Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves

“Earlier this year, OLPC [One Laptop Per Child] workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.” – MIT Technology Review

It’s an educational experiment that could impact billions of children around the world. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the One Laptop Per Child program, says there are 100 million six-year-olds with NO access to school. Poor and profoundly isolated, many of these children not only do not have access to school, but have no access to ANY reading material.

So what can we learn from this experiment?
Lots. It harkens back to Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiments on Minimally Invasive Education (my blog post about that here). We can learn that unstructured learning is indeed a powerful force, and that classroom and curriculum design need to be careful to stay out of the way of a child’s natural desire to learn.

What can’t we learn from this experiment?
Lots as well. Much will be made about how this “proves” that teachers aren’t necessary, or that computers can replace teachers. Alternately, we will read that it’s a dead-end, that the children won’t progress beyond poking and playing, only a few kids will really stick with it, the equipment will break, or that we should send food instead. Some will say what we really need is more teachers, more professional development for those teachers, and more ministers of education to administer those programs.

But mostly what it uncovers is our own bias and inability to escape our own cultural context. We in developed countries can’t imagine what it’s like anywhere else. We can’t imagine what NO schools and no hope of every having a school looks like. We can’t imagine what the tiny seed of learning could blossom into under those conditions. We can’t imagine that even if one and only one child learned to read and was able to find information that saved her mother’s life, it would change an entire village and entire generations.

This photo is not from the same OLPC deployment as above, but is in Ehtiopia

This is about changing the paradigm of poverty and illiteracy as destiny. As Nicholas Negroponte (the founder of OLPC) says, “If they can learn to read, then they can read to learn.” This is a profoundly different stance than hoping that someday somebody will build a school there. Why do we assume that they need to be taught? They need access. That we can give them.

I find it interesting and encouraging that OLPC is moving forward in trying to address global disparity in educational opportunities. They were being criticized, unfairly, I believe, for trying to work with existing school systems in  countries like Peru. As Ben Grey points out in his post, We Need to Think Very, Very Seriously About This,

“It’s intriguing to compare the new approach OLPC is taking with the tablets to the approach they took in Peru. Reading through the reflections on the failure in Peru brings to the surface two immediate observations. The hardware/software wasn’t ready for the task. And the adults continued getting in the way.

I agree with Ben–the adults and their entrenched concepts of the “right way” to do school get in the way. But we all have those entrenched concepts, it’s nearly impossible to stop seeing the world through me-colored glasses.

However, I do not think that OLPC is saying this is a “new” approach, implying that they are not going to work with schools any longer. It’s not even the only OLPC project going on in Ethiopia, many of which are classroom based. It’s just different. There will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to solving global problems. By the way, I do not believe that OLPC in Peru is a “failure” just because a few people are critical of parts of the operation.

Finding the appropriate path to create learning opportunities is something we all face. I believe there are two important lessons to learn here:

1) Context matters

2) Young people are better able to see things without the blinders of “we’ve always done it that way” than adults.

But – and this is a big caveat, youthful zeal and open-mindedness works best when guided by adults who care about them. The youthful ability to see the world anew, combined with the wisdom of age can revolutionize learning. That’s certainly the mission of Generation YESYouth and Educators Succeeding.


Teach students that education can change the world

Ferreñafe, Peru

The XO laptop developed by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization is an “education project, not a laptop project.” I think this would also make a great lesson for students in the developed world about how children live and learn in poor, developing countries.

The OLPC wiki has lots of field diaries, videos, and stories that would be very appropriate to share with students and start a conversation about education around the world. This isn’t a “isn’t it sad how poor they are” lesson, it’s a lesson about how much education means to people even when they seem to have so little. Start here.

Go the next step
OLPC does give you the opportunity to simply donate money, and if your students feel strongly about helping, they could plan a fundraiser. Schools could also get some of the XO computers for themselves in the current Give One Get One program, but there are some caveats I pointed out in this blog post, Should your school participate in the XO G1G1 program. If your students are gung-ho, though, do it!

Kick it up a notch
Many young people around the world have contributed directly to the OLPC effort whether they actually have an XO laptop or not. There are suggestions for participating on the OLPC wiki including offering to answer tech support emails, translating, hosting or participating in local events, developing applications, and more.

  • A student club can help develop new activities and participate in the XO community. People around the world are working on these open source activities, collaborating, and sharing. Teach students what it means to be a global citizen. Programming is NOT hard; it is well within the capability of many high school students and some middle school students. Even if you don’t have an XO, there are emulators that allow you to program for them.
  • Join or start a local XO support group. They already exist in New York, San Francisco and Washington DC.
  • Have a code jam. Perhaps a local Linux users group would help out.
  • Do a presentation or pass out flyers at a local community event. OLPC offers ready made templates for you.
  • Ask students what they would like to do to “change the world” for youth seeking an education in developing countries. Students need to understand that education is not a “zero sum” game, meaning that if other countries get better at educating poor children, we all benefit.

I’d love to hear about what youth have done to help support the OLPC effort!


Should your school participate in the XO G1G1 program?

One Laptop per Child: Give 1 Get 1Thinking about creating a school program around the One Laptop Per Child XO laptop computer? At the recent NEIT 2008 conference (see my post, The people in the room are the right people), several schools were thinking along these lines. Would the Give One, Get One (G1G1) project be a perfect holiday project, raising funds for something that would help the poorest children in the world, and potentially benefit the school as well?

For example, if a school raised $2,000, that would be enough money to purchase ten XO laptops. The school would get five, and five children somewhere in the world would get the others.

As we talked about the options, there were some good ideas for using the XOs that I’d like to share.

  • “field trip” computers for recording audio, video and notes
  • start a computer club where students participate in the XO community
  • have them in the library for check out
  • use them in lower grade levels

At the end of the day, it’s really up to the school and how involved they want to get. Even something as small  as promoting the program as an option for gift giving with a global purpose is worth doing.

Here are some questions that came up, with the answers if we could figure them out from the XO site.

Q: How does the XO compare to other small, inexpensive laptops on the market?
Its different!A: There are technical details on the Amazon XO site and even more on the OLPC wiki. However, my contention is that for most Americans, unless you are willing to buy-in to the XO learning principles and participate in the grand global experiment, the XO is not for you. If you are choosing a laptop simply on technical specifications or price, I’d suggest passing on the XO. (My checklist of “what not to expect” when you get an XO.)

Q: If my school participates in the G1G1 program, do we find out who gets the “other” laptops?
A: As far as we could find out, that is not possible. This isn’t like and “adopt a child” program, you don’t get a letter telling you who gets the computer. However, you can find a lot of stories about what kids are doing with their XO laptops around the world on the XO wiki. I imagine that it would be fairly easy to find a school somewhere to establish a “pen pal” relationship with. Also, with the Give Many program, if you donate enough money to purchase more than 100 XOs you can have your donation go to a particular country.

Q: Should we tell parents to do this and get a laptop for their child for home use?
A: If you do, you need to manage expectations for parents. These computers are not just cheap laptops or expensive Leapfrogs. Most parents will not be expecting to have to do their own tech support, system updates, or learn a new operating system. Again, see my checklist of “what not to expect” when you get an XO for some suggestions of what you do and don’t get with the XO.)

Q: We have lots of computers, we don’t need more. Can we just donate money?
A: According to the XO site, you can simply donate money in any amount. You can also just purchase one laptop that goes directly for donation for $199.

Q: Does it come with Windows?
A: There have been recent news reports about the XO being able to dual boot Sugar (the operating system designed for it) and Windows. The laptops purchased through the G1G1 program will NOT have Windows installed.

Q: Does it come with a hand crank?
A: No, that was just an early prototype that seems to have caught a lot of people’s imagination. It comes with a regular AC power adapter.

Q: Should we do the G1G1 program and then donate the computers to a nearby, needier school?
Only if the school wants them. These XOs are different than other computers and will need special maintenance and care. Some schools have created “exchange” programs, where students provide support and training for other schools. If you are willing to create such a long-term relationship, this might be an extraordinary learning experience for your students.

Q: How long is the G1G1 program running? Holidays are too busy, but we could do something in the spring.
A: This is one question we couldn’t find a really solid answer to. The OLPC wiki says it will be an ongoing program, and that “While the promotion has no scheduled end date, the advertising will run from Nov 17 to Dec 26, to take advantage of the holiday giving season.” However, much of the news about G1G1 has stated that the program ends Dec. 31, 2008. There is an open question on the “talk” page of the OLPC wiki about this, but no one has responded yet. It’s possible that people are also confusing last year’s program which ran for a limited time.

My inclination would be to trust the OLPC wiki and assume that Amazon is committed to this for the long term… but keep checking back!


Promoting the XO laptop Give One, Get One program

As I mentioned in this post early this week, the XO laptop (also known as the $100 laptop) from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation has started a campaign to put more laptops in the hands of children around the world. The Give One, Get One (G1G1) program allows anyone in the U.S. and EU countries to purchase two laptops, one for themselves and one for a child somewhere in the world.

Last year, with very little publicity and a shoestring distribution network, people funded over 100,000 laptops now in use around the world. That was an amazing show of support. But this year is going to be different. is handling the distribution, with their reliable shipping, tracking, and return handling. There should be no repeat of last year’s long delays and lack of information.

The publicity this year is being handled by some big names too. According to the New York Times,

Television time, billboard space and magazine pages are being donated by media companies, including the News Corporation, CBS and Time Warner.

The advertising time is donated, and the spots are expected to start conversations. One spot is an uplifting vision of a 7-year-old girl in a South African township, sitting in a dark room, her face lighted only by the laptop’s glow. “With education, we will solve our own problems,” she says.

Another TV spot says children learn quickly, whatever their tools of survival are — whether loading an AK-47 or mastering an XO laptop. Other settings show child labor camps and child prostitutes. “There are some very challenging scenes,” said Paul Lavoie, chairman of Taxi, the agency that created the ads.

(For those of you with YouTube blocked, this is one of the planned commercials, Zimi’s Story.)

There’s room for us too!
Just because some big names are pitching in doesn’t mean there’s no room for us regular folks! This is still a grass roots campaign, and we can all help. Everything from blog posts and fundraisers at schools, to using the XO as a lesson for our well-off children about how education matters most to those who have the least.

Here’s a great example – Dr. Gary Stager’sLearning and TechnologyOnline Master of Arts in Educational Technology class at Pepperdine University collaborated to create a web site promoting the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Give One, Get One program.

This website,, helps people understand how the G1G1 program works by pulling together information that is scattered on various websites and wikis. For example, they created a downloadable flyer that would be useful for a school event or fundraiser.

Not only did they build this website, they sent out a press release to announce it. These educators are learning that technology in education is not just about the equipment, but about winning the hearts and minds of everyone involved to build support for initiatives they believe in.

Give One, Get One, Change the World!

Next up – what can K-12 schools and students do to support the XO laptop program?


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Give a Laptop. Get a Laptop. Change the World

Starting today the XO laptop will once again be available to consumers in the US and the EU. This is the remarkable laptop invented by the One Laptop Per Child organization for children in the developing world.

In the Give One, Get One (G1G1) program, you have the opportunity purchase two XO computers. You get one, and a child somewhere in the developing world gets the other. Last year, over 100,000 laptops were donated to children this way. (See photos)

This year will be even better!
Last year, there were problems with the distribution, as OLPC was running it by themselves on a shoestring. This year, Amazon will run it. It would be the understatement of the year to say it will be better. There are a few other changes this year as well – it will include EU countries plus a few extra (full list and FAQs here). Sorry my Aussie friends, no mention of your part of the world.

Other good news, this will be an ongoing program. So if you have an idea about doing a fundraiser or planning a school event to get your own XOs, you have time.

Posts about the XO
Last year I got an XO laptop through the Give One, Get One program. Some of my posts from last year:

Spread the word! Here are some suggestions from the OLPC G1G1 wiki page:

  • Blog it, add a comment about it to every article about OLPC and the XO.
  • Social site updates — Facebook, Twitter[1], MySpace : there are OLPC accounts on many of these sites which need maintenance and regular updating. For instance some 2007-era badges and promotions need to be updated to link to the Amazon site.
  • Viral marketing. Put in your e-mail signature. Mention G1G1 in blog posts. Comment on misinformed or incomplete articles online, and include the link and the date, Nov. 17.


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Nice OLPC Roundup – OLPC Arrives!

David Crossland writes a nice post on the Understanding Limited blog with links to many, many resources and blogs (including my OLPC XO – Top Ten Checklist for G1G1 Reviews post) for people who have an XO. It’s a great reasource, even if you are just a fan of the project.  He includes the must read XO community-news mailing listcheat codes» for booting the XO in special ways, a discussion of why it doesn’t ship with Flash, and much more.


OLPC XO – Top Ten Checklist for G1G1 Reviews

Many recipients of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Give One, Get One (G1G1) program in the US and Canada are starting to receive their XO laptops. This means people are starting to join forums and write about their experiences. That’s all terrific, but it’s important to remember that the intended 3rd world audience is very different than the lives of most of the G1G1 users. Here’s my public service attempt to create a reminder checklist for potential XO reviewers in the first world.

After the checklist, please enjoy my nomination for The Worst XO Review Ever

G1G1 XO Top Ten Pre-Review Checklist

1. You aren’t the customer. Remember who this is made for. It’s not you, or even the child you hand it to to “try out.” Check the OLPC Wiki for some of the reports from the field. Try to remember that you and most likely your child have pre-conceived notions and advantages that you don’t realize. You are like a fish trying to ignore water.

2. Keep the stage of the project in mind. Are you used to being on the bleeding edge? Do you download alpha applications and help the developers track bugs? Do you “get under the hood” of your operating system or do any programming? Have you ever participated in an open source community or even edited Wikipedia? If that’s not your typical MO, take a second look before you complain about bugs, features that haven’t been implemented, or features that you think are essential. It’s going to crash, it’s going to have bugs, and you will probably have to do some detective work to figure things out, including how to keep it up to date. Having to go to terminal mode is not a failure of the design; for best results, think of it like a new adventure.

3. It’s not a “cheap” version of your laptop. Low cost was a design driver for the XO, but not the only one. Cheap is expensive if the laptop breaks in harsh conditions.

4. The collaboration features will seem broken and lackluster. It’s like playing volleyball by yourself – don’t be surprised if the ball doesn’t jump back over the net by itself. It doesn’t mean your ball is broken or the game of volleyball is poorly designed. The answer is that it’s not really volleyball without the rest of the team. In your case, the XO may seem as useful as half a zipper without a local community of users.

5. The operating system (OS) is young. The Sugar OS is a custom design that has different goals than Mac, Windows, or even Linux. Sugar was created to support a collaborative, constructive educational environment AND 3rd world conditions AND unique hardware. Decisions were made that may seem odd to you, but potentially make a lot of sense in that context. The OS will evolve. See this Tom Hoffman post for more details.

6. Your in-home wireless network with a fat pipe Internet connection is an anomaly. Let’s not start whining that you can’t stream movies.

7. Your customer support is not a priority. OLPC created the G1G1 opportunity for a limited time with no plans to go into the business of shipping to and supporting individual American customers. If you want great tracking and toll-free support phone lines, call Amazon. It was clear from the G1G1 website that these computers came with NO TECH SUPPORT. I don’t want OLPC to waste their money hiring people to track packages, I would rather that money went to improve delivery to kids in the developing world. Of course you should get what you paid for. But look, if I pledge my local PBS station and get a coffee cup, I don’t expect perfect shipping and tracking either. You got your tax deduction and a cool invention. Enjoy them.

8. Your child is not the intended audience either. Giving the XO to your child and watching them struggle through the interface and applications does not “prove” that the laptop was poorly designed or that the constructivist philosophy of learning is a failure. The XO was built for children in a group, using it day in and day out at home and school, hopefully with adults around who can help guide them in educational pursuits. The concept of “neighborhood” is not a metaphor. Imagine kids sitting next to you, looking at what you do and saying, “hey, that’s cool, how did you do that?” The primary collaboration happens around the computer, not through the computer. It also happens because the use is expected and ubiquitous, not something squeezed in for 15 minutes on a Thursday night between homework, ballet and soccer practice. Your child’s XO experience will likely be lonely and frustrating. However, I predict a handful of kids will take to it like a duck to water. If you have one of these, say hello to your future programmer.

9. The mesh network is trying to do things you don’t need. The innovative mesh networking allows the XO computers to collaborate even when there is no Internet connection, or to share a single connection with others. In your home, it’s primarily going to suck your battery dry. As I used to say a lot when I was a programmer, “it’s a feature, not a bug!”

10. Last but not least – you and 150,000 other people did an amazing, generous thing and should be congratulated. The G1G1 program sent 150,000 laptops to homes in the US and Canada. People paid double to get an untested invention with no promise of any kind of support. As a direct result of this, 150,000 more children around the world got an XO laptop. My checklist may seem overly negative, but it’s only because I’m reacting to some early reports and anticipating others. The conversation around the XO is enhanced by all of our participation, but I hope people give it a fair shake and remember the true purpose of the XO. It’s going to take some time and some pain. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. I hope some of you get inspired to get into the guts of the thing and have some of the fun I used to have in the 70’s building computer kits and programming in octal. It’s the best!

And now, for your enjoyment, the worst XO review ever…

This review from The Economist, One Clunky Laptop Per Child would be laughable if it weren’t being read by “a global audience of senior business, political and financial decision-makers.” Surrounded by ads for first class travel, the article predictably complains about the difficulty of installing Flash to watch YouTube videos and not getting minute by minute shipping status on the package.

The “keys are too small” and don’t feel right. After using it an entire week, the writer experienced “occasional crashes.” And horror of horrors, “A discreet message sometimes flashes when the system boots up, warning of some sort of data-check error.”

The fact that XO has generated competition from other computer manufacturers who have suddenly woken up to the low cost laptop market is listed as a problem. And even stranger, the “hubris” of OLPC developers is mentioned. I guess OLPC developers aren’t supposed to be proud of their innovation or defend their decisions. What silliness.


Let them eat cake? No, let them change the world.

picture-2.pngJohn Dvorak (PC Magazine) recently wrote a column called One Laptop per Child Doesn’t Change the World. He asked, “Does anyone but me see the OLPC XO-1 as an insulting “let them eat cake” sort of message to the world’s poor?” He goes on to belittle the computer, calling it “cute” and after citing hunger statistics, drops his sarcastic solution.

“So what to do? Let’s give these kids these little green computers. That will do it! That will solve the poverty problem and everything else, for that matter.”

Well, yes, actually, that’s the point. Maybe it will solve the poverty problem and everything else.

The developed world has tried all sorts of interventions to help developing countries, and from what I can see, most have ended up in failure. Our skewed ideas about how to help have historically ended up with many good intentions gone awry, mired in corruption, or worse.

So how about we give the developing world the gift of the most powerful intellectual tool ever invented. Then, here’s an idea, we let them solve some of their own problems and stop blaming them for being poor. And how about we use a different distribution method than the usual aid.

picture-6.pngUsing children as the focal point for change is an innovative (and controversial) aspect of OLPC. Some detractors have ridiculed this as meaning that teachers aren’t important or necessary. Yet this is far from true. It’s simply not an either/or situation. In my recent post, The Hole in the Wall, I discussed that fact that there is ample evidence that children figure out how to use computer technology, even without instruction. Years of research also showed that although adults did not need to participate in order for the kids to learn, having caring adults around amplified the impact.

So is the XO project just more imperialist nonsense about encouraging people to pull themselves up with their own bootstraps when they have no boots? No, and the facts are beginning to come in from the pilot projects to prove it.

picture-4.pngConsider this Peruvian XO pilot project in Arahuay, a poor, rural town in the Andes. This project was profiled in the Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2007 In Peru, a pint-size ticket to learning. The monthly income for most villagers is less than the cost of one laptop.

Many adults share only weekends with their children, spending the workweek in fields many hours’ walk from town and relying on charities to help keep their families nourished. When they finish school, young people tend to abandon the village.

So did these people sell the XO laptops for food? No. Were they stolen? No. Were the children confused by Slashdot and entangled in email scams (as John Dvorak suggests)? No.

At breakfast, they’re already powering up the combination library/videocamera/audio recorder/musicmaker/drawing kits. At night, they’re dozing off in front of them — if they’ve managed to keep older siblings from waylaying the coveted machines.

Antony, 12, wants to become an accountant. Alex, 7, aspires to be a lawyer. Kevin, 11, wants to play trumpet. Saida, 10, is already a promising videographer, judging from her artful recording of the town’s recent Fiesta de la Virgen.

Today they are drawing pictures, tomorrow they may draw plans for an invention to make farming more productive, picture-1.pngand then fabricate it using techniques found online. Maybe they will communicate with a rural Cambodian village that successfully built a wind-powered electrical generator and build one for themselves. One day not far in the future, a ten year old might save his mother’s life with medical information found online. Today Saida is making a video about her village, tomorrow she could be running for public office using video to communicate her message.

Should we helicopter in a few more bags of rice instead?


What these kids are doing is building intellectual prowess that might lift their village out of the unending cycle of rural poverty that is destroying their families and their future. They are seeing a world of opportunity, information and solutions. Maybe, just maybe, this IS the catalyst they need to solve the problems they consider most important, most likely in ways that we could never imagine.

girls-xo-peru.pngThese kids are smart, creative and in the understatement of the century, have a world of authentic problems to solve. Plus, there are caring adults who could help if given the chance. The least the “developed world” can do is give kids, their parents, and teachers access to the most powerful intellectual amplifier ever invented – the computer, and a connection to the world of information and expertise.

And then get out of their way.


PS If you read Spanish, check out this story about the OLPC pilot in Arahuay – Reportaje NAPA 26: OLPC, laptops en Arahuay. There is a great video about the laptops coming to the village, and even if you don’t understand the narration, the pride on the kids’ (and parents’) faces says it all. All the stills in this blog post are clipped from that video.

XO laptop and extended networks

I got my G1G1 XO laptop before Xmas but haven’t had much time to do much. Holidays and all!

Today I decided to get more serious. A while back, Tom Hoffman posted about creating a new network so XO users could chat, called The XO is initially set up to find nearby XOs so you can chat with nearby folks, but there’s nobody here on my block! (The post says not to share this, but later he said it was OK.)

OLPC and TwitterMy networks helped me out. I read Tom’s post, and another post on the OLPC News forum. Then my Twitter* network stepped up. Andy Schmitz and Thomas Han were online and wanted to check out too. So we got online and Andy helped us get to the right place. It took a few minutes and voila! tons of new friends.

It needs to be said that I don’t really “know” either Thomas or Andy, they just happened to be on Twitter when I needed them. And as I later wrote this post, I discovered that Andy is a senior in high school, and Thomas works for Apple. Who knew!

Once I redirected the XO to look for as the “Jabber” server, it took a few minutes for my view of my Neighborhood to change from this:

Neighborhood view XO - default

to this:

Neighborhood view XO

I chatted with several folks, found out about some known bugs that will be fixed in the next release, and made some new friends. And I created this blog post.

editing blog post with XOBy the way, today is the LAST DAY to get your own XO through the G1G1 program. C’mon, you know you want to!

* If you are wondering what Twitter is – it’s a place where you can chat with people – you decide who you talk to (you “follow” them), but what you say is open to those who choose to follow you. I’ve spent the last 3 months building up a network, and it’s both fun and handy. Today it was indispensible.