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.

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