Are schemes offering laptops to students really effective?

One Laptop Per Student programmes appear to be all the rage in the Caribbean, but do they work? The post highlights 5 key concerns regarding their effectiveness.

Over the last two to three years, Caribbean governments have made a concerted effort to promote, to varying degrees, Universal Access to computers. For example, in Guyana, the focus is on providing one laptop per family; in St. Kitts and Nevis, it is a “One-to-One” programme that is currently geared towards secondary/high school students, and there is a similar one-laptop-to-one-student initiative in Trinidad and Tobago.  Although all of these projects should be commended, there is an underlying concern, especially for those geared towards students, that they might not be achieving the desired objectives.

Technology not sufficiently integrated into education system

Although the laptops are being provided to facilitate learning, and to ensure that upcoming students become proficient in their use, all too frequently, education systems across the region have not yet fully integrated technology into the learning process. In the Caribbean, our curricula have not been sufficiently modified to include computer-related activities across all subjects. Further, all teachers generally are still not adept in using computers and online resources, and might not yet be trained on ways in which technology can be used to help students to learn and develop.

Internet access can still be problematic

Across most of the Caribbean, programmes have already been implemented, at the very least, to establish computer labs in high schools. However, there is usually no Internet access in individual classrooms – which means that although students have laptops for use in class, Internet connectivity might not be readily available at school.

Further, depending on where these students live, and their family backgrounds, they might not have Internet access at home. Hence, again, students might not be in a position to begin to harness the potential of the Information Age, and to develop much needed computing skills, which are usually key expectations of these laptop-student projects.

Limited support infrastructure

Typically, the One Laptop Per Student (OLPS) programmes have been designed for countrywide implementation. However, in most Caribbean countries, access to reliable electricity, particularly in rural areas, can still be problematic. In addition to regular power outages, those communities are sometime more susceptible to low voltage and power surges. Additionally, it is likely that the electrical supply to most schools have not been upgraded with regard to capacity or electrical protection, which again could make the laptops, as well as other associated equipment on the school compound, more susceptible to damage.

Maintenance constraints

Software installed on students' laptops (Source: Government of Trinidad and Tobago)

As anyone who uses computers know, they malfunction.  Sometimes, rebooting the machine can solve the problem, but from time to time, more expert intervention is necessary. However, many of those OLPS schemes stipulate that authorised personnel must do repairs, upgrades or maintenance. Depending on school staffing and the actual arrangements established by Government, there might not be trained personnel at each school who could undertake those works. Laptops might need to be delivered to designated resource points outside schools, which introduces delays, and a number of administrative and logistical considerations.

It must also be highlighted that most governments in the region are already under considerable fiscal constraints, and have been grappling with trying to do “more with less”. Hence, there is some concern that, although distribution of laptops is continuing, budgets for maintenance might be quite limited, which could result in the equipment not being properly maintained.

Limited content

Finally, depending on the country and the project, laptops usually have basic software installed, and students are prohibited from installing additional programmes. However, in order to facilitate greater use of technology for learning, it is essential that content relevant to the local and regional context and to the school curricula is developed. Although some countries, like Trinidad and Tobago, have substantially increased the software installed on the laptops (see Figure 1), students would still benefit from having comprehensive learning and testing material that uses the software already installed on their laptops.

Conclusions

Although it can be argued that many of the issues raised are teething matters that will be resolved in due course, all of them require money and effort to have them addressed. Additionally, the students who currently have laptops still might not be experiencing any of the benefits of being part of the Information Age, but still have a number of obligations as part of the programme arrangements that must be fulfilled.

While by no means it is being suggested that laptops-for-students projects should not have been implemented, it must be appreciated that providing equipment without ensuring that the requisite support systems are fully operational, undermines the entire exercise. These OLPS projects usually aim to promote, among other things, computer proficiency, student-centric learning and innovation. However, when essential underlying systems, such as teacher training and facilitating infrastructure, are still to be fully upgraded, these projects might not be as effective as initially envisaged.

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