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 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.