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OLPC rebuts 'kids with laptops read less' study

Tests didn't look at overall OLPC impact, found kids weren't getting good at PC use

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The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative has published a response to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) that found kids given the program's signature PC didn't learn much and spent less time reading.

The study, available here (PDF) , is titled Home Computers and Child Outcomes: Short-Term Impacts from a Randomized Experiment in Peru. The study “presents findings from a six-month follow-up of a randomized experiment in which approximately 1,000 OLPC laptops were provided for home use to students attending public primary schools in Lima, Peru.” The experiment was conducted outside the full OLPC program, which integrates the groups XO laptop into classrooms.

The study found the test “... was successful at increasing children’s exposure to computers by raising the likelihood that children had access to a computer at home and increasing the likelihood of home computer use at both the extensive and intensive margin.”

But giving out the laptops “ … also affected the time spent on other activities, with children more likely to complete domestic chores but less likely to read books compared to their classmates.”

The amount of chores kids performed rose, the study suggests, because kids were offered time playing games as a reward. But gaming time ate into reading time.

Reuters noted those two elements of the study and, while not quite resorting to the “games=possibly violence-inducing brain candy for kids who'll end up in dead end jobs, reading=well-adjusted literate kids who will only ever watch reality TV in an ironic way” meme, popped out a story that said “the findings seem to contradict the [OLPC] initiative's key assumptions and back critics who said it is not a magic wand.”

Throw in the fact the study also found “... no significant differences between treatment and control groups on objective and self-reported skills for using a Windows personal computer (PC) and Internet” and things look bad for the OLPC project.

Enter OLPC CEO and President Rodrigo Arboleda, pointing out that the study “expressly states that it tries not to evaluate the One Laptop Per Child initiative or educational one to one projects” and that the study tests only the impact of PCs in the home, not the overall OLPC project.

“This study shows the difference of an isolated experiment of computers at home without a comprehensive intervention strategy that did not generate impact,” he writes, pointing to another IADB study (PDF) that found “with a sample of 319 rural schools (which is significant), children in the OLPC project in this country have an advantage on average of 5 months in the development of their cognitive abilities with respect to children who have not been helped by the program.”

Arboleda also says “numerous studies and research in the last decade by recognized academics have shown that the provision of technology alone has no effect unless there is an appropriate intervention process.”

“It is for this reason that the results of the experiment showed little effect and did not generate changes in reading habits, cognitive skills or academic achievement.” ®

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