First debug the child, then the computer

by on September 11, 2009 at 7:05 am in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

The idea of computers as liberators appealed to Silicon Valley philanthropists and Nicholas Negroponte could certainly tell a compelling story but, as Timothy Ogden explains, today the one laptop per child project seems to be in technical and financial trouble, the evidence that computers increase learning either in the classroom or at home is weak and the demand for the computers (as opposed to say cell phones (pdf)) in the developing world is low.  Meanwhile, simpler, cheaper approaches with proven evidence are not being fully exploited.  Here's Ogden.

The simplest and least costly of these programs is deworming. Nearly 2 billion people around the world are affected by parasitic worm infections, with children disproportionately affected. While each variety of parasitic worm affects a person differently, they all take a substantial toll on growth, energy and attention, with entirely predictable impacts on school attendance and learning. Harvard economist Michael Kremer has studied the impact of mass deworming in Kenya and India. Delivering deworming medication costs 50 cents per child per year in Kenya but yielded a 25 percent increase in school attendance; a similar program in India cost $4 per student per year and yielded a 20 percent attendance gain. "This is a simple, cost-effective and yet tragically not-done program. It's a scandal that [deworming] hasn't been addressed," Kremer says. There are spillover effects as well. "The most surprising thing about the study in Kenya was the widespread impact," Kremer says. The program drove down infection rates for several kilometers around the schools, he says, and there were significant improvements in attendance for untreated students, in the treatment schools as well as in nearby schools not in the program.

Read the whole thing.  Help to deworm the world.

Hat tip to Alanna Shaikh via Chris Blattman and also to Dan in the comments.

u. saldin September 11, 2009 at 7:42 am

But Nicholas Negroponte needs a computer for his everyday life, so poor foreigners must need that too!

Mattyoung September 11, 2009 at 9:29 am

The idea of education and technology is to replace the classroom.

derek September 11, 2009 at 9:48 am

I agree with this blog post, but I would like to point out that most of these studies failing to find evidence that computers enhance learning use standardized test scores as their measure of learning. Of course computers don’t increase standardized test scores, and I would argue that a teacher assigning lots of computer-based work is not exactly teaching to the test, which is a good thing.

Also, assessment tests usually cover math and reading comprehension. Surely no one has ever seriously theorized that a computer teaches reading better than books?

athelas September 11, 2009 at 10:27 am

In other words, the for-profit, non-philanthropic development of netbooks is a far better success than the warm and fuzzy project itself.

Paul Sas September 11, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Ron Chernow’s *Titan* discusses the pervasiveness of hookworm in the American South, and the role that his foundation played in eradicating what another book titled “The Germ of Laziness.” I can’t locate the exact economic impact of his program, but I dimly recall that the eradication contributed greatly to the economic recovery of the South.

mikesdak September 11, 2009 at 3:16 pm

High schools in South Dakota have had access to a state-aided program to provide kids with laptops for school use (they don’t get to keep them). The school here tried to put as much of the curriculum as possible on them. They’ve found out that (surprise) kids may not take proper care of them or use them approriately; in fact the first year of the program at our school saw a huge increase in kids failing classes because they were using the computers for everything but homework. Maintenance costs have also proven to be a budget buster; replacing a broken computer is a lot more expensive than replacing a damaged book, and some parents have said “you’re making them use it; you pay for it”.

Slocum September 11, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Not that you’re saying this exactly, but I’d feel kind of icky defending a charity on the “sure, it was useless for the poor, but we First Worlders got some cool small netbooks out of it” grounds.

Besides which — I’m not buying it. Netbooks are light, cheap little Windows laptops. No custom OS, no ‘mesh’ network, no hand-crank — and they’re not intended specifically for schools or kids or the developing world. I don’t really see any good reason to give OLPC credit for netbooks.

I’ve always been pretty negative on OLPC — it always appeared to me to be much more about the cool hardware and software technology that the MIT types wanted to build rather than what poor people really wanted or needed. Even in terms of electronic gadgets, what they want and need is not a PC but a cell-phone with internet capabilities. And they’re getting those things, too — not through special ‘special technology for poor people’ efforts but by entrepreneurs selling them versions of the stuff we all use.

sesli chat September 11, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Thank you for the great post..

Russell Nelson September 12, 2009 at 3:46 am

mikesdak: OLPC partisans would say that “the kids don’t get to keep them” and “Maintenance costs have also proven to be a budget buster” have a cause-and-effect relationship. The OLPC XO has been designed to be MUCH more rugged than the usual laptop, and been designed to be field-strippable with parts replacable by ordinary full-sized humans. If you haven’t used one you probably shouldn’t be comparing them to laptops.

Mark September 12, 2009 at 6:32 pm

The old saying: hindsight is 20-20.

OLPC was/is an experiment that has not worked/failed. A bad idea to begin? Maybe. But many “good ideas” fail too.

As for eradicating the worms… I’d like to see if the effects on school attendance scale well.

My claim: “if (almost) everyone became worm free in Kenya, you would see much much less than a 20% improvement in attendance in total.”

souris September 14, 2009 at 4:57 am

Hey Alex Tabarrok you share here really a very nice & interesting article, i really like this article. In this generation all person wants a computer in pocket so they will first choose the pdf mobiles instead of Laptops or the computers so the marketing of laptop is low then the mobile phones..

Phil September 27, 2010 at 5:56 am

Computers aren’t the answer for evolution, but I have to admit that computers can help. The one thing that really scares me is that more and more people get addicted to computers and they have no idea about what walking and taking a mouth full of fresh air means. They just sit in their homes and lurk in the dark. Cloud Computing Security

elchupacabra October 25, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Imagine how internet security will look like in an era where you can download yourself in a virtual environment. That would probably be the “Matrix” movie turning into a real thing… Scary…

Raducu November 26, 2010 at 11:01 am

computers are in a continuous process prosperitive development.In about 100 years from now computers will be able to do amazing things that you can’t even imagine right now.So I guess we need to take it step by step.Arizona Web Design

Irida December 14, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Computers indeed have evolved very much in the past 100 years althought I have to admit in the last decay computers evolved much more then they evolved in the last 90 years.We see that there are so many pocket computers such as adroid telephones or smart phones.Technology is evolving very much and I guess we don’t have what to do except evolved with it too.motorola droid x screen protector

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