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Jennifer DeBoer

I am interested in investigating and evaluating the capacity of the OLPCs as educational tools. I am currently working on developing a health education intervention activity (HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases/hygiene) to go on the laptops and then serve as the treatment in a randomized field trial in rural Mozambique.

contact: or feel free to leave a message on my page.


Last edit:Jumpbean 23:47, 10 March 2008 (EDT)


My Work


I am currently a PhD student in the International Education program in the Department of Leadership and Policy at Vanderbilt University[1]. I am working with Professor Stephen P. Heyneman as well as Professor Tom Smith. Prior to my studies here, I spent two years doing varied work related to education. One of these positions was with the Hole-in-the-Wall project, which put free-access computers into slums and rural villages in India and elsewhere. I completed my undergraduate degrees in Foreign Languages and Mechanical Engineering at M.I.T.

The nexus of my experience and interests is in education innovations for development. Obviously, the OLPC model fits perfectly with my interests. Being in education research, my hope is to rigorously assess an aspect of this model in order to better illuminate any causal effects from this particular innovation and develop the machine to further serve its target population.

The intervention described on my page here is my first major foray into rigorous research in the OLPC world. It is my main purpose in working with OLPC, though my interests may take me further into other areas once this project is underway.


Given that the XO laptops will be distributed to a large number of children in the developing world for them to “explore, experiment, and express themselves,” these machines provide the possibility of an added educational component for these users. It is necessary, therefore, to demonstrate the effectiveness of this technology as an educational tool. This project will demonstrate the existence, size, and scope of this effectiveness in the pressing area of HIV/AIDS/infectious disease knowledge and attitudes.

The researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education will be able to contribute in multiple dimensions to this project. First, they will begin to model the causal relationship between this new educational technology and student outcomes. Second, they will be able to profoundly inform the pedagogical construction of the specific software for the intervention to increase the likelihood of its effectiveness. The OLPC machines offer unique capacities that could be exploited for the greatest educational impact.

Research Question: Does the presence of software related to HIV/AIDS/infectious diseases on the XO laptop have an effect on a child user/owner’s knowledge of and attitude towards HIV/AIDS?

• Does added educational software maximizing the peculiar capabilities of the OLPC machines have an effect significantly different from any effects of the standard OLPC machine?

• Does the effect vary with the amount of training the child’s teacher has received on the machine or the software?

• In the future, research can progress to studying changes in behavior that can be attributed to this intervention.


Literature Review

Since we will be grounding our work in the previously established literature, I would like to point out a few of the pieces I have found useful in the construction of this research. Two bodies of literature are important in the work here. First, there is a large body of work on computers in education and an expanding body of work specifically concerned with health education. There is also a body of research on the needs of the target area, needs that could be specifically addressed by the capabilities of the XO.

Capacities of computers in health education

Since personal computers were first introduced, they have been incorporated into education in a variety of faculties. While traditional educational tools cannot be disputed as being useful, there are capabilities offered by newer technologies that are nearly impossible when using textbooks or classroom instruction. A large body of work exists that has evaluated the utility of computers in classroom settings, with mixed results. Authors argue or demonstrate in varied types of writings that computers enhance academic engagement (Kay & Knaack 2007[2]; Spence & Usher 2007[3]), promote academic achievement (Maninger 2007[4]), facilitate the delivery of curricula (as in distance education), and expand learning into new dimensions (Donavan 2007[5]). Other voices contend that computers may take time away from useful instruction (Wecker et al. 2007[6]) or serve as a less effective delivery method (Stromso et al. 2007[7]).

International evaluations are available as well. Chen and Liu (2007[8]) look at the impact of a computer-based program on Taiwanese students. Wittwer and Senkbeil (2007[9]) use PISA 2003 to investigate German students’ home use of a computer and their math performance.

Computer use outside of the classroom is particularly pertinent to the purpose and capacity of the XO. Some studies suggest that independent acquisition of computer skills could enhance achievement (Garthwait 2007[10]; So & Kong 2007[11]), and researchers with the Hole-in-the-Wall project in India have begun to look at a specific type of unsupervised computer use (Inamdar & Kulkarni 2007[12]). In these projects, computers were made available in commonly frequented public areas near or outside of school grounds. Their findings showed increased achievement in school for children who frequently used the free-access computers.

Laptops like the OLPC can be adapted in real time to the specific profiles of their users. One example of an evaluation of a health curriculum that adapts to the individual user comes from Shegog et al. (2007) [13].

The body of research on computer effectiveness continues to grow, and it is essential that the rigorous research on the OLPC's continue in the same vein.

Specific needs of this area

The area in which this control trial will be implemented is particularly suited for such an evaluation of the XO machines. Zambezia is located in a rural area of Mozambique. Difficulties in recruiting teachers to such areas have been identified (Mulkeen 2007) [14]. However, research on the determinants of student achievement in developing countries points to the fact that more variation in achievement is explained by school resources than home factors (Heyneman & Loxley 1983[15]); the opposite was found to be true in developed countries. Further, the environment served by the Institute for Global Health (the districts of Ilé, Alto Molòcué, Namacurra, Inhassunge, Gile and Lugela) is one with extremely limited resources and medical staff/facilities[16].


The area in which the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health has established an extensive partner network is Zambezia.

<googlemap lat="-16.130262" lon="37.155762" zoom="7"> -16.866667, 37.158333, Zambezia, Mozambique </googlemap>

The current structure of the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health in Mozambique is set up in six districts of the Zambezia province. The Institute works with provincial and district health authorities and is also connected to the Ministry of Health. The Vanderbilt Institute works through its affiliate Friends in Global Health and has offices in Maputo and in Quelimane, Zambezia. While no educational intervention has been conducted yet, the team is well-established locally. They will be able to provide the in-country support necessary to sustain this research project.

The project will first be tested in schools near Gorongosa:

<googlemap lat="-18.6755556" lon="34.0727778" zoom="7"> -18.6755556, 34.0727778, Gorongosa, Mozambique </googlemap>

Research Design

Target Group: Vanderbilt’s Institute for Global Health has set up a working infrastructure through affiliates in Mozambique. With health and education challenges, including limited access to health care and teacher shortages , the rural province where the infrastructure is located is a prime target for such a health education intervention. A larger intervention is planned after initial pilot testing using the Institute for Global Health’s infrastructure. The students selected for the experiment will be of primary school age (5-12) and will be age-appropriate to the subject matter.

Sampling Frame: Our sampling frame will consist of the schools in the Zambezia province of Mozambique, where the Vanderbilt Institute of Global Health has set up clinics in six districts. We will sample from elementary-school-aged students (number determined based on statistical power needs and number of laptops available) and randomly assign schools to one of the three intervention categories. Random assignment will be done at the school level because of the interconnected nature of XO use. To best prevent contamination, whole schools will be randomly assigned to one of the three groups and the research will attempt to control for school effects.

Assessment: Users will complete pre- and post-tests that will assess their attitudes towards and awareness of HIV/AIDS as well as hygiene and infectious diseases. The assessments will be parallel forms of an established age-appropriate measure.

Intervention: The three-part intervention for the larger field trial will divide subjects into the following three groups (see diagram below):

1. standard XO software (control group)

The intent of this project is not to assert the causal effects of the OLPC itself. Other pilot studies and ongoing research projects have this goal in mind, and our purpose is different here. (Refer to some of the aforementioned literature on the possible utility of independent use of computers, which is aside from the evaluative goal of this project.) The control group will serve to separate out baseline effects of the computer from the effect of the health education intervention itself.

2. health education software

Please refer to the section on the program for specifics on the intervention software. This intervention group will receive laptops with all the standard issue software and an added health education package--game-like software that will deal with HIV/AIDS specifically and hygiene/infectious disease protection in general.

3. health education software and additional teacher training on the software

To determine whether the utility of the health education program is at all mediated by teacher awareness of/ability on the software, this second intervention group will include an additional component. Group number three will receive the same laptops as group number two, including the health education intervention activity. In addition, the teachers in group number three will receive training on the XO's and suggested activities for the health education program. Group number two will also serve as a control group for this second intervention group.

Research design.jpg


The added health education component is a game-like program that will be available on the laptops along with the standard hardware for the two treatment groups (numbers 2 and 3). Its content will focus on HIV/AIDS awareness, education, and prevention and will also cover the related and important issues of hygiene and infectious diseases.

The intervention activity has three important components--IDENTITY, LEARNING, and CONNECTION. Each of these components offers an educational tool that is unique to the OLPC system and not available through other established educational technology (e.g. static textbooks).

The first, IDENTITY, allows the user to create a personal health identity that they will use to go through the interactive learning environment activities. By giving input such as age and gender, the learning environment can be tailored specifically to the user. Users can create small journal entries on their own or as responses to health-related questions.

The second, LEARNING, provides the user with important factual information on HIV/AIDS and hygiene/infectious diseases. A glossary/short encyclopedia is provided as a resource for any unknown information. A series of brief lessons allow users to learn through an engaging interactive environment. Some of this component was inspired by promising research on the "It's Your Game" software (Shegog et al. 2007)[17].

The third, CONNECTION, allows users to interact with each other through their computers and collaborate or compete on health-related games. A quiz game allows any users in the same mesh network to compete against each other in answering health questions. An online role-playing game allows users to move through an interactive environment and compete or collaborate to answer health questions correctly. This game could easily, for example, demonstrate how quickly an epidemic can spread. (This particular example is thanks to Eric-Jan Manders, a collaborator at the Institute for Global Health.)

These three components will be fused together in the simple, colorful, straightforward health activity. They will be made to be accessible even by non-literate users.


OLPC Health Group

Peabody School of Education


Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health



^  ^  Shegog, R., Markham, C., Peskin, M., Dancel, M., Coton, C., & Tortolero, S. (2007). "It's Your Game": An Innovative Multimedia Virtual World to Prevent HIV/STI and Pregnancy in Middle School Youth. MEDINFO 2007.

^ Mulkeen, A. (2007). What do we know about the Deployment, Utilization and management of Teachers: The case of Rural Schools in Africa. Paris: UNESCO. (October 3rd.)

^ Kay, R. & Knaack, L. (2007). Evaluating the Use of Learning Objects for Secondary School Science. JI. of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching (2007) 26(4), 261-289.

^ Spence, D.J. & Usher, E.L. (2007). Engagement with Mathematics Courseware in Traditional and Online Remedial Learning Environments: Relationship to Self-Efficacy and Achievement. J. Educational Computing Research, Vol. 37(3) 267-288, 2007.

^ Maninger, R. M. (1007). "Successful Technology Integration: Student Test Scores Improved in an English Literature Course through the Use of Supportive Devices." TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning 50(5): 37-45.

^ Donavan, W. (2007). Student Use of Web-Based Tutorial Materials and Understanding of Chemistry Concepts. JI. of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching (2007) 26(4), 291-327.

^ Wecker, C., Kohnlet, C. & Fischer, F. (2007). Computer Literacy and Inquiry Learning: when geeks learn less. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2007), 23, 133-144.

^ Stromso, H.I., Grottumt, P., & Lycke, K.H. (2007). Content and processes in problem-based learning: a comparison of computer-mediated and face-to-face communication. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2007), 23, 271-282.

^ Chen, C.J. & Liu, P.L. (2007). Personalized Computer-Assisted Mathematics Problem-Solving Program and Its Impact on Taiwanese Students. JI. of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching (2007) 26(2), 105-121.

^ Wittwer, J. & Senkbeil, M. (2007). Is students’ computer use at home related to their mathematical performance at school? Computers & Education (2007), doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2007.03.001.

^ Garthwait, A. (2007). Middle School Hypermedia Composition: A Qualitative Case Study. JI. of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia (2007) 16(4), 357-375.

^ So, W.M.W. & Kong, S.C. (2007). Approaches of Inquiry Learning With Multimedia Resources in Primary Classrooms. JI. of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching (2007) 26(4), 329-354.

^ Inamdar, P., & Kulkarni, A. (2007). ‘Hole-In-The-Wall’ Computer Kiosks Foster Mathematics Achievement - A comparative study. Educational Technology & Society, 10 (2), 170-179.

^ Heyneman, S.P. & Loxely, W.A. (1983). The Effect of Primary-School Quality on Academic Achievement Across Twenty-nine High- and Low-Income Countries. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 88, No. 6 (May, 1983), pp. 1162-1194.