One Laptop per Child

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project has a mission to “create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop”.

OLPC was founded by Nicholas Negroponte a professor at MIT, big player in the world of IT and best-selling author.

They manufacture a ruggedised laptop called the XO which runs a Linux-based custom open source operating system and user interface (called Sugar). The laptop itself is quite striking with the “rabbit ears” WiFi aerials and has gone through a number of revisions.

While I was in Caprivi last easter on loan to the Ministry of Education it turned out one of the schools had a whole bunch of XO laptops that had been organised by previous American volunteers at the school.

Unfortunately for a variety of reasons these weren’t being utilised. Sensing an opportunity to get some IT work going at the school (and of course to get my hands on some cool kit) we went down and visited the school which is near the Zambezi river close to the Botswana border.

After an initial visit and discussion with the principal we took some XOs back to Katima Mulilo to play with familiarise ourselves with and see how they could best be used in the school.

OLPC XO Laptops Charging for a Lesson

A stack of OLPC XO laptops charging for a lesson in Caprivi

The XO hardware is excellent. Well designed (once you figure out how to open it, a source of great amusement for some as the supposed “IT expert” [their words not mine] struggled to find a catch), durable and with a very low power footprint.

OLPC XO Laptops in use in Caprivi, Namibia

Kids Absorbed by Using the XO in an Example Lesson

I do have one or two criticisms which I’ll go into later but first off let me say I think the project is a brilliant idea. As a way to bridging the digital divide and providing future generations with key IT skills there is simply no substitute to allowing hands-on experience. OLPC provides a cost-effective, sustainable and highly effective way of doing this.

Even with a few reservations I think providing XO laptops is a far better option than rooms full of virus infested and over complex for the need Windows based PCs not to mention the ongoing management of such a system. They are a much better option than centrally managed thin clients (regardless of the OS) and of course infinitely better than nothing at all.

Very quickly I had them up and running at my friend’s house, using the interface is very easy and allows you simple access suitable for young children as well as more complex access (up to a shell interface suitable for big children like myself).

The bundled software is superb and this was just the pre-loaded stuff. Time and internet access didn’t allow me to fully explore the massive range of software packages available online for download and install.

As well as the normal things you would expect like a word-processor and calculator there was even software to use the inbuilt microphone (or I believe add-on sensors) as an osciliscope. Lots of other packages allowed pictures to be taken, played with and manipulated; exactly the kind of “fun education” that lets people learn while thinking they’re just playing.

One Laptop per Child XO in an English Lesson in Namibia

XO Laptop Ready for Use in an English Lesson

In the end we went back to the school. I spent quite some time with the IT teacher showing how the XO can be used to fulfil the curriculum requirements. Vivien (my VSO colleague and sponsor of my visit) then taught an example English lesson to a class demonstrating their use beyond just IT classes. We also held a lesson in the afternoon for the teachers to see how easily they could be utilised.

OLPC XO Laptops in Use for an English lesson in Namibia

XO Laptops Used in an Example English Lesson

Now onto the points which I feel (in my humble and worthless opinion) could be improved or refined. Note that we were using old versions of the XO, the originally installed (and out of date) operating system and without additional downloaded packages any/all of which may address some of these concerns.

The Vision: One Laptop per Child

Given that the vision is for each child to have their own individual laptop it may be going against the grain for me to say I’m not sure this is the best solution. The idea is that schools receive and give out laptops to individual children who then keep them, using them in lessons and taking them home.

I can see how if this worked totally it would be for the best and also how it could sound good when presented as a project plan in the US.

The reality is this approach suffers from a few drawbacks.

In the school I have experience of there weren’t enough XO laptops for every child, not by a long shot. There were just about enough for one year. Unless they are universally provided then it means some children have lots of access and others none.

By taking them out of the “computer lab” environment it’s hoped that the children with XOs would use them in every lesson, do their homework on them and even use them at home. Where XOs are not universally available to all this would call for teachers to offer two types of lesson, one based on the laptops and another with pen and paper.

Wear and tear are drastically increased by having them ported around and taken home by the kids. A computer lab suffers from enough damage in a static and theoretically supervised environment (trust me; I remember from school and I have friends who work in schools).

Then of course there is what I like to call the thieving elephant in the room. Realistically you have to accept that no matter how cheap the XO once kids take them home it may become the most expensive (and flashy) thing in the village. At the school we were working at this was a major problem with two being lost on the first night (hence the recall and lack of use since).

Would I like to see kids all with their own laptops? Going home being able to work on their homework, even surf the net through a “mesh network” and perhaps for their parents to gain knowledge through the software and data included? Of course I would.

Given the problems mentioned, specifically the lack of universality would I rather see a school years’ worth of XOs deployed within the school and regularly used by all the children in a supervised, safe and supported environment? Yes I would.

But the XO software (aside from the contractual requirements for them to be distributed which I believe exist) makes this hard with the entire system built upon a single user and single data store.

For the cost of one lab of buggy and problematic thick-client PCs you could equip four or even five classrooms with XOs giving the opportunity to use IT not to one class at a time, or one year for all time but for five classes throughout the entire school all the time.

File Storage

The designers of the XO and interface decided not to have a “traditional” file system but rather use a journal-based approach. Instead of saving files with a name in a hierarchial (fancy name for in folders) store all work is saved all the time and you access a central log of all your activities and then re-open ones at will.

This is meant to be more conducive to a “learning environment” and allow users to access their work in the order they created it.

I am absolutely sure this was done in consultation with education experts and for the best of reasons. Just as sure as I am that it’s not the right way to go.

Personally I found the journal system hard to use and in a relatively short time was struggling to find the right example files I was working on. This may well be just me failing to embrace change and bringing my old school concepts to bear too rigidly. But that is besides the point.

Like it or loathe it all modern computer systems use hierarchical file storage. Whether you’re using Windows, Mac OS, Linux or Solaris (or even a “cloud based” file store like google docs) the basic premise of files organised by structure is there. Someone who has learned to save and load files from the My Documents folder on Vista won’t actually have trouble doing the same from ~/Documents on Fedora.

There is a reason for this standardisation. It works. Organising information by category and in order is what we humans do, the computerised filesystem is just a modernised version of filing cabinets and ring binders.

Further being the accepted standard means that once beyond the education world of XOs ex-children who are now adults will be faced with such a filesystem and those that cut their teeth on Windows will sadly have an advantage over those using Sugar. “What do you mean save it?”.

Of course the standard is not without fault. It’s easy to end up in just such a mess if not more of one using hierarchical storage than a journal system. But there is nothing to stop an interface offering the option to view stored files in date-order or even to provide the ability to tag documents with keywords separate to their storage location.

To my mind providing at least the option of using a more traditional approach to file management teaches key skills for later life, makes it easier for stick-in-the-mud users like me to transition to the XO and doesn’t have to do away with the concept of a “learning journal” at all.

The word processor uses the standard approach with highlighting and a toolbar for changes, exactly the same concept as used by Word, Open Office, Impression or Google Docs. Why can’t the file access?

Networking

One of the big features of the XO is its wireless networking and specifically the ability to create “mesh” networks. These are sort of Ad-Hoc Wifi networks allowing users within range to collaborate on work, share files or chat. You can also access systems “through the mesh” in a kind of peer-to-peer way, you are in range of Bob and he is in range of Ed therefore you can talk to Ed (as long as Bob doesn’t wander off or switch off).

This is a great idea and facilitates easy sharing and exchange of information in the classroom. The visualisation and setup tools are also superb; powerful yet easy.

The problem I found is that it often doesn’t work. Being a simplified interface it was also hard to see why (though if I had time I’m sure I could delve into the depths of the console and dig out some diagnostics). When it did work sharing work was great fun and potentially a very useful tool. When it didn’t it was just frustrating.

Also again here the vision crops up. The mesh networks are designed on an “all are equal” basis. In fact in a classroom environment what you want to see is an easy way to have one XO (say the teachers) publish information, tasks or documents to all the other computers (an “all are equal but some are more equal than others” basis). This may be possible but in the time we had there was nothing obvious.

There is the option to have a server which can be used to manage/update/backup the XOs but on a per-classroom basis it’s not feasible. What I would like to see is a solution whereby the teacher can setup the work, setup a network with some sort of code (to avoid confusion from neighbouring rooms) and then let the children all access it maybe with the option to have their work automatically saved onto the teachers laptop as well for easy marking.

I also think some sort of remote control/remote management on a peer-to-peer basis would be an excellent idea and give teachers the ability to help and support their class on a per-user or per-classroom basis.

Small Issues

In the grand scheme of the project these are small issues.

OLPC is a great project which is already having significant, real and ongoing benefits to some of the most disadvantaged children the world over. In turn this will lead to a more skilled workforce in the emerging world, stronger economies and all the benefits and stability that brings.

In an increasingly technical age access to (and the ability to use) IT and the knowledge, efficiencies and communication advantages it can bring are essential. At least until the end-of-days in 2012 anyway.

OLPC this Larium deranged IT volunteer salutes you!

One Laptop per Child XO Laptops in use in Namibia

Another Shot of the Example English Lesson Using XO Laptops

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