Category Archives: linux.conf.au

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.

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.