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Giving Everyone a Laptop is Counterproductive for Learning

By Guest Writer on April 20, 2012

Here’s a quiz for you. Let’s say you are in the middle of a rural below-poverty-line area in a developing country. Let’s say you have 30 mobile phones, or 30 tablets, or 30 laptops. They are all loaded with good quality educational software. You have a class of 30 teenagers or adults. Or even extremely old people.

So the question is – how many of your devices do you hand out to the students? Do you give them one each? Er, no. At least, not in my experience.


One Device Per Multiple Learners

I am Victor Lyons, the author of Tara Akshar, a Hindi adult literacy program that runs on laptops (and tablets and phones, but we like to use laptops because the screen is bigger.) We developed this with our partners, Development Alternatives, an Indian NGO.

We started doing 1:1 – one instructor to one student. We managed to get the students to learn to read and write in a week – yes, really – but it was not viable, because the cost of the instructor makes it prohibitive. So we gradually built up – 2 students per laptop. Then we tried 4 students per laptop. Then we tried having 8 students in a class with one computer, and we ran 3 classes a day. So effectively, one instructor had 24 students at any one time.

This 8 to 1 ratio has proved to be by far the most effective. It’s easy to see why. Our students live in villages with little social activity. Their daily classes are the highlight of their social lives. They arrive in family groups, often with babies, sisters and mother-in-laws in toe. If they spent the whole 100 minute lesson on their own interacting with a laptop or a mobile or a tablet without talking to another human, they wouldn’t like it at all, and wouldn’t turn up for class.

Instead, we have extremely high attendance rates and extremely high pass rates. 60,000 students have graduated so far. So we have found, by trial and error, that 8:1 is the ideal ratio for adult rural literacy learners.

Study Partners Matter

But does this apply to, say, literate people doing vocational training? Probably not. But we still wouldn’t hand out one device to one student. In our lengthy experience, the best way to get people to learn, with or without technological devices, is by getting them to learn in pairs, or in foursomes, or best of all, both pairs and foursomes.

There is a reason for this. Let’s say you have to learn to speak Hindi or Ukrainian, or whatever, a language you know nothing about. Are you going to learn it better sitting on your own fighting your way through “Teach Yourself Hindi”, offline or online? Or are you going to learn it better working with your student twin, and taking it in turns to test each other, and having practice conversations? Of course, two is better, and sometimes four of you would be better still. This doesn’t just apply to languages – Geography or History will benefit from this approach.

Focus on Study Techniques

But let me give a word of caution. Just putting content on a device and getting the students to twin up, or work in foursomes still won’t work very well. They still need to learn how to study – how to use memory techniques, how to use mind maps, and how to use their multiple intelligences.

I once ran a pilot in a Delhi school. I asked the Principal to give me the worst class and the worst subject for a term. She gave me one of the classes of 15 year olds studying history. I told the students I wasn’t going to teach them any history. Instead, I taught them a dozen study techniques for a few days, and then paired them up. I told them they had to teach each other. By taking responsibility for each other, they learned much better. A teacher teaching a new subject learns it much better than a student studying a new subject.

There will of course be a small minority at the far end of the introvert scale who still prefer to study on their own, but mostly productivity will be best with groups of 2 or 4.

Interactive Process is Essential

I have recently been approached by a senior OLPC executive who told me his vision of educating the whole of India by simply putting all the necessary educational content on a tablet computer and handing out devices to everyone. I tried to disabuse him of this idea. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make a student absorb information just because it happens to be on a tablet. The interactive process is essential, and all the better for being student-to-student interactive instead of teacher-to-student.

So please, restrain yourself with the devices, and try pairs and foursomes instead.

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3 Comments to “Giving Everyone a Laptop is Counterproductive for Learning”

  1. Ally Krupar says:

    Thanks for posting. I’ve been working on a project using computer based learning with healthcare workers in rural Uganda and found the same results anecdotally. Do you know of any studies that have shown the impact for this sort of interactive learning? I would love to be able to make this argument of multiple learners using the same tool and learning together, especially in the healthcare setting where time and resources are restricted, with some data other than “this is empirically true.”

    Thanks again!

  2. Kariuki says:

    What Victor says is very true and can change millions of lives… a teacher teaching a new subject learns it better than a student learning a new subject.

    I have to spread this around…..

  3. Andres says:

    This article is really interesting and it could be really helpful for my bachelor thesis. So I was wondering if you have wrote a paper on the topic and how I could have a copy of it. I tried to search on google scholar but I couldn’t find anything. I would know more about the methodology use and the processus of your research.

    Thanks and hope to hear more about you.