OLPC Australia programme cycle

Creating an Education Programme

OLPC Aus­tralia had a strong pres­ence at linux​.conf​.au 2012 in Bal­larat, two weeks ago.

I gave a talk in the main key­note room about our edu­ca­tional pro­gramme, in which I explained our mis­sion and how we intend to achieve it.

Even if you saw my talk at OSDC 2011, I recom­mend that you watch this one. It is much improved and con­tains new and updated mater­ial. The You­Tube ver­sion is above, but a higher qual­ity ver­sion is avail­able for down­load from Linux Aus­tralia.

The ref­er­ences for this talk are on our devel­op­ment wiki.

Here’s a bet­ter ver­sion of the video I played near the begin­ning of my talk:

I should start by point­ing out out that OLPC is by no means a niche or minor pro­ject. XO laptops are in the hands of 8000 chil­dren in Aus­tralia, across 130 remote com­munit­ies. Around the world, over 2.5 mil­lion chil­dren, across nearly 50 coun­tries, have an XO.

Invest­ment in our Children’s Future

The key point of my talk is that OLPC Aus­tralia have a com­pre­hens­ive edu­ca­tion pro­gramme that highly val­ues teacher empower­ment and com­munity engagement.

The invest­ment to provide a con­nec­ted learn­ing device to every one of the 300 000 chil­dren in remote Aus­tralia is less than 0.1% of the annual edu­ca­tion and con­nectiv­ity budgets.

For low socio-​​economic status schools, the cost is only $80 AUD per child. Spon­sor­ships, primar­ily from cor­por­ates, allow us to sub­sid­ise most of the expense (you too can donate to make a dif­fer­ence). Also keep in mind that this is a total cost of own­er­ship, cov­er­ing the essen­tials like teacher train­ing, sup­port and spare parts, as well as the XO and char­ging rack.

While our prin­cipal focus is on remote, low socio-​​economic status schools, our pro­gramme is avail­able to any school in Aus­tralia. Yes, that means schools in the cites as well. The invest­ment for non-​​subsidised schools to join the same pro­gramme is only $380 AUD per child.

Com­pre­hens­ive Edu­ca­tion Programme

We have a respons­ib­il­ity to invest in our children’s edu­ca­tion — it is not just another mar­ket. As a not-​​for-​​profit, we have the free­dom and the desire to make this hap­pen. We have no interest in vendor lock-​​in; build­ing sus­tain­ab­il­ity is an essen­tial part of our mis­sion. We have no incent­ive to build a depend­ency on us, and every incent­ive to ensure that schools and com­munit­ies can help them­selves and each other.

We only provide XOs to teach­ers who have been suf­fi­ciently enabled. Their train­ing pre­pares them to con­struct­ively use XOs in their les­sons, and is form­ally recog­nised as part of their pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment. Bey­ond the min­imum 15-​​hour XO-​​certified course, a teacher may choose to undergo a fur­ther 510 hours to earn XO-​​expert status. This pre­pares them to be able to train other teach­ers, using OLPC Aus­tralia resources. Again, we are redu­cing depend­ency on us.

OLPC Australia certifications

Train­ing is con­duc­ted online, after the teacher signs up to our pro­gramme and they receive their XO. This scales well to let us effect­ively train many teach­ers spread across the coun­try. Par­ti­cipants in our pro­gramme are encour­aged to par­ti­cip­ate in our online com­munity to share resources and assist one another.

OLPC Australia online training process
Online train­ing process

We also want to recog­nise and encour­age chil­dren who have shown enthu­si­asm and aptitude, with our XO-​​champion and XO-​​mechanic cer­ti­fic­a­tions. Not only does this pro­mote sus­tain­ab­il­ity in the school and give invalu­able skills to the child, it rein­forces our core prin­ciple of Child Own­er­ship. Teacher aides, par­ents, eld­ers and other non-​​teacher adults have the XO-​​basics (formerly known as XO-​​local) course designed for them. We want the child’s learn­ing exper­i­ence to extend to the home envir­on­ment and bey­ond, and not be con­strained by the walls of the classroom.

There’s a reason why I’m wear­ing a t-​​shirt that says “No, I won’t fix your com­puter.” We’re on a mis­sion to develop a pro­gramme that is self-​​sustaining. We’ve set high goals for ourselves, and we are determ­ined to meet them. We won’t get there overnight, but we’re well on our way. Sus­tain­ab­il­ity is about respect. We are tak­ing the time to show them the ropes, help­ing them to own it, and devel­op­ing our tech­no­logy to make it easy. We fun­da­ment­ally dis­agree with the atti­tude that ordin­ary people are not cap­able enough to take con­trol of their own futures. Vendor lock-​​in is com­pletely con­tra­dict­ory to our mis­sion. Our schools are not just con­sumers; they are pro­du­cers too.

As explained by Jonathan Nalder (a highly recom­men­ded read!), there are two primary notions guid­ing our pro­gramme. The first is that the nom­inal $80 invest­ment per child is just enough for a school to take the pro­gramme ser­i­ously and make them a stake­holder, greatly improv­ing the chances for suc­cess. The second is that this is a schools-​​centric pro­gramme, driven from grass­roots demand rather than being a régime imposed from above. Schools that par­ti­cip­ate genu­inely want the pro­gramme to succeed.

OLPC Australia programme cycle
Pro­gramme cycle

Tech­no­logy as an Enabler

Enabling this edu­ca­tional pro­gramme is the clever devel­op­ment and use of tech­no­logy. That’s where I (as Engin­eer­ing Man­ager at OLPC Aus­tralia) come in. For tech­no­logy to be truly intrinsic to edu­ca­tion, there must be no spe­cial­ist expert­ise required. Teach­ers aren’t IT pro­fes­sion­als, and nor should they be expec­ted to be. In short, we are using com­puters to teach, not teach­ing com­puters.

The key prin­ciples of the Engin­eer­ing Depart­ment are:

  • Tech­no­logy is an integ­ral and seam­less part of the learn­ing exper­i­ence – the pen and paper of the 21st century.
  • To elim­in­ate depend­ence on tech­nical expert­ise, through the devel­op­ment and deploy­ment of sus­tain­able technologies.
  • Empower­ing chil­dren to be con­tent pro­du­cers and col­lab­or­at­ors, not just con­tent consumers.
  • Open plat­form to allow learn­ing from mis­takes… and easy recovery.

OLPC have done a mar­vel­lous job in their design of the XO laptop, giv­ing us a fant­astic plat­form to build upon. I think that our engin­eer­ing pro­jects in Aus­tralia have been quite innov­at­ive in help­ing to cover the ‘last mile’ to the school. One thing I’m espe­cially proud of is our instance on open­ness. We turn tra­di­tional sys­tems admin­is­tra­tion prac­tice on its head to com­pletely empower the end-​​user. Tech­no­logy that is deployed in cor­por­ate or edu­ca­tional set­tings is typ­ic­ally locked down to make admin­is­tra­tion and sup­port easier. This takes con­trol com­pletely away from the end-​​user. They are severely lim­ited on what they can do, and if some­thing doesn’t work as they expect then they are totally at the mercy of the admins to fix it.

In an edu­ca­tional set­ting this is dis­astrous — it severely lim­its what our chil­dren can learn. We learn most from our mis­takes, so let’s provide an envir­on­ment in which chil­dren are able to safely make mis­takes and recover from them. The soft­ware is quite res­ist­ant to fail­ure, both at the tech­nical level (being based on Fedora Linux) and at the user inter­face level (Sugar). If all goes wrong, rein­stalling the oper­at­ing sys­tem and restor­ing a journal (Sugar user files) backup is a trivial endeav­our. The XO hard­ware is also renowned for its rug­ged­ness and repair­ab­il­ity. Less well-​​known are the amaz­ing dia­gnostics tools, provid­ing quick and easy indic­a­tion that a com­pon­ent should be repaired/​replaced. We provide a com­pletely unlocked envir­on­ment, with full access to the root user and the firm­ware. Some may call that dan­ger­ous, but I call that empower­ment. If a child starts hack­ing on an XO, we want to hire that kid :)


My talk fea­tures the case study of Doomadgee State School, in far-​​north Queens­land. Doomadgee have very enthu­si­ast­ic­ally taken on board the OLPC Aus­tralia pro­gramme. Every one of the 350 chil­dren aged 414 have been issued with an XO, as part of a com­pre­hens­ive pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment and sup­port pro­gramme. Since com­men­cing in late 2010, the per­cent­age of Year 3 pupils at or above national min­imum stand­ards in numer­acy has leapt from 31% in 2010 to 95% in 2011. Other scores have also increased. Think what you may about NAPLAN, but nev­er­the­less that is a stag­ger­ing improvement.

In fed­eral par­lia­ment, Robert Oakeshott MP has been very sup­port­ive of our mission:

Most import­antly of all, quite simply, One Laptop per Child Aus­tralia deliv­ers res­ults in learn­ing from the 5,000 stu­dents already engaged, show­ing impress­ive improve­ments in clos­ing the gap gen­er­ally and lift­ing access and par­ti­cip­a­tion rates in particular.

We are also engaged in lon­git­ud­inal research, work­ing closely with respec­ted research­ers to have a com­pre­hens­ive eval­u­ation of our pro­gramme. We will release more inform­a­tion on this as the eval­u­ation pro­cess matures.

Join our mission

Schools can register their interest in our pro­gramme on our Edu­ca­tion site.

Our Pro­spectus provides a high-​​level overview.

For a detailed ana­lysis, see our Policy Doc­u­ment.

If you would like to get involved in our tech­nical devel­op­ment, visit our devel­op­ment site.


Many thanks to col­leagues Ran­gan Srikhanta (CEO) and Tracy Richard­son (Edu­ca­tion Man­ager) for some of the inform­a­tion and graph­ics used in this article.