement; most rural schools are small and multi-grade, and the laptops enabled students to work at their own level, practice needed skills etc. as well as to do research and written composition.

    As with many things, I guess the devil is in the details.

  3. Florida resident says:

    “Districts spending wildly on iPads and other devices should take note” of technology’s limits, concludes Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class.”

    I have not read “Disrupting Class”.

    One should emphasize that variation of cognitive abilities and of the work ethics is the main limiting factor. See
    “Bad Students, Not Bad Schools” by Robert Weissberg:

    With respectful greetings to Joanne Jacobs,

  4. 5 years ago the “reformers” were pushing laptops as an incredibly innovative way to transform education.

    BTW, I work in a school with incredible amounts of technology. I have an IPad, my own notebook computer and we have a one to one laptop initiative. Technology is not a magic bullet, its just another tool that can be used. Without the proper training it will go to waste.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Amen, brother.

    • And the sad part is that to use the technology properly, students have to be willing to learn how to use it beyond socializing and gaming.

    • I agree tech is not a magic bullet, but despite the evidence, Horn still seems to hold out hope that it can be. LIke many who acknowledge the abysmal failures of our forays into high-tech schools, he says, Oh, it just wasn’t ‘disruptive” enough. Why do all these guys seem to think that if only we explode and destroy the model of chalkboard + teacher + listening kids, something far superior will rise out of the rubble? Michael alludes to utopian thinking above; Marxists don’t have a monopoly on utopianism. Christianists, Islamists and capitalists are equally prone. Our faith in the miraculous nature of Silicon Valley’s gadgets defies logic.

      • One area in which I think tech could be very helpful is the provision of more-challenging material (and acceleration) for smart, motivated, bored kids who are trapped in heterogeneous classrooms. This population wouldn’t need much help to learn on their own, but schools have no apparent interest in helping this population; that’s why heterogeneous classrooms are so loved by the educrats. Of course, those classrooms don’t seem to help anyone else, either – but it “looks good” and “feels good”.

    • Actually, it’s the motivation that’s lacking – on the part of those that run/benefit from the public education system.

      Oh, and it wasn’t the “reformers” who were pushing technology. It was school boards and superintendents who were anxious to get their hands on grant money, or monetize the interest of the public in technology in the form of tax increases, without much concern about their ability to use computers for education or really much of anything beyond getting hold of the bucks.

      That’s why if you know where to look you can find warehouses stuffed with obsolete computers that were purchased by school districts but never deployed because, well, they don’t really care. The money was there as was the inclination to grab and spend it. So they did. Whether the computers ever helped a single kid learn a single thing wasn’t really that important.

      But getting rid of the computers is problematical because then they swim into public view and someone might want to know what the computers had been used for all these years. So further expense was squandered warehousing the computers until long after they were obsolete.

      As for the One Laptop per Child computer that was a disaster before the first one rolled off the assembly line.

      Not for Nick Negroponte of course who had many, many opportunities to swan around before cameras, that, on the evidence being his motivation for the project. He surfed away with nary a scratch although while the spotlight was on the project you would have thought the OLPC sprang fully-formed from his brow.

      What must be intensely frustrating for the likes of Mike and his like is that despite the squandered promise of technology in education there’s still a phenomenal degree of enthusiasm for the idea. Evidence,, and their like. But now the technology’s allowing education to escape the grasp of the political institution of public education so it’s a whole, new ball game. Sorry Mike.

      • Do you evidence of these warehouses filled with unused and obsolete computers?

        I’ve seen some of the Khan Academy videos, for elementary kids they are Ok but certainly nothing spectacular or game changing, despite your wish that it would be so easy it would replace teachers.

        • Gee, I’m sorry I didn’t take pictures when I was given the tour at a local school district by an angry school board member. But then you probably would have dismissed the photos since they wouldn’t have been peer-reviewed and published in a union mouthpiece publication. School districts are such models of efficiency and responsibility that pursuit of a grant to buy computers without much in the way of plans on how to put them to use being completely uncharacteristic of the institution.

          So, you’re frightened at what you see in videos? I can understand that since your only hope is that the public returns to the somnambulant state without which the current public education establishment can’t hope to survive.

          Sorry Mike but I don’t have any good news for you on that front. Things are only going to get worse for you and your only hope is to make it through to retirement before education changes so much that you’re required to do some teaching.

          • Ah so we’re supposed to just take it at your word. But I’ll give you that one, you found one instance of it happening.

            Why would I be frightened of what I see in the Khan Academy videos? As I stated they are neither that innovative or game changing. For example, for elementary students (what I teach) there is nothing new about partial products multiplication or partial quotient divisions.

            But you keep telling your self its cutting edge if it makes you happy.

          • Oh, you know of similar situations of computers being bought and never used or bought amid much hoopla only to be mothballed after a year or two with no measureable impact on learning, probably most everyone who frequents this site does. Sad creature that you are you labor under the self-protective misconception that if you deny a fact it doesn’t exist and can’t trouble you.

            You’re frightened of for the same reason every Luddite’s been frightened by technological progress – it washes away the advantage upon which your livelihood is built. The comforting knowledge that your livelihood isn’t based on the value of the work you do but of the advantage you enjoy.

            A political advantage in the case of the public education system but it turns out even that advantage can’t protect you when the benefits of the technology simply overwhelm the previously impregnable defenses the political system allowed you to enjoy for so long.

            Thanks for you permission and I believe I will keep telling myself is the cutting edge but I don’t have to if I don’t feel like taking on the task. CBS, via “60 Minutes” will happily do the job for me –

            But you just keep telling yourself nothing’s going to change if it makes you happy.

      • I remember plenty of “reformers” pushing technology…very often those reformers were tech companies, politicians, or educational tech consultants. Remember, for the schools to apply for tech grants, someone had to convince politicians to set the funds aside.
        Reforms like these happen when authority is taken away from the teachers, administrators, and school boards that are best equipped to make these decisions.
        I worked in a school that discovered a couple closets full of smartboards in their basement…

        • My recollection is at odds with yours then because those you disdain as “reformers” opposed the purchase of technology. The price tag was pretty hard to miss but the benefit always consisted of nothing but promises and never became much more then that.

          Far from having to have their arm’s twisted by nefarious “reformers” school boards and superintendents were drawn to technolgy, whenever there were fat grants available, the way moths are drawn to a flame.

          As for “authority taken away from teachers”, what authority? If you want teachers to have authority you have to have a situation in which education’s valued. That’s not the case in a school district, is it?

  5. I went to school where the only computer technology was a couple of CRT’s and some 110/300 baud modems (circa late 70’s) and a Billings Microcomputer which ran CPM for an operating system.

    The overuse and technology hype which has been pushed into schools is a joke. The problem with introducing more and more technology is that educators (most of them) simply fall into the trap of:

    If you provide it, they will come.

    Which is nonsense…If all of the technology failed in the classroom, what would the instructor do, tell the class ‘dismissed’ until it was fixed? No, you go back to what worked in the past, pencil/paper, whiteboard and markers, books, etc.


    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Unfortunately, that didn’t work for a lot of kids in the past. Educators keep hoping and trying new things.

      The fact that so far nothing has worked to make everyone a bona fide high school graduate may mean that there is some solution that simply hasn’t been discovered. Or it may mean that we have set ourselves an impossible task: turning every teenager in the United States into a mini-academic.

      • Florida resident says:

        This is in support of the opinion expressed by Roger Sweeny,
        a duplicate of my comment of August 23,2012.

        Imagine yourself around the year 1700. Alchemist is a much respected occupation: for example, great physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton was one of them.

        Their assumption was that by proper chemical and physical processes, including mixing, boiling, melting, drying etc., one can transform lead, or iron, or tin, or combination of other substances, into gold, or silver, or platinum.

        Some of these dreams eventually came true: nowadays (since circa 1945) one can transform graphite (one form of pure carbon) into diamond (other form of pure carbon) by applying very high pressure and temperature. One can grow artificial sapphires, rubies and other precious stones, of even better quality than the natural ones. There were achievements like growth of ultra-ultra-clean germanium and silicon crystals, unheard of in the natural world; they allowed for invention and mass production of transistors, micro-lasers and computers. Artificial (genetically modified) plants like hybrid types of corn are other remarkable achievements. Antibiotics and vaccines, and many, many other things are around us nowadays.

        But some of the problems are nowadays considered as having NO SOLUTION (repeat, NO SOLUTION).
        Transformation of tin or lead into gold is one of them [I do not mean radioactive processes, which cost billions times more than mining for natural gold, silver, etc.].
        Producing a triangle with the straight sides of the lengths 10, 5, and 3, is still impossible and will not be possible in any future.
        Moving objects with the velocity faster than speed of light in vacuum is another problem, which has no (repeat, NO) solution.

        I want you to think for a moment about the problem, which apparently most of you want to be solved: take _all_ (repeat, _all_) kids, and teach _all_ of them to the level of University graduates; at least to the level of proficient High School graduates. I will not provide the names of federal, or state, or private programs with such a purpose; you know them yourselves.
        You may want to ask yourself: DOES THIS PROBLEM HAVE A SOLUTION ?
        I will not give the answer; people much smarter then I am, tried to discuss this.
        See e.g.

        the new (and short) book “Real Education” by Ch. Murray,

        Once more, ask yourself, DOES THIS PROBLEM HAVE A SOLUTION ?

        Respectfully yours, Florida resident.

      • Florida resident says:

        To Roger Sweeny:
        I agree with your point that

        “we have set ourselves an impossible task: turning every teenager in the United States into a mini-academic.”

        See also my comment of 2012 / 08 / 23 on this blog:

        Yours respectfully, F.r.