Laptops Come to Schools in the Andes

BusinessWeek writer Geri Smith reports from Luquia, a tiny village in Peru which just took stock of some of the first XO computers

The aging station wagon crept slowly up a one-lane dirt road that zigzagged up a steep mountain in the Peruvian Andes. At the sharpest hairpin curves, with clusters of crosses marking the spots where cars or buses had plummeted in the past, the driver leaned on the horn to alert oncoming traffic and the occasional cow or donkey to our presence. It took nearly two hours to drive up that one mountainside to reach the tiny, isolated village of Luquia, where the arrival two weeks earlier of 73 child-size laptop computers had generated more excitement than the several hundred townspeople had ever witnessed.

President Alan García had helicoptered in, handed over computers in a formal ceremony, and then flown away again, leaving the village's three primary-school teachers to figure out how to put the 21st-century technology to use in a place where people still hand-plow fields of potatoes, just as their Inca ancestors did five centuries earlier.

In Peru, around half the population lives below the poverty line. In thousands of small rural hamlets, high in the Andes or deep in the Amazon region, people live in extreme poverty, earning less than a dollar a day. There are no stores, and little entertainment; only a few families own something as simple as an AM radio. There is electricity, but there are frequent blackouts. Luquia has a high school, but if students want to become anything other than subsistence farmers or laborers in a nearby gold mine, they need to learn more skills.

Bottom of the Educational Heap

Throughout Latin America, governments are under pressure to improve their educational systems so that children will be able to compete in the global economy. Few have had much success: Standardized tests carried out among 15-year-olds in 47 countries around the world show students in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru at the bottom of the heap in reading comprehension and math. Peru is the worst, with 54% of the teens tested in 2003 unable to understand basic texts or perform simple calculations.

José Antonio Chang, a former university administrator who became Education Minister in mid-2006, knew radical steps were needed after years of neglect and underspending.

Chang heard Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child program, speak at a conference, and he thought the laptop program dovetailed perfectly with Peru's plans to shake up its educational system. "We told Negroponte, if there's any country in the world that is using the pedagogy you are talking about, it's Peru," says Oscar Becerra, a former IBM executive who is director of educational technology for the ministry. "Why don't we try working together?"

Last year, Negroponte sent 100 laptops to Peru for testing. Half were delivered to Arahuay, a four-hour drive outside of the country's capital, Lima. "Within two or three days, we already noticed changes at the primary school—not even the most optimistic of us had thought that was possible," Becerra says.

"Stupendous" Learning Tools

A boy who had repeated first grade twice intuitively understood how the laptop worked and became the go-to problem-solver for students and teachers alike. Enrollment at the school increased, as word spread that the computers had arrived. Within months, students' reading and math skills sharpened.

"The kids' expectations for their future have changed," says Becerra. "It gives them hope that education might help them change their lives, whereas before they were condemned to continue doing what their parents did for a living."

That's the case of Arahuay student Antony Moreira Melchor, 13. The grandson of a small fruit producer, he now wants to go to college to become an accountant. The laptops, offering access to the Internet, make "stupendous" learning tools, he says enthusiastically.

When Becerra took some of the kids to the capital to demonstrate the laptops, one of the computers suffered a technical glitch. An 11-year-old boy grabbed a Phillips-head screwdriver, started dismantling the laptop, breathed puffs of air on a component to remove some dust, replaced it, and the computer began to work again. "The kid was so confident about what he was doing, I couldn't believe it," Becerra says.

Legislative Mandate

Impressed, the Peruvian Congress gave the green light for the nationwide introduction of laptops in primary schools. "We know the laptops aren't going to solve all of our problems in education, but we think they will prove to be a useful tool for motivating students and teachers alike—to learn, to do research, and to innovate," says legislator Pedro Santos, president of the education commission.

Some observers are excited by the prospect of harnessing technology to effect dramatic social change in the South American nation. "These laptops will be a tremendous accelerator of unstoppable change in Peru—in the educational system, in migration and in urbanization," says Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, author of The Mystery of Capital, who is known internationally for his groundbreaking research into how the world's poor, living at the margins of society, can be incorporated into the "formal" economy.

The laptops could be the tool that allows disadvantaged children, long ignored by the government, to jump-start their education and break down societal barriers to forge their own futures. But de Soto warns the process could shake Peru's elitist society to the core. "It will probably accelerate rising expectations, which could produce mass migration to the cities and social upheaval, and that could make for a bumpy ride. But that can be good," he says. "After all, it's progress."

Reymundo Riveros, who teaches fifth and sixth grade in Luquia, welcomes the laptops as a useful teaching aid but says they'll be of little use in helping improve the lives of poor children unless the government takes other steps to reduce poverty, malnutrition, and unemployment. Riveros, 30, has his own computer at home, but school principal Pedro Santana, like many of Peru's public school teachers, can't afford to buy one. "Some teachers can't even buy proper clothing for themselves, much less a computer," says Santana.

A Threat to Some Teachers

That means many teachers don't know how to use a computer, which could be a source of tension as the government continues the rollout. "Often, the computers are received with great enthusiasm, but just as often, teachers view them with some concern," says Alberto Patiño, a professor of education at the Pontifical Catholic University of Lima, who previously directed a government program that started equipping public secondary schools with computer labs. (So far, just 3% of Peru's 90,000 public schools are connected to the Internet.) "They're afraid that the kids will whiz past them, and they aren't accustomed to children manipulating their own sources of information."

On the plus side, he says, "that provides a tremendous incentive for teachers to quickly master the technology themselves." The government now is offering teachers a $150 cash grant and a low-interest, four-year loan for those who want to buy their own computers.

Some are skeptical that the laptops will bear as much fruit as has been advertised. "Technology alone doesn't work miracles," says Patiño. Still, he believes the laptops offer valuable software and educational materials that should give poor, rural schoolchildren a real leg up.

Becerra says he views this as a unique opportunity to force change. To critics who say the laptops could "disrupt" Peru's educational system for good, he responds: "I certainly hope it will disrupt things! A country that ranks at the very bottom in people's perception of educational quality has to do something disruptive."

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