One Laptop per Child can’t bridge the digital divide

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These individualistic narratives invariably smooth over the social support that has always been an important, though unacknowledged, component of learning. Ideally, this includes a stable home environment without housing or food insecurity; a safe community with good infrastructure; and caring, skilled, well-­resourced teachers. When covid-19 shuttered schools around the world throughout 2020 and, in many areas, into 2021, the work that schools and teachers did for students suddenly fell to parents and caretakers, and it became apparent that having a working laptop and internet was only one step toward learning. The youngest students in particular needed full-time supervision and support to have any hope of participating in remote classes. Parents, who were often also juggling their own jobs, struggled to provide this support. The results were stark. Millions of parents (especially mothers) dropped out of the workforce for lack of child care. Low-income children, without the benefits of private schools, tutors, and “learning pods,” quickly fell months behind their privileged peers. Rates of child depression and suicide attempts soared. The stress of the pandemic, and the existing social inequities it accentuated, clearly took a toll on students—laptops or no.

To understand the importance of social support, we can also look at what students do with their laptops in their free time. In Paraguay Educa’s OLPC project, where two-thirds of students did not use their laptops even when it was very well supported, those who did were most interested in media consumption—even when OLPC designed the laptops to make these kinds of uses more difficult. Other projects, including LA Unified’s iPad rollout, have seen similar results. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that kids were able to make the laptops fit their existing interests: with guidance, these kinds of uses can help lead to meaningful learning experiences. On the other hand, there is evidence that when laptop programs are not well supported, disadvantaged children can fall even further behind as the computer becomes more of a distraction than a learning tool. 

The singular focus on access creates the sense that if children fail to learn when they ostensibly have all the tools they need for success, it is nobody’s fault but their own.

Outside forces can exacerbate the problem: in OLPC projects in Latin America, for example, multinational corporations such as Nickelodeon and Nestlé were eager to advertise to children on their new laptops. Branded educational technology platforms and automated monitoring tools are common today. While corporations’ encroachment into schools is nothing new, surveillance and targeted advertising on devices meant for learning is deeply troubling.

Oakland Unified School District’s Sarikey says hardware is “one of many critical parts of getting to educational equity,” and that #OaklandUndivided has also included “culturally responsive tech support, investment in planning for city wide broadband,” and partnership with the district’s teachers. But it is hard to avoid messaging that places the emphasis on hardware. In May 2020, for example, Ali Medina, now executive director of the Oakland Public Education Fund administering the #OaklandUndivided campaign funds, stated that “having a computer and internet access empowers our children to thrive academically during this pandemic and beyond, and boosts economic and health outcomes for their families.”

Along the same lines, in 2012 Negroponte wrote in the Boston Review that “owning a connected laptop would help eliminate poverty through education … In OLPC’s view, children are not just objects of teaching, but agents of change.” Such statements discount the critical role various institutions—peers, families, schools, communities, and more—play in shaping a child’s learning and identity. Most crucially, this individualistic framing implies that if change fails to materialize, it is not the fault of the schools or economic conditions or social structures or national policies or infrastructure. The singular focus on access creates the sense that if children fail to learn when they ostensibly have all the tools they need for success, it is nobody’s fault but their own.

Trojan horse

In OLPC’s early days, Negroponte often described the project as a Trojan horse that would give children opportunities to develop into free thinkers independent of the institutions around them. In 2011, even in the face of mounting evidence that OLPC was failing in its mission, he doubled down, claiming that children would be able to teach themselves to read and code with tablet computers literally dropped from helicopters. Here, as in the press coverage of #OaklandUndivided, the focus was clearly on giving out machines, with an implication that the rest—learning, success, transformation—would follow. 

But just as the Trojan horse episode did not end well for Troy, OLPC’s laptops diverted potential resources from reforms that could have bigger impact (even those as basic as introducing working bathrooms and living wages), and ultimately reinforced myths about what it takes to close the digital divide. And that was for in-person instruction. The remote schooling that 2020 required all around the world compounded all the problems OLPC faced and made it painfully clear that closing that divide will require more than just laptops and internet connections. What is really needed is the same robust social safety net so crucial in overcoming many other types of inequities.

Morgan Ames is author of The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child. She is an assistant professor of practice in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley