Australia poses some of its own challenges. As a country that is 90% urbanised, the remaining 10% are scattered across vast distances. The circumstances of these communities often share both developed and developing world characteristics. We developed the One Education programme to accommodate this.
These lessons have been developed further into Unleash Kids, an initiative that we are currently working on to support the community of volunteers worldwide and take to the movement to the next level.
Here’s a better version of the video I played near the beginning of my talk:
I should start by pointing 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.
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 cities 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 5-10 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.
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.
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 regime imposed from above. Schools that participate genuinely want the programme to succeed.
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 4-14 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.
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.
I am speaking next Thursday at the Open Source Developers’ Conference 2011 in Canberra. The title is Australia’s Toughest Linux Deployment. Yes it’s a play on the ruggedness and flexibility of the XO’s design to meet the needs of remote communities.
Here’s the talk abstract:
A 300,000 seat Linux deployment is nothing to sneeze at. What if those seats were actually children’s laps? By providing a flexible learning platform, OLPC Australia aims to create a sustainable and comprehensive programme to enhance opportunities for every child in remote Australia. What’s more, we plan to achieve this by 2014.
In focusing on the most remote areas of the continent, the mission is by no means easy. These areas are typically not economically viable for a business to service, hence the need for a not-for-profit in the space. Expertise for hardware and software is virtually non-existent. Settlements are small and spread very far apart. Environmental conditions, cultures and lifestyles vary wildly. They are very different worlds from the coastal cities where the bureaucracies are based.
Even within communities, differences abound. Schools often stand in stark contrast to their surrounds. Government and business interests have also made their marks.
This talk will outline how OLPC Australia has developed a solution to suit Australian scenarios. Comparisons and contrasts will be made with other “computers in schools” programmes, OLPC deployments around the world and corporate IT projects.
For example, standard sysadmin practice typically mandates tight, centralised control over all systems and infrastructure. The OLPC Australia approach is the exact opposite. By promoting flexibility and ease of use, the programme can achieve sustainability by enabling management at the grass-roots level. The XO laptops themselves are built especially for education. They are extraordinarily rugged as well as being inexpensive. They are also totally repairable in the field, with minimal skill required. Training is conducted online, and an online community allows participants nationwide to share resources.
Key to the ongoing success of the programme is active engagement with all stakeholders, and a recognition of the total cost of ownership over a five-year life cycle.
Overall, I think it went quite well. A personal criticism is that I need to seriously cut back on my use of ‘um’ and ‘ah’ sounds. Suggestions on combating this problem and/or generally improving my speaking skills are welcome.
Speaking of talks, I found this one by Sir Ken Robinson to be especially illuminating. It’s summary of how and why traditional education methods are failing us, and what we can do about it. I think it goes some way towards explaining the kind of thinking behind OLPC.
I will be speaking at linux.conf.au 2011 in Brisbane about OLPC Australia, with a focus on the technical side. We have been doing some amazing stuff, but thus far we have been very quiet about it in the technical community. It’s time to fix this oversight.
My talk is titled, Enabling Connections to Opportunity: OLPC Australia. If you’ll be at the conference, watch me talk on Thursday at 14:30. If you won’t be, grab the video once it is out.
Also speaking with me is Ian Cunningham, who works for the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training. Ian is heavily involved in the deployment of OLPC technology in Northern Territory Schools, and will be able to deliver accounts from an educator’s perspective.
Australia is officially a developed country, but that status hides inequities that exist within. In particular, children in remote Australia typically have far fewer opportunities for education and communication than their counterparts in metropolitan regions. Recognising that their situation is not dissimilar to those seen in the developing world, One Laptop per Child Australia was founded.
The mission is ambitious: to enhance learning opportunities for the 400,000 children, aged 4-15, living in remote Australia, by 2014. OLPC Australia are on track to replicate success stories such as Uruguay to have a comprehensive educational programme out to each and every one of these children.
The centrepiece is a learning device, known as the XO. Through leveraging FLOSS, the XO provides unparalleled connectivity and opportunities for children to learn.
Underpinning the project are seven core principles. The gestalt of these principles form an important foundation to the educational goals of the project. The fifth principle, Free and Open Source, will be discussed in practical context of the Australian circumstance.
Australia presents some interesting challenges that are less common in the environments that the XO was originally designed for. On one hand, we have a vast, geographically isolated continent, sparsely populated with some of the most ancient cultures in the world. On the other, there is modern technology and Western-style governance.
This talk will present how OLPC Australia have been innovative and responsive to meet the Australian situation. Some examples include:
the world’s first deployment of the new XO-1.5 models
a streamlined version of the XS School Server
an economical and practical racking and charging station for XOs
It will discuss how the use of technology underpins a holistic educational programme, and how OLPC Australia works with departments of education, schools and communities to build a sustainable operation.
If you have ever wanted a way use your technical skills to benefit those most in need, this is the talk for you. Education is a key vehicle for closing the gap for the peoples in remote Australia. As a FLOSS project, your contributions also benefit those abroad.
Here are our bios:
Sridhar Dhanapalan grew up in the 1980s, as the personal computing revolution was heating up. With only two television channels in his town, he turned to his computer for solace. He wishes he had discovered FLOSS before the late 1990s, because downloading GNU Emacs over an acoustic coupler would have been fun. Sridhar is a former board member of Linux Australia, and a previous president of the Sydney Linux Users Group. He is currently the Technical Manager (CTO) at One Laptop Per Child Australia.
Ian Cunningham is an IT Project Officer at the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training (NTDET). He has over 20 years teaching and lecturing experience in Australia and abroad. A Linux user since Red Hat 4, Ian has been active in promoting the use of FLOSS in education. He provides technical support and mentoring for the NTDET OLPC Trial.
If you want to be kept updated and take part in OLPC Australia technical development, see our participation page.
Anyway, you can get the video and slides here (the links in the original announcement are no longer functional). It’s been pointed out to me that the slides in the video vary slightly from the PDF, but the difference is minimal. It’s three months old now — so don’t expect any revelations — but it’s still an interesting watch.
The last two weeks have been quite eventful. Each of these probably deserves its own blog post, but since I don’t have the time to write them all I’ll just give a summary.
Document Freedom Day, 26 March
The first annual Document Freedom Day (inspired by Software Freedom Day) was celebrated globally. In Sydney, the celebrations were hosted by Google at their offices, supported by the Internet Society of Australia and the Sydney Linux Users Group (SLUG). As the SLUG representative, I was asked to say a few words about our organisation and its relevance to document freedom. Not having time to prepare, I managed to ad-lib a speech, drawing on memories of what I had written before on the Domesday Book and Domesday Project. I’m not an experienced speaker, so I’m very glad that it came out well.
Senator Kate Lundy and David Vaile delivered great talks that made us think about openness of information and their importance to society. For the most part, we didn’t mention the war (which unfortunately has been lost), but there was no escaping acknowledgement of the Waughs. Anyone disillusioned at the state of politics in Australia ought to speak with Kate. Even after 12 years in parliament, she is still inspiring.
All in all, it was a fantastic night. Thanks to Alan Noble, Andrew McRae and the other folks at Google for making it happen. Andrew and Sarah Maddox have written good summaries of the evening.
Sydney Linux Users Group Annual General Meeting, 28 March
What can I say? Thanks to everyone in SLUG who supported my candidacy for the role of President. The new Committee looks like a great mix of talents, and we already have some good ideas in the pipeline. The next twelve months is looking to be exciting indeed.
We had the first gathering of the new Committee on Sunday. It was a handover meeting, with the old Committee members present to pass on their wisdom and experience to the new. My sincere gratitude goes to the departing Committee members. I feel truly honoured to have worked with them over this past year.
Australian Open Source Industry & Community Report 2008 launch event, 1 April
Free software and free beer! It appears that with FOSS, you can have your cake and eat it too 😉
Note: there was no cake — but there were Iced Vo Vos! Sweet!
BarCamp 3 was notable for expansion to two days of revelry. The venue migrated from UTS for the first two BarCamps to the UNSW Roundhouse for the third, which despite the longer commute I feel was a good move. Attendance did seem thinner than in previous years. This was probably due to visitors spread over a larger venue and across two days. One thing I like about BarCamp is that I get contact with people and ideas that I otherwise wouldn’t notice from FOSS gatherings like SLUG. BarCamp has considerably more proprietary software developers and entrepreneurs. Less Google, more Microsoft. As much as I love FOSS, I do like to see what’s happening in the rest of the ICT universe.
I made an effort this time to attend talks that were less technical and more business or personal development oriented. Stand-out speakers included Nick Hodge, Matt Moore and Richard Hayes.
Perhaps the highlight was the Saturday evening. Mike from Atlassian led us through a few rounds of Werewolf, a variation (and an improvement, IMHO) of the classic Mafia game. I still can’t believe that we didn’t deplete the bar tab that Mike set up for us. We’ll have to have SLUG’s DebSIG present at BarCamp 4 😉
Sarah Bond, Platform Strategy Manager. Sarah was present to talk about Microsoft’s current position with OOXML, especially with regards to the interoperability with Linux.
Amit Pawer, National Technology Specialist. He specialises in Windows Server technologies.
Alistair Speirs, Technology Specialist – Office. His background is in Java and .NET development.
Rosemary Stark, Product Manager, Windows Server and Infrastructure Products.
This unsurprisingly caused much consternation and controversy within the Australian FOSS community in the weeks leading up to the event, and I (being its organiser, and hence the target of much vitriol) ended up spending much time gauging and responding to the opinions and ideas raised.
We wanted this to be an open community-led Q&A session, and to their credit Microsoft were obliging. Admittedly, I would have saved much sanity and hours of work if people had posted to the wiki as asked, but having to transcribe from the mailing lists to the wiki allowed me to think more about the questions and how they should be worded and ordered. I need no reminder of Microsoft’s transgressions, but I made sure to keep IBM in mind (as a company that was once considered an anathema to software freedom but has now largely reformed) and take an optimistic approach.
Pia was of great help here (as always!). With so many questions and only an hour and a half in which to ask them, we decided to cull the non-constructive, accusative and just plain trolling questions. By the end, Pia had compiled a list that was fairly encompassing of the major issues concerning supporters of competition, technology and freedom.
As I arrived at the venue, I found that our guests had beaten me and were actively helping to get the furniture into place. This allowed us to get better acquainted before the meeting. It was clear (and they openly admitted) that they had been following our open discussion process on mailing lists and the SLUG wiki. Really, they would have been daft not to do so 🙂
I handled the introduction, then turning the microphone over to our guests to introduce themselves. Sarah Bond launched into a presentation on OOXML, in the process answering several of the questions we had on the wiki. I left Pia to officiate most of the meeting, but I chimed in on occasion with both pointed and irreverent questions and comments that were not on the list.
We will be releasing the video of the meeting as soon as we are able, so I shan’t explain its contents too much. Some interesting points though:
In the list of rules for the meeting, I put ‘Asking “Why do you eat babies?” doesn’t help anyone.‘ I initially felt bad when I met Sarah and realised that she is pregnant! She was a good sport about it though, and we all had a good laugh 🙂
In her presentation, Sarah mentioned that Microsoft will be releasing the specs to their binary Office file formats in mid-February (UPDATE:it’s confirmed!). I’m still not sure if I heard this one right (it’s a lot to swallow!), so if someone can confirm this I’d appreciate it. They made no bones about this being part of their drive to promote OOXML acceptance.
Not new, but news to us, is the fact that Windows 2003 has a DRM infrastructure which they call RMS, short for Rights Management Services. I did cheekily ask them if the name was deliberate, and their attempts to seriously and politely address the question was priceless 🙂
Like with any other SLUG meeting, we went out for Chinese food afterwards. Three of our guests joined us (it’s a shame that Sarah couldn’t come, but being pregnant isn’t easy). Did we have dinner with the Devil? It certainly didn’t feel that way. Once we put our differences aside, we realised that we have an awful lot in common. We are all geeks at heart, and some of the MS people have and continue to dabble in Unix and FOSS technologies such as Python.
Were we successful? It depends on how you look at it. From my perspective of trying to build trust and understanding, without dwelling too much on (but certainly not ignoring) the past, I think so. Asking loaded questions and making our guests feel uncomfortable might have brought some short-term satisfaction to some of us, but would it have achieved anything? There were some inappropriate comments from the audience going in both directions (one of the loudest people actually seemed to be pro-Microsoft), but those people were easily outnumbered by the more sensible majority. My original fears of the crowd devolving into a senseless rabble dissipated rapidly, and I am very pleased and proud of our community for that.
I was initially disappointed by our turn out, but that feeling changed as the meeting progressed. Due to it being January, linux.conf.au being just around the corner (which siphoned a lot of our best and brightest) and the sensitive nature of the subject matter, we had a crowd that was smaller than expected, but felt more conversational and manageable.
If you were at the meeting, please let me know what you thought of it by posting a comment.
Sarah will be speaking again at LUV on February 5. If you’re in Melbourne for linux.conf.au, it might be worth extending your trip by a few days to see it. I would also suggest that you take inspiration from the list of questions that we have compiled. If our video is out by then, watch it to avoid repeating the questions that we’ve already asked (or pose follow-up questions).
My warmest thanks go to:
the rest of the SLUG Committee (Lindsay Holmwood, Silvia Pfeiffer, Matt Moor, Ken Wilson, John Ferlito and James Dumay), for their support throughout
I wrote this back in October, and for some silly reason I forgot to post it. Better late than never, I say.
It seems that every couple of weeks I’m at some kind of FLOSS-related event. You just can’t keep me away from them! They may require a lot of work, but it certainly feels rewarding to get the word out. This is especially so in regards to the educational sector. Children are our future, and they are generally more willing than your average adult to learn new and different things. It is an educator’s job to impart knowledge, and it is the duty of any respectable educational institution to facilitate a free and open flow of knowledge. What better way to achieve this than with free software?
This concept was not lost on the eduactors, parents and students at the Sydney Education Expo in June, and I’m proud to say that we managed to replicate that success at the Sydney Moodle Conference on October 14-15 (Saturday and Sunday). Once again, I manned the Linux Australia/SLUG stand, joining Pia Waugh, Lindsay Holmwood and Andreas Fischer. The SLUG Committee stopped by for a while, too.
Whereas most people at the Education Expo were unfamiliar with FLOSS, many of the attendees of the Moodle Conference had some idea about it. Moodle itself is available under the terms of the GPL, and many companies and schools have become part of its user/development/support community. All we had to do was to remind them that we represent the underlying FLOSS concepts that have made Moodle so great, and that Moodle functions in concert with other FLOSS projects such as Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP.
The response was overwhelming. We were prepared to hand out a truckload of Ubuntu CDs, only to discover that most attendees had already been supplied with one as part of their official conference kit. That didn’t stop us from distributing many more, though. We had one fellow so excited about FLOSS on Saturday that he brought along his laptop the next day for an impromptu Ubuntu installfest. We demonstrated a range of technologies, including Compiz and Inkscape. Visitors were impressed with the ease of the Ubuntu LiveCD installer, and with how Moodle can be installed (complete with dependencies) in only a few clicks via Synaptic.
Most interesting for me was the Live Online Event, which was a panel discussion on-stage in front of about 150 people. Pia was slated to represent the LA/OSIA point of view, but was forced to bow out due to other commitments. Much to my surprise, she asked me to fill in for her. So there I was, on-stage, in front of well over 100 people, fielding questions while being recorded and streamed live over the Internet. I had never done anything like that before, but I think I went reasonably well. Public speaking and general spoken communication are certainly skills that I would like to further exercise in the future. Thanks for your support, Pia!
The topic which dominated the panel discussion, and one which I had been previously unaware of, concerned how far software patents had intruded into the realm of educational software. Moodle-competitor Blackboard has been issued an appalling patent "for technology used for internet-based education support systems and methods." I was somewhat relieved to see that Martin Dougiamas, Moodle’s founder and project leader, was not concerned at all by this event, at least as far as Moodle was concerned. Nevertheless, the spectre of software patents has been looming over FLOSS for some time now, and it is still very unclear if/how the situation will ever be resolved.