How classroom laptops may help to boost Rwanda's economy


Cheap machines that still cost half a year’s wages are creating controversy, writes NICK WADHAMSin Kigali

IN A DARK, dirty classroom, 49 children sat on creaky benches in front of 49 green and white laptop computers. Their teacher, wearing a white lab coat, cradled another laptop in his arm.

The students were learning a basic science lesson about water and forests. On one side of the room, the laptop screens displayed a photograph of a shark. On the other side, a forest in Alaska.

“You have what on your screen?” asked teacher Amiable Ndayisenga.

“Me teacher! Me!” the students shouted, snapping their raised fingers to get his attention. “Water!” said one. “Fish!” shouted another.

This scene at Kigali’s Kagugu Primary was what the founders of the US-based One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programme had in mind when they unveiled their project in 2005.

OLPC wants to transform education in poor countries by giving kids laptops which will, according to its mission statement, spark “collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning”.

Rwanda has just finished a pilot programme with the laptop and plans to buy and distribute another 100,000 computers – at $181 each (€150) to children by next June. A year after that, it wants to distribute laptops to half of Rwanda’s 2.5 million schoolchildren.

Given that there is no hard data on the effectiveness of OLPC, it is a risky experiment for Rwanda, a country whose annual budget revenue is just $1.2 billion.

Sceptics of OLPC, unveiled in 2005, ask why Rwanda and other poor countries should spend so much money on specially designed XO laptops when its schools lack electricity and teachers often earn less than $100 a month.

To understand why Rwanda will invest so much in laptops, you have to understand President Paul Kagame’s vision for his country’s future. He wants to triple the size of Rwanda’s economy by 2020 – no easy task in a landlocked, tiny nation that has no natural resources and whose history includes the 1994 genocide which killed 800,000 people.

Kagame plans to make Rwanda a technology and services hub, and that’s where the laptops come in.

He and OLPC’s proponents hope the computers will both teach the students the language of technology and offer them a way to chase down simple information they lack but which kids in rich nations take for granted – like pictures of sharks and forests.

“Rwanda has been taking a lot of bold steps to ensure that it speeds up its development because we’ve lost so much time,” Rwandan government OLPC co- ordinator Nkubito Bakuramutsa said in reference to the 1994 genocide. “We usually throw ourselves in the water and, while swimming, figure out how we’re going to do the last steps.”

That philosophy of “do it now, iron out the kinks later” was clearly evident at the two schools in Kigali, Kagugu and Nonko Primary, where teachers and students were grappling with how to blend these laptops into their lessons.

After watching schoolchildren composing music and playing games with their laptops, I stepped out into a courtyard and saw the school principal, Françoise Murekeyisoni, in a heated argument with the mother of Valentine Mutoni, who stood looking stricken next to her. Valentine had lost her laptop several days before, but the family had only told her teachers now.

“Now it’s Tuesday. Why didn’t you tell me about what happened when the laptop got lost on Friday?” Murekeyisoni asked Valentine, and then turned to me. “This is my responsibility. Taking care of these kids means I have to take care of the property at school.”

The government knows that computers will get lost or stolen, but officials still have not made clear who will be responsible for replacing them, a big problem where the laptop’s value is half a year’s wages for most Rwandans.

Murekeyisoni herself has tracked down people who bought laptops from kids for a few dollars and bought them back.

It is partly because the laptops are so valuable that Murekeyisoni has ignored OLPC’s suggestion that kids should take the laptops home. For now, she rounds up the computers at the end of the day and locks them up.

Murekeyisoni, who is nonetheless a fervent proponent of the laptops, told me there was a second reason for keeping the laptops at school: parents didn’t want them around the house. Some complained their children were entranced by the computers and did nothing but tinker with them.

“These children are still young and they are excited. They love laptops very much, beyond anything else. The parents find the laptops are becoming an obsession. The kids don’t take time to eat, they stay up late and it becomes a distraction from their chores.”

It is these sorts of unforeseen consequences that have led some to argue OLPC is too much an outside initiative, drawn up without enough input from poor countries. They say Rwanda has far bigger problems, such as an outdated national curriculum and the requirement that students be taught in English rather than French.

“It’s yet another top-down solution dumped on us,” said Teddy Ruge, co-founder of Project Diaspora, which seeks to get Africans from the diaspora involved in economic growth on the continent. “We are forced yet again to adapt because someone out there though it was a great idea.”

OLPC advocates and staff say integrating computers into poor people’s lives will take time.

“There’s such compelling evidence of more than 40 years of what you can do with computers for education,” said David Cavallo, OLPC’s vice president and chief learning architect, who lives in Rwanda. He believes OLPC’s laptops will help jump-start a moribund education system.

“If you have a better method to really improve education in a short period, that prepares people for the modern world, that’s great, let’s hear it,” Cavallo said. “What else would you do that costs less, that’s really effective?”