↬ I'm Ivan Krstić (@radian). This is a personal site; I speak for no one but myself.

Astounded in Arahuay

Translator Carla Palomino, OLPC president Walter Bender, Peru technical lead Hernàn Pachas, and Brightstar OLPC lead Edgar Ceballos try to convince me their map isn’t funny.

(This article in German: → Auf Deutsch lesen. Danke, Niklaus Giger!)

I recently returned from a grueling three-week stay in Peru, where I worked with the serious Ministry of Education team entrusted with the country’s 260-thousand laptop OLPC implementation.

We chewed through every aspect of deployment planning, both technical and organizational, from the moment the laptop shipment will arrive in Lima until the laptops reach the hands of 40 thousand children at the first 569 schools to participate in the program.

After I shone the Bat Signal, the inimitable Walter Bender flew in and quickly took over the organizational and educational discussions, allowing me to sink my teeth into resolving the outstanding technical deployment issues. Note to self: it’s nice to work with hypercompetent people.

In between writing a custom warehouse inventory system for the country’s use (don’t ask) and discussing their delivery security needs, I took a day off to visit Arahuay, a homey hilltop hamlet with two claims to fame: hosting OLPC’s 8-month Peru pilot, and almost becoming the site of my untimely demise at the hands of a treacherously-situated satellite terminal.

OLPC’s tireless Carla Gomez-Monroy wrote up the Arahuay pilot at length when it began last June, and a widely-published followup report from the Associated Press in December opened with powerful words:

Doubts about whether poor, rural children really can benefit from quirky little computers evaporate as quickly as the morning dew in this hilltop Andean village, where 50 primary school children got machines from the One Laptop Per Child project six months ago.

School being out for summer vacation and perilous mountain roads be damned, I thought, it must be worthwhile to see the school first-hand and speak with the teachers.

We drove for about four hours, seeing the landscape oscillate between a barren wasteland and lush green mountainsides.

I wasn’t wrong about it being worthwhile.

The background
Last year, 48 children attended primary school in Arahuay. Carla’s report lists 46 — this is because 2 more enrolled after the OLPC pilot was announced, bringing attendance to 100% of the town’s children. Another 50 children of the town’s 800 inhabitants attend high school, and roughly a hundred kids are in kindergarten.

The Arahuay school has 16 teachers. Three teach primary school, two grades each, and of the thirteen high school teachers, nine teach different classes with four acting as substitutes where necessary. Ten high school classes are taught, all in all: mathematics (up to an introduction to functions and geometry), communication, social studies (essentially history), person and family (standards of behavior in and out of the home, children’s rights and responsibilities to the family), arts, physical education, foreign language, organized learning (for instance, how to do homework efficiently), work education (e.g. how to make shoes, how to make leather) and natural sciences (spanning biology, chemistry, ecology and physics at very basic levels). To become a teacher in Peru, one must either complete an exam or write a thesis, with both requiring the completion of a 5-year program at a university or institute.

The former principal of the Arahuay school, Guillermo Lazo Navarro, and the current principal, Patricia Peña Cornejo, both graciously took time out of their day to meet with me.

I wanted to know what the laptops had done for the kids. I told them I’m not a reporter, I don’t answer to the Ministry, and — an important disclaimer for an overpoliticized country like Peru — I don’t pander to bullshit politics. I wanted to hear if they thought the laptops were helping.

(Photo: the town of Arahuay.)

After looking at me blankly for a good half-minute, Mr. Navarro shot back with “evidentemente”, “obviously”, and palpably left off “you idiot” from the end of the sentence. I appreciated the small courtesy and asked a more specific question: what changed in the 8 months since the laptops arrived?

Three changes
Mr. Navarro and Mrs. Cornejo spoke amongst themselves for a few minutes. Then Mr. Navarro said they agreed there were three key changes.

As there are few roads in and around Arahuay, the children don’t communicate much outside of school — with anyone. The teachers started independently pointing out to Mr. Navarro that this was changing once the laptops arrived: kids started talking to each other outside of school hours over the mesh, and working together more while in school. They started talking a lot more with each other in person, and conquered their previously paralyzing fear of strangers.

The second thing, Mrs. Cornejo jumped in, is that the kids used to be pretty selfish, an unsurprising consequence of the abject poverty in much of Peru. It’s not that the kids are starving, it’s just that they don’t have very much; what they do have, they’re reluctant to share. With the laptops, the kids had to turn to each other to learn how to use them. Then they realized it was easy to send each other pictures and things they’ve written — and it became commonplace. The sharing, asserts Mrs. Cornejo, extended into the physical world, where once jealously-guarded personal items increasingly started being passed around between the kids, if somewhat nervously.

(Photo: the Arahuay school, exterior.)

“Finally,” opened Mr. Navarro, and hesitated. He gave me another long look, clearly unsure if to proceed. I put on my best smile, and assured him it’s exactly the things he would hesitate to tell me that I want to hear most. He cleared his throat, and in a conspiratorial, low voice — despite the fact we were in an empty room in the town hall — explained he was sure, in the beginning, the pilot would fail.

“Children’s fathers used to seethe with fury when the laptops were passed out, because the kids no longer wanted to help work in the field all day,” he continued.

Mr. Navarro speaks in slow, measured sentences. He is thoughtful and confident, both reminders — along with his weathered face — of being, for many years, foremost a teacher.

“I didn’t know how we’d stop the fathers from revolting and making the kids return their XOs,” he says, shaking his head slightly. “The kids solved the dilemma for me: they taught their fathers how to use the Internet and a search engine.”

“Then they started showing them the work they were doing for school. The reports they wrote, the pictures they took, the notes they compiled. And the fathers had actual proof that their kids were learning,” he concluded.

(Photo: the Arahuay school, classroom interior. Patch panel and coax VSAT hookup visible in the back, disconnected for summer vacation.)

The fathers, I later heard, all decided an education could stop their children from having no choice but to work the field all day as they did. With the laptops in place, the school was no longer a black box whose efficacy had to be taken on faith: the kids could prove they were learning. Schooling had gone open source. So their parents started having them help out only when necessary, and left them to read and write on their XO the rest of the time.

I asked Mrs. Cornejo about the school curriculum. Where was it coming from? Was it any good?

“At the beginning of the year, our teachers used only materials provided by the Ministry. With the laptops, they started doing their own research on the web, preparing detailed lesson plans, and even enlisting the kids’ help. We’ve never seen anything like it,” she cooed. I pressed for details.

“We teach a lesson on the digestive tract, but it’s all spoken, with no visual aids. Well, the teachers had kids look up pictures of the gastrointestinal system, and then they all worked together on putting them into a file from which the lesson ended up being taught,” she offers.

The bad sides
Everything I had heard so far was overwhelmingly enthusiastic and positive. I wanted to hear what wasn’t working. What’s bad about the laptops? The idea?

“The kids really want an activity to learn English, but there isn’t one on the laptops” responds Mr. Navarro. “The 1st and 2nd graders all use an online dictionary, but the Internet connection gets slow with that many users. It’d be nice if a dictionary was on the XO directly. And some mind mapping software,” chimes in a younger teacher who used mind maps heavily in her own schooling.

Both Mrs. Cornejo and Mr. Navarro thought the XO would exacerbate some existing discipline problems at the school. One student, whose name I’ll withhold, commonly gets in fights with others, didn’t speak to or play with his classmates, and would normally sit in a corner of the classroom by himself. The principals anticipated the XO would make him even more territorial and isolated, but they were taken by complete surprise when he became the first kid to figure out the laptop, and then started teaching the others who curiously flocked around him.

“We don’t tell these feel-good stories, these fairy tales,” Mr. Navarro responded to my unspoken skepticism. “It’s just what happened. It’s just how it is.”

I headed back to Lima several hours later, astounded by what I heard and saw.

I don’t write these feel-good stories, these fairy tales. It’s just how it is.

(Photo: sunset at the Lima coastline.)