Of course, the kids use the computers for more standard educational pursuits as well. The school’s principal, Patricia Peña Cornejo, said that assignments often require students to search the Web for basic information, such as facts about local flora and fauna. “I am happy because I see how the children learn,” she said. “The communication between the students is better. They talk to each other about things they saw on the Internet.” Students are directed to educational Web pages; some other sites have been blocked by the ministry, Cornejo said. But one of the biggest benefits she sees is the possibility of access to instructional materials and digital books. (The Arahuay computers didn’t come loaded with books, but some were apparently downloaded later.) “The people are very poor here and don’t have many books,” added one teacher, Judith Inocente Olórtequi. “Not all kids can buy books.”
I asked nine-year-old Nilton Quispicóndor whether he liked his laptop. “Sí!” he replied enthusiastically, as he toted the computer home from school. The concrete house he lives in is dark and roofed with corrugated steel; it has no electricity, but the laptops can be charged at school, and a charge lasts four to eight hours. Sacks of potatoes sat in the cluttered kitchen. Asked about his typical after-school routine, Nilton replied, “First I have lunch, then I change my clothes, then I play with my laptop.” He opened up Tetris and played a round. Then he opened the drawing program and drew a picture of a house with a pitched roof, a door, and windows. Last, he opened a digital copy of “Las Habichuelas Mágicas,” the Spanish-language version of “Jack and the Beanstalk”–a story that Becerra later said must have been downloaded by a teacher. The boy’s father, Huber Quispicóndor, a 48-year-old who tends a chacra (small farm) of potatoes and corn, watched with pride. “He knows how to use the computer–he knows how to use every part of it,” Huber said in uneven Spanish (he speaks Quechua, an indigenous language). “Above all, it is more knowledge for him.”
I asked whether the machines had broken down or been misused, but I heard no horror stories. True, teachers and administrators may have been wary of criticizing a ministry effort, and for my part, I faced a language barrier. But my impressions were of a proud and supportive father, effusive teachers, and kids making creative use of their laptops. I asked Becerra what Peru wanted for children like Nilton. “Our hope for him is that he will have hope,” he said. “So we are giving them the chance to look for a different future–or the same, but by choice, not by force. These children who didn’t have any expectation about life, other than to become farmers, now can think about being engineers, designing computers, being teachers–as any other child should, worldwide.” The challenge, Becerra said, “is how to transmit a technology and a knowledge that people in the poor areas never saw, and never heard of.”
Opportunities and Disasters
And by all accounts, that challenge dwarfs those associated with designing the laptop in the first place. Fernando Reimers, director of global education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recalls a scene he witnessed in Peru during an earlier effort to put PCs in certain schools. Visiting a school in the town of Trujillo, Reimers found that the computers were kept in one room. The teachers were so concerned about dust, which they understood could damage the machines, that they kept the windows closed and the door locked, and frequently polished the floor with a petroleum-based cleaner. The result: a suffocating, smelly shrine to unused technology. “I am very positive on the potential of innovation to make things happen,” Reimers says. “I also know that in education, when it comes to large-scale reform, the devil is in the implementation. Sometimes implementations can take great opportunities and turn them into disasters.”
Reimers pointed out that Peru faces no small challenge in ensuring that the machines get where they’re supposed to go (and aren’t stolen once there), and in seeing that thousands of teachers learn how to use them, keep them maintained, and share successful experiences with each other. But while Reimers and other educators were apprehensive about Peru’s capacity to sustain the program in far-flung locations, they also saw undeniable potential. “The schools really urgently need something that can bring information from outside, and it’s not likely to be a library of books,” says Marcia Koth de Paredes, who spent 26 years as executive director of the Fulbright Scholar Program in Peru. If the children tap the laptops’ content, she says, the machines can only be a positive force.