Engin­eers Without Bor­ders asked me to write some­thing for their Human­it­ari­an Engin­eer­ing magazine about One Laptop per Child. Here is what I wrote.

The school bell rings, and the chil­dren fil­ter into the classroom. Each is hold­ing an XO – their own per­son­al learn­ing device.

Stu­dents from Doomadgee often use their XOs for out­doors edu­ca­tion. The sun­light-read­able screen
com­bined with the built-in cam­era allow for hands-on explor­a­tion of their environment.

This is no ordin­ary classroom. As if by magic, the green and white XOs auto­mat­ic­ally see each oth­er as soon as they are star­ted up, allow­ing chil­dren to eas­ily share inform­a­tion and col­lab­or­ate on activ­it­ies togeth­er. The kids con­verse on how they can achieve the tasks at hand. One girl is writ­ing a story on her XO, and sim­ul­tan­eously on the same screen she can see the same story being changed by a boy across the room. Anoth­er group of chil­dren are com­pet­ing in a game that involves maths questions.

Chil­dren in Kiwir­rkur­ra, WA, col­lab­or­ate on an activ­ity with help from teachers.

Through the XO, the learn­ing in this classroom has taken on a peer-to-peer char­ac­ter. By mak­ing learn­ing more fun and enga­ging, chil­dren are bet­ter equipped to dis­cov­er and pur­sue their interests. Through col­lab­or­a­tion and con­nectiv­ity, they can exchange know­ledge with their peers and with the world. In the 21st cen­tury, text­books should be digit­al and inter­act­ive. They should be up-to-date and loc­ally rel­ev­ant. They should be access­ible and portable.

Of course, the teacher’s role remains vital, and her role has evolved into that of a facil­it­at­or in this know­ledge net­work. She is bet­ter placed to provide more indi­vidu­al path­ways for learn­ing. Indeed the teach­er is a learner as well, as the chil­dren quickly adapt to the new tech­no­logy and learn skills that they can teach back.

A teach­er in Jigalong, WA, guides a work­group of chil­dren in their class.

Help­ing to keep the classroom ses­sion smoothly hum­ming along are chil­dren who have proven them­selves to be pro­fi­cient with assist­ing their class­mates and fix­ing prob­lems (includ­ing repair­ing hard­ware). These kids have taken part in train­ing pro­grammes that award them for their skills around the XO. In the pro­cess, they are learn­ing import­ant life skills around prob­lem solv­ing and teamwork.

Dozens of stu­dents in Doomadgee State School are pro­fi­cient in fix­ing XO hardware.

This is all part of the One Edu­ca­tion exper­i­ence, an ini­ti­at­ive from One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Aus­tralia. This edu­ca­tion­al pro­gramme provides a hol­ist­ic edu­ca­tion­al scaf­fold­ing around the XO, the laptop developed by the One Laptop per Child Asso­ci­ation that has its roots in the inter­na­tion­ally-acclaimed MIT Media Lab in the USA.

The XO was born from a desire to empower each and every child in the world with their own per­son­al learn­ing device. Pur­pose-built for young chil­dren and using sol­id open source soft­ware, the XO provides an ideal plat­form for classroom learn­ing. Designed for out­doors, with a rugged design and a high-res­ol­u­tion sun­light-read­able screen, edu­ca­tion is no longer con­fined to a classroom or even to the school grounds. Learn­ing time need­n’t stop with the school bell – many chil­dren are tak­ing their XOs home. Also import­ant is the afford­ab­il­ity and full repair­ab­il­ity of the devices, mak­ing it cost-effect­ive versus non-dur­able and eph­em­er­al items such as sta­tion­ery, text­books and oth­er prin­ted mater­i­als. There are over 3 mil­lion XOs in dis­tri­bu­tion, and in some coun­tries (such as Uruguay) every child owns one.

A One Edu­ca­tion classroom in Kenya.

One Education’s mis­sion is to provide edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tun­it­ies to every child, no mat­ter how remote or dis­ad­vant­aged. The digit­al divide is a learn­ing divide. This can be conquered through a com­bin­a­tion of mod­ern tech­no­logy, train­ing and sup­port, provided in a man­ner that empowers loc­al schools and com­munit­ies. The story told above is already hap­pen­ing in many classrooms around the coun­try and the world.

A One Edu­ca­tion classroom in north­ern Thailand.

With teach­er train­ing often being the Achilles’ heel of tech­no­logy pro­grammes in the field of edu­ca­tion, One Edu­ca­tion focuses only on teach­ers who have proven their interest and aptitude through the com­ple­tion of a train­ing course. Only then are they eli­gible to receive XOs (with an alloc­a­tion of spare parts) into their classroom. Cer­ti­fied teach­ers are eli­gible for ongo­ing sup­port from OLPC Aus­tralia, and can acquire more hard­ware and parts as required.

As a not-for-profit, OLPC Aus­tralia works with spon­sors to heav­ily sub­sid­ise the costs of the One Edu­ca­tion pro­gramme for low socio-eco­nom­ic status schools. In this man­ner, the already impress­ive total cost of own­er­ship can be brought down even further.

High levels of teach­er turnover are com­mon­place in remote Aus­trali­an schools. By provid­ing courses online, train­ing can be scal­able and cost-effect­ive. Loc­al teach­ers can even under­go fur­ther train­ing to gain offi­cial train­er status them­selves. Some schools have turned this into a busi­ness – send­ing their teach­er-train­ers out to train teach­ers in oth­er schools.

Stu­dents in Geeve­ston in Tas­mania cel­eb­rate their attain­ment of XO-cham­pi­on status, recog­nising
their pro­fi­ciency in using the XO and their help­ful­ness in the classroom.

With back­ing from the United Nations Devel­op­ment Pro­gramme, OLPC are tack­ling the Mil­len­ni­um Devel­op­ment Goals by focus­ing on Goal 2 (Achieve Uni­ver­sal Primary Edu­ca­tion). The inter­twined nature of the goals means that pro­gress made towards this goal in turn assists the oth­ers. For example, edu­ca­tion on health can lead to bet­ter hygiene and lower infant mor­tal­ity. A bet­ter edu­cated pop­u­la­tion is bet­ter empowered to help them­selves, rather than being depend­ent on hand-outs. For people who can­not attend a classroom (per­haps because of remote­ness, eth­ni­city or gender), the XO provides an altern­at­ive. OLP­C’s focus on young chil­dren means that chil­dren are becom­ing engaged in their most form­at­ive years. The XO has been built with a min­im­al envir­on­ment­al foot­print, and can be run off-grid using altern­ate power sources such as sol­ar panels.

One Edu­ca­tion is a young ini­ti­at­ive, formed based on exper­i­ences learnt from tech­no­logy deploy­ments in Aus­tralia and oth­er coun­tries. Nev­er­the­less, res­ults in some schools have been stag­ger­ing. With­in one year of XOs arriv­ing in Doomadgee State School in north­ern Queens­land, the per­cent­age of Year 3 pupils meet­ing nation­al lit­er­acy stand­ards leapt from 31% to 95%.

A girl at Doomadgee State School very care­fully removes the screen from an XO.

2013 will see a rap­id expan­sion of the pro­gramme. With $11.7m in fed­er­al gov­ern­ment fund­ing, 50,000 XOs will be dis­trib­uted as part of One Edu­ca­tion. These schools will be receiv­ing the new XO Duo (AKA XO‑4 Touch), a new XO mod­el developed jointly with the OLPC Asso­ci­ation. This ver­sion adds a touch-screen user exper­i­ence while main­tain­ing the suc­cess­ful laptop form factor. The screen can swiv­el and fold back­wards over the key­board, con­vert­ing the laptop into a tab­let. This design was chosen in response to feed­back from edu­cat­ors that a hard­ware key­board is pre­ferred to a touch-screen for enter­ing large amounts of inform­a­tion. As before, the screen is fully sun­light-read­able. Per­form­ance and bat­tery life have improved sig­ni­fic­antly, and it is fully repair­able as before.

As One Edu­ca­tion expands, there are grow­ing demands on OLPC Aus­tralia to improve the offer­ing. Being a hol­ist­ic pro­ject, there are plenty of ways in which we could use help, includ­ing in edu­ca­tion, tech­no­logy and logist­ics. We wel­come you to join us in our quest to provide edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tun­it­ies to the world’s children.

Published in Engineers Without Borders Magazine / Sridhar Dhanapalan by Sridhar Dhanapalan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.
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