A fleeting roadside scene in Lima, Peru, sticks in my mind. A very little girl, perhaps four, stood on a narrow traffic island bisecting a congested thoroughfare amid choking dust, soot, and fumes. With the girl was a woman I took to be her mother. The mother, a street peddler, was unpacking a crate full of something. (I couldn’t see what, but other peddlers offered avocados, toilet paper, and toy rats.) Around them roared 1970s-era buses and battered vehicles, passing below concrete habitations creeping up dismal, denuded hillsides in one of the city’s vast slums. The child was energetically scooping up plastic bags for her mother, her shaggy brown hair flopping forward. Not far away, an old woman picked through a pile of smoldering refuse. Against the squalid tableau, the girl was tidying her little corner of Lima as she spent her morning helping Mom at work.
I thought of her as I passed through steel gates manned by armed guards at Peru’s Ministry of Education to talk to Oscar Becerra, general director for educational technologies. Peru is poised to deliver 486,500 laptops to its poorest children under the One Laptop per Child program–a figure that could swell to 676,500 if the Cuzco region buys in. It is the largest such OLPC purchase in the world (see “OLPC Scales Back”). I asked Becerra whether children in Lima’s slums would receive the green-and-white machines. “No,” he said. “They are not poor enough.” At first I thought he was making a hard-hearted joke. But he went on to explain that Lima residents generally have electricity and (in theory) access to city services, even Internet cafés. The laptops are headed to 9,000 tiny schools in remote regions such as Huancavelica, in the Andes, an arduous 12-hour bus ride over rocky roads southeast of Lima, and villages such as Tutumberos, in the Amazon region, days away. By the standards of children in those areas, the girl on the traffic island enjoyed enviable opportunity.
What Becerra told me drove home the true scope of what OLPC is trying to do in a country that, according to a survey by the World Economic Forum, ranks 130th out of 131 countries in math and science education, and 131st in the quality of its primary schools. “There is a long-term social cleavage in Peru that has been around forever,” says Henry Dietz, a political scientist and expert on Peru at the University of Texas at Austin, describing the country’s income inequality and rural poverty. “You get out of those provincial capitals, a half-hour in any direction, and you are in rural Peru, and things are pretty primitive. Electricity is a sometimes thing, and the quality of education–the school is four walls and a roof and some benches, and that is about it. There is very little there to work with.” In some cases, the laptop deployment will tie in to an existing program to bring Internet access to certain schools. But for the most part, the machines are entering an educational vacuum.
And they’re bringing with them a whole new pedagogy. The computers come loaded with 115 books–literature such as Mi Vaquita, about a rare porpoise, but also classics, like some of Aesop’s fables, novels (at least one by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa), and poetry (including verse by the early-20th-century Peruvian poet César Vallejo). The laptops’ flash drives also store introductions for teachers, reading-comprehension programs and other educational software, a word processor, art and music programs, and games, including chess, Sudoku, and Tetris. The rugged, low-power hardware includes a camera that can capture video or still images. The computers are Internet ready and can wirelessly relay data to one another.