Nepal: Laptop School

Dispatches / by Gaia Vince /

Saving a generation of young students with creative thinking, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a little green computer.

children using laptops Photograph: Nick Pattinson.

Rabi Karmacharya is young, handsome and charismatic — and he is a man on a mission. The MIT-educated IT engineer from Silicon Valley has returned to his native Kathmandu with an ambitious goal: to give the poorest kids in one of the poorest nations a chance at a good education.

“I wanted to be able to look back in ten years’ time and say that I’d done something important, not just become a little richer,” he explains.

A little over a year ago, Rabi set up Open Learning Exchange Nepal, a non-profit organization that develops curriculum-based content in the Nepali language to run on the rugged, inter-connected XO laptops made by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) consortium. “By 2015, we want every child in Nepal’s public schools to have one,” he says.

It’s a daunting task for such a tiny outfit. Less than half of Nepalis are literate — 45% according to government figures. And this figure doesn’t reflect “functional literacy rates,” which measure whether a person can read and write well enough to function in literate society. Of the country’s eight million school-age children, 84% attend primary school; by age 11 half have dropped out.

Twelve years of insurgency and conflict have left Nepal’s new Maoist government with more than a crippled education system to deal with — 
when we meet, Rabi and I are forced to huddle around candles, as the government has imposed daily 14-hour power outages.

“We simply cannot wait for the government to deliver high-quality education. We’re losing another generation,” Rabi says. “But we’re working hard with the education department and government ministries to ensure that they take ownership of the project. In three to four years, we want to hand this over to them.”

At the start of the school year last April, the group began a test run of 200 computers, donated by the Danish IT Society, in two of Nepal’s rural schools, for grades 2 and 6 (ages 6-7 and 11-12 respectively). This April, the project is expanding to 15 more schools across five districts, distributing a total of 44,000 laptops funded by a consortium of European bankers.

The OLPC’s XO laptop is bright green, encased in plastic, and is the size of a small textbook. The screen opens and swivels fully into a reading pane. It has two antennae that allow it to connect to other XOs in a 50-meter radius and also to the Internet, WiFi-availability permitting. “The project is not about a computer,” Tim Denny insists, an education consultant who is setting up a similar program in Cambodia. “It’s about changing the way people think about education, making learning a collaborative, innovative process. The XO gives a kid a chance to excel in a decrepit educational system with poor quality teaching and outdated, insufficient textbooks.”

From the start, Rabi realized that providing high-quality, free programs and content on the laptops would be vital to the project’s success, and his team has been working with education experts, animators, and software developers to create interactive and engaging programs in Math, English, and Nepali. They are also developing a library of open-source digital learning materials that the children will be able to access online. Rabi’s organization also runs teacher training-sessions and composes sample lesson-plans to prepare teachers for the collaborative-style class work that the laptops encourage. Nepal is the first country in which this type of dynamic laptop education system is being rolled out. Rabi is now getting inquiries from Bolivia and Guatemala.

“The Nepali program is way ahead of anything I’ve seen elsewhere in terms of content,” Denny says. “In other places, such as Uruguay, the laptops are distributed and the children use them for independent Internet research. But here, they are integrated into lessons in a progressive and innovative way.”

In Uruguay, as with most other countries involved in the program, the government is very much the driver behind the project. “We are having to persuade and cajole the government in Nepal every step of the way,” Rabi says. The Uruguayan government, for example, has purchased 350,000 XOs, and by the end of 2009 every child will own one and have access to the Internet. Literacy rates there are more than 98%.

But the per capita GDP of Uruguay is ten times that of Nepal. In Nepal, many of the teachers had never used a computer before, let alone the children, says Manoj Ghimire, a science teacher at Bishwamitra Secondary School, one of the two schools that has been involved in the OLE’s project this past year. He says that the children, some just six-years-old, love their laptops and take great care of them. There hasn’t been a single case of loss or vandalism, he tells me, although one child damaged hers by washing it.

“Attendance records have definitely improved,” Ghimire says, confessing to a handy trick. “We keep the chargers at the school; the batteries only last three hours, so even the laziest kids come into school just to charge their laptops,” he laughs. “Before we started the program, we had more than 10% absenteeism,” he says. Now the non-attendance level is negligible. “The classes are more fun,” Ghimire adds. “Subjects like fraction addition, which was hard to teach, is much simpler now with the animations. And the children easily see how they are doing.”

My own laptop battery dies before the candles are extinguished on Rabi’s desk, and I take my leave. There’s a long way to go even before every child in a single school in Nepal has a laptop, let alone in the whole country. And with very poor Internet access, even in the capital, getting full use from the technology will take some time. But if this current generation of kids can leapfrog the failing system with little more than an inexpensive plastic computer stocked with clever programs, Rabi could just succeed in bypassing decades of slow national development.

Originally published January 8, 2009

Tags development education entrepreneur growth innovation technology

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