Category Archives: Trips

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 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 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.

OLPC Australia certifications
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 regime 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 🙂

Evaluation

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.

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.

Credits

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

OLPC Australia talk at OSDC 2011

Update: my talk has been covered by OLPC News.

Here’s the video of the talk I said I’d be giving at OSDC 2011, titled Australia’s Toughest Linux Deploy­ment:

In it, I outline our educational programme and how the technology fits into it. Some key points:

  • we have a better version on YouTube of the video I show in the talk
  • we maintain a Policy Document, which provides an overview of our overall programme
  • OLPC Australia have two core principles in addition to OLPC’s original five
  • we have some support in government at different levels — for example, we were praised in federal parliament and the print media (paywall) by a prominent federal Member of Parliament
  • we have deployments across remote Australia — a feat that can only be managed through building self-sufficiency
  • our programme is showing beneficial results, and we are engaged in longitudinal and detailed evaluation
  • we have a comprehensive educational programme, with online training and certifications (such as our XO-cert course)
  • we are breaking dependence on special expertise and infrastructure — building sustainability and grass-roots support is key
  • deployments are made at the classroom level, which is more manageable than saturating a whole school at once
  • we don’t provide XOs without training — a teacher must earn a certification before they can receive XOs for their class
  • our support is focused on enabling schools and communities to help themselves, and each other
  • we have innovated in the technology space, with offerings such as the XO-AU OS, XO-AU USB, XOP and XS-AU
  • contextualising learning, for example through localisation, is a powerful tool to improve engagement from the child, school and community
  • we invite people to join our development efforts
  • there’s a nice surprise mentioned towards the end, which I shall elaborate upon in the near future 🙂

For those of you who have seen me speak about OLPC Australia at SLUG, this is a much more polished talk.

Speaking at OSDC 2011 on OLPC Australia

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.

 

Video of linux.conf.au talk

The video of my talk at linux.conf.au is online. You can watch/download it online (OGV format).

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.

 

linux.conf.au and XO-AU 10.1.3-au1 release

I’ll be at linux.conf.au flying the OLPC Australia flag. In addition to giving a talk, I have plans for a whole range of other things, including:

Any assistance you can offer is more than welcome!

That’s not all. On Friday we made our most significant software release, XO-AU 10.1.3-au1.

This is an important milestone for OLPC Australia. It is the first XO OS build intended to be installed onto all XO-1.5s in Australia, including those in the field. XO-1.5s ordered from the factory will have at least this build installed by default. Many improvements have been made to make the software more appropriate for Australian children.

If you want to be kept updated and take part in OLPC Australia technical development, see our participation page.

Speaking at linux.conf.au about OLPC Australia

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.

Here’s a copy of the abstract:

Secondary speaker: Ian Cunningham

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.

OLPC Australia in East Arnhem Land

I am writing this from Dhalinybuy School in remote Australia. What’s even more impressive is that I am typing this on a production-model OLPC XO-1.5!

For those who don’t know yet, in March I started full-time as the Technical Co-ordinator at One Laptop per Child Australia. This basically means that I manage the technology surrounding the XO laptops, XS server and so on.

We are in East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, this week for OLPC deployments, as well as training in Yirrkala School and the Yirrkala Homelands Learning Centres (HLCs).

There are eight HLCs in all, spread over a wide area. The closest one is close to two hour’s drive away from Yirrkala, almost entirely on dirt road. Yirrkala itself is quite remote – about 13 hours drive (again, almost entirely on dirt) from Darwin. It’s generally easier to fly to these locations (which takes at least four hops if you’re coming from Sydney), especially right now as a tropical cyclone (which barely missed us a month ago when we were out this way) destroyed many of the roads.

In collaboration with the University of Western Sydney (UWS), and with some assistance from the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training (NTDET), we have formed teams and spread out over the eight HLCs to work with children, teachers, schools and communities.

I’ll have to go into my work at Yirrkala School at a later time, but here at the HLCs we have managed some impressive feats, if I do say so myself! For instance:

  • this is to the best of my knowledge the world’s first deployment of the new XO-1.5 devices, and we’re doing it across all eight HLCs at once
  • children can write in their own language, as we installed Yolngu Matha fonts
  • we have taught teachers and students to create their own e-books using Scratch, using pictures they take with the camera and content we loaded onto the XOs beforehand

In addition, I worked with Ian Cunningham from NTDET to produce an inexpensive and simple means to deploy wireless access points to these remote communities. These are Linksys WRT-54GL devices flashed with DD-WRT. We configured each such that they will just work when plugged in. The HLCs that have satellite Internet can have their access points managed from anywhere on the NT Schools network.

I left our setup to the UWS students (none of whom are technical) on my team, and they were able to successfully set up the access point and create a workable area for the XOs to be charged.

Most of the HLCs have their electricity supplied entirely by local generators, which are normally rationed to run at night. Dhalinybuy school has its own smaller generator. This is enough for the basics, but insufficient for the four desktop PCs that they have. Consequently, these computers are rarely used, and the teachers tell me that they are too difficult to manage anyway. Being battery powered and far more power efficient, XOs are far more suitable.

We have successfully deployed XOs to every school-age child in Dhalinybuy. I’m still out here, so I don’t yet know the status of the other HLCs. I am, however, confident that they are operational, given the ease at which we got things going here.

Through the access point, every XO (and hence every child) can collaborate and share their activities in Sugar. This also facilitates an Internet connection for all the XOs, through the NT Schools network. They are now open to a wider world of information and communication.

Lew Zealand

Yes, this is quite belated. I’ll explain why in a subsequent post.

linux.conf.au this year was in Wellington, New Zealand. It just keeps getting better! It’s always great meeting people you otherwise only know online. I was especially impressed by the OLPC NZ team.

Immediately following linux.conf.au, I jumped on a plane to Christchurch to embark on a week-long tour of the South Island. Long story short, it was the time of my life! I made some amazing friends. I also saw and did incredible things, including:

  • awe-inspiring views of glaciers, glacially-formed landscapes, turquoise-coloured rivers and lakes, beautiful skies and more
  • helihike: a helicopter trip onto a glacier, then hiking on it
  • a night on a boat on Milford Sound, probably the most beautiful place on Earth
  • every extreme activity I could get my hands on, including:

I have most of my photos online now:

I think what surprised me most was how adventurous I can be when I’m not in my ‘natural habitat’. I’m not normally a thrillseeker at all, but in NZ I made the decision to take a holiday from myself as well as from work and home. I even made a concerted effort to not touch computers at all. My phone was offline for most of the trip (I was using it as a camera). I never thought that being cut-off could feel so liberating.

Melbourne

I left to Melbourne on Friday night and got back at 2am Wednesday. It’s Friday now. I wanted to write something here earlier but I got lazy.

In short: I had a great time. I really needed to unwind, and now I feel much more relaxed.

Now I’ve got a huge backlog of stuff to do. I had been putting off numerous things for several months, and now that I’m back I can finally do them. The funny thing is that I don’t know where to start. I hate starting things. Once the ball is rolling I’m fine, but the hardest part is getting the ball to roll in the first place. I’ll take each day as it comes.

I had set my mail client (Sylpheed-Claws) to automatically collect my mail every fifteen minutes while I was away. I’m subscribed to several high-volume mailing lists, so I needed to do this to prevent my mail accounts from filling up. Unfortunately, Sylpheed-Claws screwed up and stopped retreiving mail at some point. Fortunately my boxes weren’t full. Next time, I’ll write a script to retreive my mail and have cron execute it periodically. I wanted to do that this time, but I ran out of time. I had a couple of thousand e-mails when I returned. I didn’t think it was worth suspending my mailing list subscriptions for only a few days. I deleted most of them, so now I’m back on track.

It seems like a zillion things have happened while I was away (I wasn’t keeping tabs on the news while I was gone). For instance, there are heaps of cool posts on PCLinuxOnline that I want to read. Here in Sydney, our dry, hot summer weather has helped to create a huge bushfire problem. I don’t live anywhere near the bush and yet I can see and smell smoke. Many people have even lost their homes to the fires 🙁 On Wednesday, the fires somehow managed to cut the power to my house. Apparently huge areas of Sydney have been affected. There goes my two months of uptime! I had half a day without electricity, and another half day cut off from US Internet sites. Australian and European sites loaded fine, but I couldn’t access US sites like PCLinuxOnline. Everything seems to be fine now, so I can quit complaining.