Laptop launch: In a Lima warehouse, 25,000 OLPC machines are inventoried and loaded with updated software. Boxes containing five laptops apiece are stacked on individual pallets, labeled by village and school.
In Lima, I visited an olive-green warehouse, a 25-minute drive from the education ministry. Boxes containing five XOs apiece–25,000 in all–were stacked in neat columns. Young men were unpacking the boxes, installing batteries in the laptops, and affixing bar-code stickers to them. At another table, a worker used a thumb drive to load updated software onto the machines, five at a time, before sheathing them in plastic and returning them to the boxes. The finished boxes were organized on pallets labeled by region, village, and school. To protect against theft, the computers leave the factory digitally locked; only when they arrive at their destinations (or as close as is practically possible) will teachers receive USB drives containing the codes to unlock them.
Delivery might be easy compared with the monumental task of turning ill-educated teachers, generally unfamiliar with computers, into OLPC experts in 9,000 schools. There will be much to learn: how to operate, maintain, and recharge the laptops, and how to take advantage of all the digitized texts and software. Most of the villages have intermittent electricity, and those without it will get generators or photovoltaic recharging systems. But 90 percent of the villages also lack Internet connections; the nearest access points are at regional education offices. Teachers will be shown how to upload updated content to the laptops; in theory, when they make their monthly trips to the regional offices to pick up their paychecks, they will be able to download new material onto thumb drives, then install it on the laptops. “Peru is being very ambitious in reaching out to the most-needy kids right from the get-go, but it introduces some logistical challenges,” says Walter Bender, OLPC’s director of deployment (see Q&A, March/April 2008), who traveled to Peru in February and March. When I interviewed him in late March, he was writing a deployment manual that can be generalized to later-adopting countries. They “didn’t have such a document” for Peru, he said, “so there was lot more hand-holding and discovery that had to happen.”
It’s not hard to imagine glitches and misunderstandings emerging from all this. But in the end, the verdict on OLPC in Peru will come from the children. Until now, many of them have had a limited sense of their own potential, says Lawrence E. Harrison, a Latin America expert and director of the Cultural Change Institute at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “You have to put yourself in the shoes of the kid, and the eyes of the kid, and it’s not easy to do,” Harrison says. “The vast majority of these kids grow up with images of programs from TV but are convinced that this goes on in another part of the world that doesn’t affect them. They have a fatalistic worldview, often reinforced by religion. They do not connect education with their own progress. They see it as something that has to be done. So really, the success of this should not be measured in terms of their ability to manipulate the instrument, but in changing the way they see their prospects.”
That’s why Harrison and Reimers think that programs to evaluate children before and after they work with the computers–something Becerra says is planned–must measure values and attitudes as well as math skills and literacy. Are the kids focused on the future? Do they believe that knowledge matters? Do they associate work with the possibility of getting ahead, or just with survival? “Based on all the panaceas that we have experienced since the 1950s, I start with a little bit of skepticism” about the OLPC deployment in Peru, Harrison says. “But certainly, if I had been in the position of deciding whether to do it or not, I would have tried it.”
The success of OLPC can no longer be judged against Negroponte’s early predictions and plans, nor by the technical merits of the laptop itself. Peru is what matters now. When I was in Lima, OLPC’s former chief technology officer, Mary Lou Jepsen (she has formed Pixel Qi, a startup dedicated to making even lower-cost displays for OLPC’s computers and others), visited the education ministry to offer help and show staffers how to repair the machines. But she acknowledged that OLPC’s future doesn’t revolve around the hardware she helped bring about. “Laptops are easy; education is hard to transform,” she said. “I don’t even speak Spanish. How can I even start to transform primary education in Peru?”
In truth, she can’t. But Peru now has a chance to help Rosario, Cecilia, Nilton, and 486,497 other kids–and, maybe, someday, the little girl on the traffic island in Lima.
David Talbot is Technology Review’s chief correspondent.