Category Archives: Gentoo

One Laptop per Child, La Rioja

I’m spending a few weeks in La Rioja, Argentina, again helping with a One Laptop per Child deployment.

The La Rioja project is interesting for a number of reasons; firstly, it’s the first large-scale XO deployment in Argentina. Secondly, the scale itself is quite remarkable: each and every one of the 60,000 primary school children in the entire province will receive a laptop. Thirdly, it marks the worldwide debut of the XO-1.5 laptop, the brand new hardware offering from OLPC.

I’ve been working exclusively with the technical and logistics team and it’s really impressive to see the work they’ve already completed. They already prepared an inventory system, selected teams for flashing, infrastructure, software customization, server rollout, and technical support. They produced manuals based on a handful of XOs they had available, and studied the OLPC/XO/Sugar documentation religiously. It’s great to see the project in good hands.

The first laptops have already arrived, and I’ll be posting updates in the next few weeks.

One Laptop per Child, Nicaragua

In early January, I arrived in Managua, Nicaragua, to help the Zamora Terán Foundation with their One Laptop per Child implementation to improve public school education for Nicaraguan children. My roles have been providing training and direction on the technical and logistics fronts, sharing experiences from other countries, and helping out on the day-to-day tasks which inevitably draw attention.

San Judas Tadeo, Managua

The foundation was set up last year as part of the corporate social responsibility programme of the LAFISE/Bancentro banking group. This means that it’s an OLPC project backed by the private sector.

The usual OLPC principles are followed: entire schools are saturated at a time, all children aged 6-12 receive a laptop. They take it home and share with their family. Teacher training is provided before the laptops arrive and is supplemented on a regular basis. Internet access is provided at the schools, even in the places where you really wouldn’t think connectivity is possible.

The project has currently reached 7 schools, ranging from single-room multigrade schools to schools with 600 children in primary education. From isolated 19-family communities to big cities. Quite a mix!

The schools are spread all over the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, which adds various interesting challenges to the project; while it’s not difficult to travel between schools, you are talking about a fair amount of A-to-B. Fortunately, the foundation has the resources of the bank at its disposal (in addition to their drivers and vehicles, we can use their courier system, quite useful in a country that doesn’t really have a postal service!). The project also benefits from a partnerships with other organisations, a collection of dedicated volunteers, and a collaboration with the Ministry of Education.

About 2000 children are covered by the programme so far, a number that will grow through the year. An exciting recent development is a significant donation from the Embassy of Denmark; with their support, the foundation will soon be initiating a 6000-laptop deployment in 2 cities on the Caribbean coast.

Fuente de vida, Juigalpa

One interesting model that I’ve not seen in other OLPC deployments is the way that the foundation runs a “give a school” model. The foundation has a significant stock of laptops in the country and other organisations can make a donation to cause the project to land in a specific school; the donor covers the cost of the equipment and infrastructure, and the foundation does the rest (logistics, connectivity, laptop handout, teacher training, followup and repairs, etc.).

Nicaragua is a fascinating country; in addition to the obligatory weekend excursions to volcanoes, lagunas and beaches, I’ve had the opportunity to glimpse “the real Nicaragua” while travelling with the project. it has been refreshing to see that even in the areas where living conditions are strikingly harsh, you can see that the local people are really focusing on community and education: the schools and the churches are the best-constructed buildings in town.

A new OLPC deployment in Nigeria

Earlier this month, I found myself embarking on a last-minute journey to a One Laptop per Child workshop in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. They are preparing for a 6000 XO laptop deployment in that region of the country. I attended to support the 5-day event, which was coordinated by Michael Tempel and Claudia Urrea.

The laptops were donated by Rusal/Alscom, and the deployment will be primarily run by Schlumberger’s Excellence in Educational Development division. SEED already uses its local staff to run some education projects in Nigeria (and many other countries).

We covered a range of activities including Write, Record and Paint, then spent a decent amount of time on TurtleArt and Scratch. We also handed out 75 sensors and ran some activities around the measurement of humidity, temperature and light.
The abilities of the attendees (the vast majority of which were first-time users) grew very nicely during the workshop.

The group consisted of about 80 teachers and 20 children. Both the size of the group and the wide age range presented some challenges. Usually, such workshops would be run only with the core teams behind the deployments (a smaller group overall), but the way that things are developing in Nigeria meant that it made more sense for us to work with a larger group at this time.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks of the workshop was working with the Scratch activity – while a very valuable activity, its integration with the Sugar desktop environment is damagingly minimal. For example, instead of using Sugar’s simplistic “Journal” storage system, it presents regular-looking Load and Save dialogs which proved very challenging for the new users. Seeing people struggle with interfaces that we see all over the desktop computing world really reminds you just how ground-breaking and significant the simplicity of Sugar is.

We also ran into some problems with the Paint activity regularly freezing the systems, unreliable saving/loading with USB disks, and some confusion relating to Measure’s sensors interface. We were kept on our feet at all times, meaning that I didn’t really have time to sit down and diagnose the issues in detail, but they should not be hard to reproduce at a later date. The issues were not significant enough to cause any major disruption.

I ran a few technical sessions with a few people who will become the basis of the technical team, plus some interested volunteers and teachers. As I’ve seen in other places, this was challenging because prior experience with Linux is low and internet access is scarce, so “look up this topic on the OLPC wiki” is not an answer that everyone is able to work with, and “run this command at the terminal” requires a decent amount of explanation. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm is overwhelming (as always) and I went away feeling confident that the core team is now comfortably in a position to get things moving and pass on knowledge to a wider group.

Our hours were cut short by the high security around us, meaning that we didn’t have much non-workshop time to interact with the attendees (or really see the country at all), but overall it was a lovely group to work with and I’m confident that we’re going to see great things come out of their efforts. I’m now back in Nepal until November.

OLPC in Nepal

I recently arrived in Nepal to help the local One Laptop per Child implementation, being run by a local organisation known as OLE Nepal.

One of the things you learn early on is that this deployment is very much focused on content for the Nepali primary school curriculum. OLPC tends to push for a more exploratory “constructionist” learning approach, but it’s clear that the Nepalese project is simply focusing on what is locally appropriate, taking the route that wins one of the key ingredients of any OLPC implementation: support from teachers.

OLE Nepal has an impressively large team who generate content. They take specific points from the Nepali curriculum, and work with teachers to generate games and exercises. The team includes programmers, education specialists, and graphic designers. The outcome of each task is some kind of interactive educational game/exercise, a lesson plan, some help text, and a reference to the specific point of the Nepali curriculum which the activity aims to teach. So far, they have content for English, Maths and Nepali for grades 2, 3 and 6 — the total content is more than can fit on the storage of the XO laptop, so they deliver it in chunks.

And while this kind of approach does limit the children to their curriculum, it’s not like the content is plain or boring. The activities are very interactive and are of high quality. The children take the laptops home, and naturally explore the usual Sugar activities too. An interesting recent development that we experienced on a school visit was that the teachers requested training on how to use more of the Sugar activities on the laptop – they now appear keen to harness more of the benefits of the project and perhaps look a little outside of the rigid curriculum. Or perhaps they just feel outgunned by the children, who are racing ahead with their laptop-using abilities.

The content described above is known as E-Paath. Additionally, OLE Nepal develops E-Pustakayala, an electronic library which is cloned on all of the school servers. Thanks to various supporters, there is an impressive breadth of content available there too.

Another project that has impressed me is Karma, the Nepal-driven project to generate educational content using HTML5 and Javascript. This was born when the organisation decided that they wanted to share their high-quality educational content with other deployments around the world, but realised that the primary technology used (Flash) makes distribution and localisation overly difficult. For me, the great thing about this is to see a deployment really focusing on the question of “How can we help the worldwide OLPC community?” as many deployments are either too drowned in work to make such efforts, or do not realise the benefits of doing so.

For my 3 month stay, my primary roles are to support the deployment manager, pass on some technical skills to the local employees, and to make various improvements to the school server.

OLPC Paraguay report & more

I wrote up a summary of my experience in Paraguay, you can read it on the OLPC wiki.

Last week, I gave a presentation about OLPC in the field at an OLPC UK meeting. It went well and it was nice to meet everyone for the first time. They are planning an exciting pilot deployment in a London school. I’ll leave them to announce the details as things progress.

The development of the XO-1.5 software release is progressing nicely. We have automated builds that work reasonably well.

And now would also be a good time to mention my upcoming plans; on July 18th I will be flying out to Nepal to spend 12 weeks as a volunteer for Open Learning Exchange Nepal, the organisation implementing One Laptop per Child in that country. Exciting!

XO-1.5 development underway

The OLPC tech team recently flew out to Quanta in Taiwan to bring up the first handful of test boards for the next generation XO laptop, known as the XO-1.5. The new laptop is basically a refresh to solve the difficulties that occur when you continue to try and source 2-year-old technologies in bulk, but will result in core improvements at the same time.

The Geode processor from the XO-1 has been end-of-lifed; the new laptop uses a VIA C7 CPU with the brand-new VX855 chipset. The flash storage and RAM have been quadrupled, providing 4GB and 1GB respectively.

I’m now joining the efforts for a few weeks, helping out on the software. We’re aiming to make a new “deployment quality” software release, including the newer version of Sugar and a generally more-up-to-date system based on Fedora 11. I received my A-test board today, it is already booting into Sugar and is quite functional.

OLPC UK Pilot planning underway

A while ago, I created an OLPC UK page on the OLPC wiki, and a mailing list alongside it with the hope of linking together the various people who were interested in organising various kinds of UK-based One Laptop per Child activities.

These small efforts have proven fruitful; a number of people from various backgrounds have teamed up and are organising a pilot programme for deploying a small number of XO laptops in a UK school.

I’m back in the UK for a little while and am excited to get involved where I can.

Their next meeting is June 17th in central London. I will be giving a presentation about my experiences with OLPC to date. More details here (RSVP requested). I hope to see you there!

libusb-1.0.1 released

I’ve just released v1.0.1 of libusb. It includes a handful of bug fixes and adds a Darwin backend from Nathan Hjelm, meaning that libusb-1.0 applications can now run on Mac OS X too. Other contributors include David Moore and Hans Ulrich Niedermann, plus Peter Stuge is now hosting git and some other bits – thanks!

XO laptop deployment logistics

For a small team, deploying 3500 XO laptops in 10 schools is a significant challenge. The difficulties include assigning the correct number of laptops to each class, ensuring that each child has a laptop, and having some way of tracking which child owns which laptop for the purpose of future tech support and repairs. Additionally, the handout process can be difficult – children are extremely excited to receive their laptops, hence the classroom environment can easily ascend into chaos, becoming rather stressful. The children also need some initial guidance to complete the installation (entering your name, and choosing colours for the sugar interface).

For the OLPC Paraguay deployments in Caacupé, we created a system which worked rather well. Actually, the basis of it was shamelessly copied from Uruguay, as recently observed by Sebastian Codas.

First, the preparatory stages:

  1. The teacher of each class creates a register of their students, including their national ID number. (In Paraguay, the children are required to obtain national ID before receiving a laptop, whereas having national ID at that age is ordinarily quite rare. The huge increase in the number of children with ID in Caacupé is another significant success of this project.)
  2. The principal of each school submits all the registers to ParaguayEduca.
  3. The registers are entered into ParaguayEduca’s inventory system.
  4. The inventory system generates a label for each laptop, including: student’s name, class, school, and a random, unique ID. The unique ID is also printed on the label as a barcode.
  5. When printing the laptop labels, the inventory system also generates the labels to go on the laptop boxes (up to 5 laptops per box), including: school, class, and total number of boxes that should be received by that class. Laptops are combined into boxes by classes – no box ever has more than 1 destination.

Secondly, the process of applying the labels:

  1. Each box of 5 laptops is unboxed individually.
  2. The pages of labels (many per page, grouped by destination classroom) are cut up into individual labels.
  3. The laptop labels are stuck to the laptops, inside the battery compartment.
  4. Each laptop is scanned into the inventory system using a USB barcode scanner. Note that two barcodes are scanned per laptop (which are next to each other): First, the label with student information as described above; second, the already-present barcode that shows the serial number of the laptop. This creates an association between the unique serial number of each laptop, and the student that will receive it.
  5. The laptops are reboxed, with the appropriate labels being stuck to the box.
  6. The laptop boxes are stacked according to which school they are heading to.
Labelling laptops
Labelling laptops in the warehouse

Finally, the delivery:

  1. The laptops for an entire school are loaded into a truck.
  2. We drive to the school.
  3. We request the help of 15 or so of children from upper grades, ones that can carry laptop boxes.
  4. We unload each laptop box from the truck, giving it to a child. An accompanying teacher clarifies the exact location of the classroom, and the children move the boxes.
  5. In the classroom, a volunteer explains the process to the teacher: 5 laptops per box, each laptop has a label. Simply read out the student’s name as printed on the laptop, insert the battery, hand over the laptop and a charger, and move onto the next one. Note that no registration or paperwork is needed here (it was done much earlier), it is literally handing out the laptops to excited children.
Laptop handout at Santa Teresita Cabañas
Easy laptop handout process

There are several nice points about this system. Firstly, laptop handout, which can be a stressful and difficult process, is now incredibly easy and can be done by anyone (all the difficult parts including paperwork have been done beforehand), allowing us to harness a group of local volunteers without any prior involvement in the project. Secondly, the information (student name and class) visible on the label can be easily used by anyone to return a misplaced XO to its owner, and further enforces the principle of child ownership. Thirdly, it’s quite failure-proof: the label is inside the battery compartment so is unlikely to be lost or damaged, but even if so, a new label can be easily generated from the serial number of the laptop (which is very difficult to displace, being additionally stored on a chip inside the laptop!).

However, no system is perfect. Any system which requires someone to do something 3500 times — such as slicing and applying labels — is time consuming and prone to human error. We were a little low on space, in a hot and smelly warehouse. Nevertheless, the project itself and the experiences in the schools were more than enough to keep us motivated.

It’s amazing to look back on the week and to see how much work was done, even if we did start at 5am every day! Within 4 days, we completed entering the registers into the inventory system, finalizing and testing connectivity and electricity at schools, printing labels and labelling laptops, and of course delivering laptops to schools and assisting the handout.