Category Archives: Publications

Published in Engineers Without Borders Magazine

Engineers Without Borders asked me to write something for their Humanitarian Engineering magazine about One Laptop per Child. Here is what I wrote.

The school bell rings, and the children filter into the classroom. Each is holding an XO – their own personal learning device.

Students from Doomadgee often use their XOs for outdoors education. The sunlight-readable screen
combined with the built-in camera allow for hands-on exploration of their environment.

This is no ordinary classroom. As if by magic, the green and white XOs automatically see each other as soon as they are started up, allowing children to easily share information and collaborate on activities together. The kids converse on how they can achieve the tasks at hand. One girl is writing a story on her XO, and simultaneously on the same screen she can see the same story being changed by a boy across the room. Another group of children are competing in a game that involves maths questions.

Children in Kiwirrkurra, WA, collaborate on an activity with help from teachers.

Through the XO, the learning in this classroom has taken on a peer-to-peer character. By making learning more fun and engaging, children are better equipped to discover and pursue their interests. Through collaboration and connectivity, they can exchange knowledge with their peers and with the world. In the 21st century, textbooks should be digital and interactive. They should be up-to-date and locally relevant. They should be accessible and portable.

Of course, the teacher’s role remains vital, and her role has evolved into that of a facilitator in this knowledge network. She is better placed to provide more individual pathways for learning. Indeed the teacher is a learner as well, as the children quickly adapt to the new technology and learn skills that they can teach back.

A teacher in Jigalong, WA, guides a workgroup of children in their class.

Helping to keep the classroom session smoothly humming along are children who have proven themselves to be proficient with assisting their classmates and fixing problems (including repairing hardware). These kids have taken part in training programmes that award them for their skills around the XO. In the process, they are learning important life skills around problem solving and teamwork.

Dozens of students in Doomadgee State School are proficient in fixing XO hardware.

This is all part of the One Education experience, an initiative from One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Australia. This educational programme provides a holistic educational scaffolding around the XO, the laptop developed by the One Laptop per Child Association that has its roots in the internationally-acclaimed MIT Media Lab in the USA.

The XO was born from a desire to empower each and every child in the world with their own personal learning device. Purpose-built for young children and using solid open source software, the XO provides an ideal platform for classroom learning. Designed for outdoors, with a rugged design and a high-resolution sunlight-readable screen, education is no longer confined to a classroom or even to the school grounds. Learning time needn’t stop with the school bell – many children are taking their XOs home. Also important is the affordability and full repairability of the devices, making it cost-effective versus non-durable and ephemeral items such as stationery, textbooks and other printed materials. There are over 3 million XOs in distribution, and in some countries (such as Uruguay) every child owns one.

A One Education classroom in Kenya.

One Education’s mission is to provide educational opportunities to every child, no matter how remote or disadvantaged. The digital divide is a learning divide. This can be conquered through a combination of modern technology, training and support, provided in a manner that empowers local schools and communities. The story told above is already happening in many classrooms around the country and the world.

A One Education classroom in northern Thailand.

With teacher training often being the Achilles’ heel of technology programmes in the field of education, One Education focuses only on teachers who have proven their interest and aptitude through the completion of a training course. Only then are they eligible to receive XOs (with an allocation of spare parts) into their classroom. Certified teachers are eligible for ongoing support from OLPC Australia, and can acquire more hardware and parts as required.

As a not-for-profit, OLPC Australia works with sponsors to heavily subsidise the costs of the One Education programme for low socio-economic status schools. In this manner, the already impressive total cost of ownership can be brought down even further.

High levels of teacher turnover are commonplace in remote Australian schools. By providing courses online, training can be scalable and cost-effective. Local teachers can even undergo further training to gain official trainer status themselves. Some schools have turned this into a business – sending their teacher-trainers out to train teachers in other schools.

Students in Geeveston in Tasmania celebrate their attainment of XO-champion status, recognising
their proficiency in using the XO and their helpfulness in the classroom.

With backing from the United Nations Development Programme, OLPC are tackling the Millennium Development Goals by focusing on Goal 2 (Achieve Universal Primary Education). The intertwined nature of the goals means that progress made towards this goal in turn assists the others. For example, education on health can lead to better hygiene and lower infant mortality. A better educated population is better empowered to help themselves, rather than being dependent on hand-outs. For people who cannot attend a classroom (perhaps because of remoteness, ethnicity or gender), the XO provides an alternative. OLPC’s focus on young children means that children are becoming engaged in their most formative years. The XO has been built with a minimal environmental footprint, and can be run off-grid using alternate power sources such as solar panels.

One Education is a young initiative, formed based on experiences learnt from technology deployments in Australia and other countries. Nevertheless, results in some schools have been staggering. Within one year of XOs arriving in Doomadgee State School in northern Queensland, the percentage of Year 3 pupils meeting national literacy standards leapt from 31% to 95%.

A girl at Doomadgee State School very carefully removes the screen from an XO.

2013 will see a rapid expansion of the programme. With $11.7m in federal government funding, 50,000 XOs will be distributed as part of One Education. These schools will be receiving the new XO Duo (AKA XO-4 Touch), a new XO model developed jointly with the OLPC Association. This version adds a touch-screen user experience while maintaining the successful laptop form factor. The screen can swivel and fold backwards over the keyboard, converting the laptop into a tablet. This design was chosen in response to feedback from educators that a hardware keyboard is preferred to a touch-screen for entering large amounts of information. As before, the screen is fully sunlight-readable. Performance and battery life have improved significantly, and it is fully repairable as before.

As One Education expands, there are growing demands on OLPC Australia to improve the offering. Being a holistic project, there are plenty of ways in which we could use help, including in education, technology and logistics. We welcome you to join us in our quest to provide educational opportunities to the world’s children.

Great start… but the hard work is just beginning

Donna Benjamin rounded a small group of us together to write a letter to Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education. The result was widely syndicated, hopefully building some mindshare in the process. The Education Expo proved to me more than anything else that FOSS is quickly becoming acceptable to the general public — the trick is in how you promote it.

So where to from here? How can we capitalise upon the gains we have made?

Perhaps our greatest single weakness is the perceived lack of professional support. I think OSIA should be doing more to address this (note: I’m not implying that OSIA isn’t taking this seriously). Here’s an e-mail I wrote to the osia-discuss mailing list (which is unfortunately subscriber-only):

The best thing OSIA can do is fight the popular notion that there’s no
professional support available for FOSS. We can beat the TCO and Freedom
drums as hard as we want, but few organisations are willing to entrust their
computing to ‘community’ support.

I managed the Linux Australia stand at the Education Expo a few weeks ago, and
my impression is that FOSS is on the cusp of mainstream acceptance:

http://www.dhanapalan.com/blog/2008/06/29/education-expo-report/

Schools are crying out for ways to get better value for their dollar, but they
aren’t going to even think about FOSS if they can’t get professional support.

If I run the stand again next year, I’d like to see some involvement from
OSIA. At the very least, we should have available some leaflets showing that
yes indeed there is quality, paid support for FOSS.

Also note that FOSS isn’t Linux. We got the most interest in the
OpenEducationDisc, a compilation of FOSS for Windows.

On the community side, we can continue to make FOSS more acceptable to school administrations, bureaucrats and politicians. Here’s my idea:

My suggestion is for us to build a Web site focused on open education in
Australia. We already have the perfect vehicle: http://openeducation.org.au.
However, at present it’s just a messy wiki more suitable for our own
brainstorming than for being a public-facing resource.

The wiki should of course remain, but I propose that we build a proper,
presentable Web site that is directly accessible via the
http://openeducation.org.au address.

Why do this when we already have http://linux.org.au/education? Open Education
is much bigger than Linux, and certainly should not be anchored to it. Here’s
a short list of what it can include:

  • FOSS
  • (GNU/)Linux OS – on servers
  • (GNU/)Linux OS – on clients/desktops
  • open standards
  • open languages/libraries/APIs
  • free content/culture
  • open learning
  • open curriculum

To be honest, I fear that we might be only hurting ourselves by tying open
education to a completely Free computing environment. That might be a worthy
aim, but few institutions are going to switch over all in one go. By offering
a migration path (or paths), a school can migrate more comfortably at its own
pace. We ought to be providing real choice, not just a binary ‘with us or
with the terrists’.

FOSS (Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Scribus, etc.) can run on operating systems
other than Linux. To use the recent Education Expo as an example, we got a
lot of buy-in through the OpenEducationDisc, a compilation of FOSS for
Windows.

Also note how I split Linux clients from servers. Linux’s place in the server
realm is very solid, but convincing an institution to accept a Linux client
solution is tougher. And by ‘client’, I mean either traditional desktops or
thin clients. The latter are often cost-effective and represent a real
strength of Linux, but are often overlooked or even have regulations working
against their adoption. On the server side, we have some great educational
tools such as Moodle and LAMS.

Open standards obviously include things like file formats and protocols, which
will become even more relevant as we see more applications (proprietary or
otherwise) pick up standardised methods of information exchange such as ODF
and PDF. This should also ease the integration of FOSS into pre-existing
environments. It also can include languages and all things related. Why are
schools still teaching Visual Basic when they could be teaching Python?

The final three points all link together. Most notably, they are not dependent
upon technology at all. Your average teacher isn’t a technologist, and
shouldn’t have to be. Knowledge can be shared and organised openly just like
code. Wikipedia has proven that great things can be built if ordinary people
are given easy to use tools.

Where to from this point? I suggest that we work towards getting a CMS running
at openeducation.org.au. We’ll have to agree upon a design and the message
that we want to purvey. Content creation should be separate from technical
ability, so the CMS should be simple enough for anybody to contribute.

Here is some inspiration from the UK:

The UK education sector appears to be much further ahead of us in terms of
embracing openness, and I think we can take some lessons from their efforts.

To clarify one thing in the above, I wrote the text for http://linux.org.au/education, but I never felt comfortable with it being there. So much of open education has nothing to do with Linux and Linux Australia shouldn’t be diverting its focus to dwell on it directly. With a more independent Web presence (in collaboration with Linux Australia), I feel that we can be much more effective.

LotD:   Open sourcing Australia: OpenAustralia.org goes live