One Laptop Per Child Project and What Its Failure Means for Education

A recent paper came out from Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Technology and Child Development: Evidence from One Laptop per Child Program in Peru, which was the first large-scale evaluation of One Laptop Per Child’s impact on education. The great news is that the program dramatically increased children’s access to computers. The rate of computers per student went from .12 to 1.18. Good. There also appeared to be some evidence of an improvement in general cognitive skills. Also good.

Not so good? There was no change in either enrollment or test scores in Math and Language.

How is that possible? In 1999, Dr. Sugata Mitra implemented a project named “Hole in the Wall” Education, where young children in India figured out how to use a PC on their own (hidden in the wall of a city slum) and then taught other kids. This demonstrated that children were able to teach themselves and others without supervision of formal teaching. Why are kids in India performing so much better academically than kids in Peru?

It’s not a simple solution, of course, and the programs are entirely different in their execution. Removing such variables as teacher training, mode of assessment and overall expectations, I’d like to focus on a variable that may have had an impact as well: the teacher/student dynamic.

In India, Dr. Mitra simply put computers in the walls of slums in New Dehli and left these kids to their own devices. There was no purpose to their learning (from their perspective). They saw something that piqued their interest, there was no teacher directing the learning and absolutely no structure or constraints. I wonder how much this has to do with the failure in Peru. It’s not that more laptops aren’t good. Of course they are. It’s that they were dumped in schools where teachers (potentially) weren’t sure how to use them and 15 months later, the students were administered the same (questionably appropriate) pre- and post-tests and didn’t demonstrate a difference.

There was something interesting about the computers in the wall. There was no authority figure to tell them what to do and how to do it. And there was no test. They weren’t playing with the hole in the wall to bump up their scores on standardized tests in Math and Language. They weren’t taking the time to learn how to navigate a PC, browse the Internet, and play online games because there would be some state-mandated assessment at the end. What does it mean to “Google” something? What does “URL” stand for? What three letters are at the beginning of the majority of Internet sites? None of that, just something forbidden, unexpected, and unmonitored.

There’s a lesson in here that the homeschool world has been trying to demonstrate to traditional systems of education for the past 30 years. These homeschool kids are, for the most part, left to their own devices and as research is showing, they’re confounding educational experts with their abilities and performance. How is it possible that these kids who aren’t being taught by trained professionals (i.e. teachers) perform so well on standardized testing? How are they admitted to competitive colleges when they’ve been educated at the kitchen table rather than behind a desk? Not every homeschool is run the same way; there are differing levels of independence that the family agrees upon. And yes, only about 14% of homeschool parents actually have a teaching degree.

However, in homeschools, the teacher/student relationship is built on mutual respect and understanding. I’m not saying that teachers don’t attempt to establish that relationship in schools; it’s just not the same. In schools, teachers will always hold a position of authority that infers a position of obedience for the students. This yin/yang dynamic doesn’t exist in a homeschool.

Simply adding technology won’t save schools. It’s changing the nature of the relationship between teacher and student. As long as students have an authority figure looking over their shoulder, evaluating their every move to make sure they don’t goof off or make mistakes (good ones or bad), students’ actions will be constrained in some way. They won’t be allowed to have their curiosity get away from them. In schools, there is no time to see where tangents may lead. If it’s not laying a foundation and building upon it for some sort of metric that can be reported back to a higher power, then it’s not worth dedicating classroom time.

(This, by the way, is not the fault of the teachers. They’re put under enormous pressure to deliver results. They’re not the ones demanding extensive testing and cramming 30+ students into one classroom. They’re working with what they’ve got and I applaud their efforts.)

On the other hand, homeschoolers are allowed (and encouraged) to explore their interests and see where it leads. Some of it is supervised; some not. Some of their studies will meet state standards; some won’t. But you can’t deny that homeschoolers are doing something right and part of it is at the core of the home education dynamic.

They are in small “classrooms” where they don’t worry about judgment from other kids or from an elder. They have plenty of independent time where they can explore, fall down, and try again, without reprimand. In general, they have freedom with facilitation, support without control.

Homeschoolers have accomplished what public schools will never be able to do: create an environment where students are free to explore without the authority fear factor.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will 

surprise you with their ingenuity.” ~General George S. Patton Jr.

By Christa Johnson


About the Author

Christina Johnson

Christa Johnson is focused on helping new parents get started with homeschooling. She writes about homeschooling strategies and successes, including the latest research in the field. She is the founder of No Agenda Homeschool, which provides practical tools to start homeschooling with confidence.


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