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Remember the 2011 Superbowl “Darth Vader Kid ad where a young boy attempts to use The Force to start a washer and wake up the dog? The Force only works on a Volkswagen Passat, after his father – hiding behind the kitchen window -uses the car’s remote to start it. We are fascinated that a little boy’s imagination can be triggered by a remote control: the video has over 60 million views.
That fascination is even more acute with machines that allow us to share, have fun and even learn macroeconomics. With a computer, you can google pretty much anything, learn the Pythagorean Theorem on the Khan Academy or even find that old clip from the 1950s that pretty much invented computer animation. All you need is a laptop, or a tablet, or a phone, and a connection to the web.
If all the kid needed was The Force (and a remote), maybe what kids need for learning is a laptop.
So why not give out free web enabled laptops to all school age children in Uruguay?
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) estimates that it has reached 2.4 million children and teachers of which 860.000 were in Perú the largest OLPC implementation. New results are in for the Uruguay program, so we now have results for almost 60% of the Program. Although we have explored the impact of the OLPC program in Peru here, here, and here, concerns remained on whether this one application of the Program in Perú was enough to draw more general conclusions on the impact of this type of intervention on educational outcomes.
The “Plan de Conectividad Educativa de Informáticas Básica para el Aprendizaje en Línea” (Plan CEIBAL for short) was created in 2007 as the Uruguayan version of OLPC. By 2012, 570.000 laptops had been distributed, first in primary and then in secondary schools, reaching all students and teachers. Its Total Cost of Ownership is estimated at approximately $400 for 4 years, $100 per year per child. The total annual education investment budget for 2013 was approximately $150 million.
A new working paper (another more complete version here, both in Spanish) published by researchers at the Universidad de la República´s Economics Institute in Uruguay shows some preliminary results of Plan CEIBAL. The evaluation uses two data sets. First, it uses four different national student evaluations for late 2006, mid-2009, late 2009 and mid-2012. The second is the roll out data for CEIBAL, which started distributing laptops at the school level in late 2007. This rollout was geographical. The data allows the identification of the exact date of each laptop delivery. The treatment variable is defined as the number of days since laptop delivery while the dependent variable is the individual test score for language and math. A Difference in Differences strategy is used.
The main conclusion of the paper is that the results show no impact of the OLPC program on test scores in reading and math. This result is consistent with estimates for Israel, Perú, Romania, Nepal, and the US (North Carolina).
So why do the laptops have no impact on learning in Uruguay?
First, the evidence shows laptop use plummeted since their introduction in 2009. While in 2009 41% of students reported using the laptops “every” or “almost every” day, by 2012 only 4.1% of students reported using the laptop all or most days, while almost 70% reported using it less than once during the week. If the laptops were barely used in class, is it reasonable to think that the teachers did not integrate them into the curriculum because “inputs which provide direct benefits to educators (like teacher wages) are over-used relative to inputs that contribute directly (but only) to educational output (like books or instructional materials).”?
Second, its use was mostly recreational. 44% of the time was used to download information, 26% to surf the web and 14% to play on-line games. Only 8% of laptop activity was “writing a text”.
Third, the results show that the OLPC did not improve on-line literacy: the program did not have any effect on the ability (self-perception) to down-load games, music or create a blog.
In conclusion, just as the kid is convinced that The Force is with him and ignores that his dad is behind the window using the remote to start the car; the evidence shows that computers by themselves have no effect on learning and what really matters is the institutional environment that makes learning possible: the family, the teacher, the classroom, your peers.
Just as there is no Force without the dad, without a good teacher (and appropriate facilities and resources, and remote ready parents) there is no learning.
Laptop or no laptop.