March 5, 2024

Iscuk

International Student Club UK

Learning from mistakes – Stabroek News

The One Laptop Per Family project has been revived after having been condemned to oblivion by the previous government.  The announcement of its resuscitation came from President Irfaan Ali while on a visit to Kato last month, and he was reported by the Office of the President as saying that it would place Guyana on par with the rest of the technological world. He was also quoted as commenting that the “programme would ensure that every child has the opportunity to not only be connected to the hub, but has the instrument through which they can pursue their studies.”

He went on to say that the pandemic had taught us how important it was to “be in line with technology,” in addition to which, “we have to increase our investment to bring greater technological access through our hinterland and riverine areas.”  The emphasis on technology is in tandem with the original conception, which was aimed at developing the country’s ICT sector, and, as we reported, focused on bridging the digital divide and enhancing community and economic development.

The question of electricity not to mention internet access are key issues in the interior, but the President told his audience that they would soon benefit from an Information and Communications Technology hub. The building of this would begin soon, he assured them, so they would be able to “pursue the opportunities that come with that.”

The project in its original form had been the inspiration of former President Bharrat Jagdeo and had its first launch a decade ago. He may have been converted to the idea by the One Laptop Per Child project which had been introduced in a number of countries worldwide, including several in South America. Even in locations which are a great deal better organised than we are here, the reports on it did not deem it an unqualified success. An IDB study in Peru, where nearly1 million laptops were distributed, showed on the positive side that after three years the technological gap between rich and poor had been reduced, and that children and teachers in rural areas had been injected into the digital age.

Educationally speaking, however, while there was some improvement in the learning abilities of the children, their maths and reading skills were not enhanced, and neither were they motivated to study more or attend school more regularly. The conclusion was that the machines by themselves were not improving educational standards.  A later British study about the effects of computers on learning outcomes in England also found they had little benefit from the point of view of educational standards.  It might be added that the current pandemic has caused the authorities in the UK to recognise that digital learning is not an adequate substitute for the classroom experience with a real, live teacher.

Leaving aside the benefits or otherwise of the scheme for the moment, it has to be said that the conditions of this country raise other issues, which are perhaps not so critical elsewhere. Even at the time of the project’s initial launch critics had said that it would have been better to provide all teachers with laptops or if each child were to be given one, then it should be done within a school setting. Inevitably, they were reported as saying there would be questions about maintenance, theft, reliability and the cost of internet connections, not to mention the purpose for which the laptops would be used.

It turned out that most of these reservations were not without substance, and when the Coalition government came to office, questions were raised about whether the project had had any impact. An audit of the programme was commissioned in 2016, which found that it had fallen short of its objective. The aim had been to distribute 90,000 laptops, but up to December 31, 2014, the project had failed to reach its target by 35%. Furthermore, 5,000 of the laptops were either stolen or found to be defective, to the cost of $300 million.

As we reported, arguably the worst finding of the audit was that the project had not been governed by specific legislation, and that its manager could not produce any document detailing the number of laptops required, the procurement stages, the prospective suppliers of the laptops, the procedures for distribution and the number of departments and employees required to execute it. If that were not enough, the manager decided to halt the training part of the project in 2013 because it was too expensive. How could this be justified? The programme required that 10 hours of training would be provided for all recipients of the laptops. And this, it should be noted, was a project whose costs between May 2011 and May 2015 was $1.2 billion, while the laptops cost $3.1 billion.

Given the scale of this fiasco it seems gratuitous to mention that the project had no effect on educational outcomes that anyone can discern, let alone achieve any of the grandiose aims which were initially touted. So the President needs to be reminded that the country can ill afford to be exposed to the enormous waste of finances and the utter incompetence which characterised the first roll-out of this project.

Instead of tossing laptops around the interior (and elsewhere), therefore, as both parties used to toss around outboard engines, would President Ali mind presenting a coherent plan this time, with a clear account of all the stages necessary, not forgetting procurement (which should be in consonance with standard procedures), as well as a legislative framework. In addition, would he mind contemplating what kind of specific results he expects from what will be a substantial outlay, and not fob off the public with generalities such as “placing Guyana on a par with the rest of the technological world.”

If the primary objective is to bring the hinterland into the world of technology then no one will argue; the question revolves around how that is best done.  What about issues such as repairs and theft, etc, and exactly what kind of supervision will the children be subject to using the internet? After all, this is a dangerous tool as well as being a beneficial one. What is the argument, for example, for not placing internet access in schools, and keeping the laptops there, so it can become a teaching instrument?

There are many other questions which arise in relation to this revivified project, but it is clear from President Ali’s anxiety to rush into building interior hubs, that the government he leads is not putting its mind in a systematic way to any of them. In terms of successful outcomes, Guyana lost $4.3 billion on the One Laptop Per Family project the last time the PPP/C was in office, so the public would be justified in asking whether it has learnt from its mistakes.