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 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

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 🙂

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 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.

Credits

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

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