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Five years ago Peru’s government equipped 800,000 of its public school students with low-cost laptops through the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The purpose was to use digital technology to fight poverty by boosting student learning.

According to reports, such as this one in eSchool News, the effort in Peru has largely been a flop. The initiative cost the government more than $200 million. One person quoted in the story even wonders if it may have even widened the gaps between rich and poor students in the country.


Yet this was entirely predictable ahead of time.

All too often advocates for education technology have extolled its benefits without recognizing that technology alone will not transform education. Technology by itself does not transform anything in any sector. What tends to matter far more is the model in which the technology is used.

The One Laptop Per Child initiative in particular gathered significant publicity and hype for its admirable goals, but people implementing it in many countries appeared not to have thought through the professional development teachers would need or, even more importantly, a redesign of the schooling model itself to leverage the considerable benefits that digital learning can deliver.

We have seen this movie before, both inside and outside education. As we wrote in Disrupting Class, for a couple decades we spent aggressively on equipping classrooms with computers in the United States—well over $60 billion by a conservative estimate—without significant gains to show for it. Like most established organizations in other sectors, the education system’s inclination when it sees a potentially disruptive technology is to cram it into its existing model to sustain what it is already doing, but not fundamentally transform that model into a student-centric one (the importance of making this transformation should be clearer in light of the ACT’s announcement today that 60 percent of 2012 high school graduates are at risk of not succeeding in college and career).

Where technology has helped transform education—in online learning (both at a distance and in blended-learning models)—it is because it has been implemented in a new learning model. Carpe Diem Schools provide a great example; their schools look nothing like a traditional school and their flagship school has achieved dramatic results for students.

The inclination to use technology as a sustaining innovation has not just been true with computers. There is a long history of schools using technologies to, in effect, sustain the chalkboard and prop up the 20th-century factory model classroom with the teacher in front of 20 to 30 students of the same age. The recent hype over electronic white boards has been only the latest incarnation of this, as the images from my blog here make clear.

When we finally learn that technology alone won’t transform education—even as it will almost certainly be a critical ingredient in the transformation—we’ll be in a much better place. Districts spending wildly on iPads and other devices should take note. Peru can attest to that.

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