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Interview with Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network

Adam Holt and I were interviewed last night by the Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network about our not-for-profit work to improve educational opportunities for children in the developing world.

We talked about One Laptop per Child, OLPC Australia and Sugar Labs. We discussed the challenges of providing education in the developing world, and how that compares with the developed world.

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.

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.

Cannes Lions award for OLPC Australia

OLPC Australia have been awarded a Bronze Lion at this year’s Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, the advertising counterpart of the Cannes Film Festival.

I think this is fantastic recognition for a Free Software project, especially one that is focused on assisting children in some of the most remote parts of the world. I feel honoured to have been part of this success.

We’re happy for people to get involved to help us in our mission. If you’d like to participate, especially (for me) in the technical field, please get in touch with me or contact OLPC Australia through our Web site.

Documentary about OLPC Designer Yves Behar

SBS television recently screened a documentary about Yves Behar, the person behind the distinctive industrial design of the OLPC XO laptop. It’s a fascinating insight into the mind and influences behind one of the most influential designers around. The documentary was originally aired in November 2008, so it is a little dated. For example, Yves talks about the “XOXO” XO-2, which has since been replaced with the XO-3. Nevertheless, it is well worth watching.

You can view the full version at the SBS Web site. The section on OLPC starts at 14:48.

UPDATE: if you are having trouble viewing the video, try this one instead. The attention to detail and quality is astounding. Yves rightly points out that products seen in lesser economically developed countries are normally second hand or second rate. The design is rugged and functional. It provides scope for personalisation. What was most interesting to me is Yves’ commentary on the keyboard. Its one-piece design means that the letters can be printed in one silkscreening process. This makes it feasible to translate into languages that would be uneconomical with a standard keyboard design.

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.

 

Bimbo and the Nerd?

An intriguing offer came through to the SLUG-chat mailing list a few weeks ago: an Australian version of Beauty and the Geek is in the works, and they’re looking for geeks.

I’ll be honest and admit that I’m a fan of the US version of the show. The ‘geeks’ feel like humorous caricatures of some of my own traits, and I suppose I find bimbo stupidity funny in a way (although at other times I just roll my eyes).

However, I dislike that the outcome of each series is that the geeks bend over backwards to learn to be ‘cool’ while the bimbos simply ‘learn’ to tolerate the geeks. On the episodes that visit the contestants a few months after their tenure at ‘the mansion’, the geeks have clearly changed themselves but the bimbos have mostly reverted to their previous state.

I’m probably biased, but it seems lop-sided. It reinforces the view (at least in Western cultures) that it’s okay to be an idiot but conversely it is unacceptable to be socially awkward.

We see this position pushed across popular media. The other prime offender at the moment that I can think of is the sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. In that show, a bimbo with loose values is portrayed as ‘normal’ while a group of intelligent males are openly ridiculed.

Again, I’ll admit that I watch that show from time to time, and I do find it entertaining. I have the capacity to laugh at myself and traits that I can identify with. At the same time, it still irks me that this is what people are being fed, not just by this programme but by the mass media in general.

What does the FOSS community think?

Bill Gates and the importance of source code

Bill Gates was interviewed by the BBC’s Money Programme. As he prepares to significantly reduce his direct work for Microsoft Corporation, Bill reflects upon what got him started in the first place and what kept him ahead of the ‘competition’. The video provides a brief glimpse into the character that founded and guided Microsoft. Regardless of whether you love him or hate him, he is indeed a fascinating character.

Skip ahead to the 40 second mark, to the segment titled “How the teenage Gates and his friend Paul Allen got access to a computer”. The story according to Gates was that he and his friends were allowed to hack on a company’s computer “like monkeys” at night to find bugs. He spent hours reading manuals and experimenting to figure out this “fascinating puzzle”. However, they were stuck at the “tinkering” stage until they stumbled across the source code in a rubbish bin. It was only then could the monkeys evolve.

I don’t think the producers of the show realised the significance of this admission, since they quickly cut to another segment. Reading between the lines, Gates is essentially confessing that he would not have progressed had he and Paul Allen not found the source code. Without this knowledge, and without this opportunity to understand and experiment with how the internals of a computer worked, Gates and Allen would have been severely constrained in their ability to found a software company and develop products

I would go so far as to say that Microsoft owes its very existence to this access to source code.

To anyone with a passing familiarity to how things worked back then, this comes as no surprise. Source code was expected to be free, and this in turn nurtured a generation of computer hackers. But whereas Richard Stallman saw the amazing potential of this freedom and wanted to preserve it for all, Bill Gates appears to have perceived it as an advantage for himself that he must deny to others.

LotD:  Gates memo shows user frustration