Technology and Service Part 1- OLPC

My school, the United World College of South East Asia or UWCSEA for short, does amazing things when it comes to helping others. We have local groups from around Singapore that we work with as well as groups in other countries. There are trips all year to a variety of places near and far that students and teachers actively participate in and support.

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I have participated in service trips before, most of which have gone to different groups in Cambodia. At least once a year I go back to Kuma school outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia with my two young children and wife. I want my family to connect to the students there and be a part of trying to make a difference in the world of these young children.

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So my question is, how can I support groups like Kuma in terms of technology?

To start to answer my question, I decided to go to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) basecamp in Malacca, Malaysia on November 16 and 17, 2013.

We were incredible fortunate to have one of the two people behind OLPC, Walter Bender from MIT, come through Singapore on his way to Malacca for the OLPC base camp. He spent the day at our school and did a few workshops with students and then we travelled up to Malacca in a van with a small group of people. It was incredible to have some time listening to someone with the experiences the Walter has had.

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Once in Malacca we met up with a variety of people connected to OLPC from all over (most of them from around Asia). We spent two days talking and listening about many different aspects of OLPC.

The OLPC program deploys a laptop called the XO which is pretty incredible. Originally coined “the $100 laptop”; it was meant to be something that was cheap to produce and get into the hands of students. The eventual cost of the laptop came in around $200 but it can be dropped (which Walter delighted showing us many times) and even have liquid spilled on it without damaging the computer. The newest version of the computer even has a touch screen. It really was meant to be a computer that would last. If it needs to be fixed, it can easily have parts swapped out by the user with a little help. The computer uses very little power and can be charged by plugging it in or by using a hand crank (very cool for places with no electricity).

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Here are a few of the things I learned that I feel can apply to the work that UWCSEA does with the groups that we support in terms of technology.

1. Pre-deployment – One of the mistakes that some of the OLPC groups made was that they thought that they just had to put the computers in the hands of students and the students would learn to use them. Some groups would literally come into a school, bring in computers, stay for a week and then never come back. Also, they sometimes would ignore the teachers as people who are not going to make a difference in the program.

So we need to make sure that we meet the key people involved in the school that we would work with (more on that in a future blog post). We have to ask them what they want. If we don’t have a similar vision for where we think technology fits, it might not be a good idea to work with that particular group. There are many questions that need to be answered when we meet with the school. Is there buy in from the leaders of the school community? What is the teacher’s role in implementing the program? What do they have for internet and reliable power? Is there someone local who can support them in terms of IT support when something breaks?

We need a mentor (probably their teacher) who can guide the students. They don’t need to be someone who needs to be able to instruct the students or be an expert in the technology.

But the key here is that the person working with technology with the students need to be able to ask them questions. So many of the teachers that we work with go through a system where they learn to instruct students through the use of a textbook. There is no inquiry in these classrooms and learning is a linear approach. And this is where we have to help the teachers in terms of their pedagogy. It is a longer process and a larger commitment. This is something we can do but we have to be prepared for it and it doesn’t have anything to do with technology. It is about retraining the teachers.

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2. Deployment – We need to start with the teachers. Some of the OLPC deployments completely ignored the teachers. When Apple computers were first introduced at UWCSEA as the one platform, the teachers had the computers for a full year before we fully deployed the computers to the students. We need to involve the teachers and get them their own computers. This will increase the buy in. Of course we need to continually support the teachers with ongoing training.

How will the hardware be managed? Will the students be able to keep the computers and take them home? What is the expected level of access for the students? How often will they be able to use the computers? Whenever they want? Only at certain times?

One of the biggest problems that the OLPC groups had was trying to get the computers to be used regularly in the classroom. Many of the deployments’s schools and teachers worried about losing time for their own curriculum. They worried that their students would not be able to do well in their government exams.

Some research has shown that students who participated in the OLPC program did no better on their government standardised exams. In many ways, this makes sense because a standardised exam often tests facts and not higher order thinking. Learning to use a computer can help students to be inquirers, problem solve, and to learn how to learn. These things will not show up on a government standardised exam.

So to show the effectiveness of any program that involves technology, we need to design an assessment that can be given prior to deployment and periodically throughout the deployment that can assess the students in terms of critical thinking, problem solving, and other areas. This will give us a true understanding of the effectiveness of any deployment.

One of the ways to help teacher’s fears of the computers in the classroom taking away from instructional time is to start by using them in an after school scenario. This might involve their teacher or even an outside instructor. But this approach seems to have the best level of buy in. It is also the approach that we think we will try with our groups.

3. Sugar operating system – One of the things about the XO laptop is the operating system (OS) which is known as Sugar. It is open source meaning that users and access the operating system and make their own changes or write their own programs. This can prove to be very powerful for learners.

The group of teachers from my school all installed Sugar on our MacBooks (you need to run it through Parallels or Virtual Box). It is a cool OS which provides a lot of flexibility. One of the best parts of the OS was a program called Turtle. It is a program which allows you to do some simple programming. Anyone who is familiar with Scratch will understand Turtle. The thing about Turtle is that it has a much higher ceiling than Scratch and allows the user to do so much more. When we were in Malacca, Walter was working on a program that would allow programs that were created in Turtle to be exported out as apps that could be run on the Sugar operating system. So users could easily write their own apps. How cool is that!

One question arose about whether we should purchase cheap laptops like Chromebooks or other netbook type models and install Sugar on these computers instead. But again, the robustness of the XO laptop seems to be a huge benefit.

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4. Collaboration – As previously mentioned, one of the aspects of introducing anything new to a school whether it is technology related or not is that it must be continually supported. One way this can be achieved is to regularly provide professional development for teachers and students in terms of workshops.

Another way we think we can help support the teachers and students if our students at our school continue to collaborate over the computer when our students are back home in school. Generally, our students are able to work with our Global Concerns groups only when they go on a trip. These trips last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. But then it is over.

Using computers and the Sugar operating system, our students could continually collaborate throughout the whole year. I know that this could be done using google docs and another operating system. However, using the Sugar OS they can access the same screen of any app they are using. So the students could use Turtle to work together and write programs in real time.

A great thing about this is that our students would be learning along side their students. Our students are new to Turtle and coding and their students are too. So we wouldn’t be the prevailers of knowledge; they would be discovering together.

So what is next?

The next step is to visit the schools and groups that we work with and find out what they want. We know that this is a crucial step in the process. We can’t just make decisions independent of them. Each school is unique and although there will be similarities to our approaches to each school, we will have to develop a different strategy that works for each group. So we are planning to visit the schools in the coming months and meet with all the people involved to make a plan for where we go next.