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One Laptop Per Teacher

Posted by evanx on August 16, 2006 at 4:37 AM PDT

In Barbara Kurshan's "Philanthropy and GELC", she posted the recent Forbes interview with Scott McNealy. This got me to musing about computers in education...

redrose2_200.jpg In 2001/2002 i was involved with a a social responsibility programme,, relating to opensource advocacy for schools in South Africa. (I found the old website on the internet archive.)

The Dalai Lama gave a talk in Cape Town's Botanical Gardens to thousands of people, including me. He said, be charitable because it makes you feel better - ie. do it for yourself! And boy, does it ever feel good, and isn't it the most rewarding thing you can do, to feel that you are really making a difference, not to your employer's bottom line, but to people's lives. By just writing and emailing and advocating technologies close to your heart, like Linux :)

One of the great things about it, is that i had something to talk to girls about at parties! Previously all i could talk about was computers, which is eye-glazing material for everyone not involved in computers. But now i could talk passionately about schools, and education, and NGOs - and suddenly everyone thought i was so interesting, and not just one of those computer geeks, woohoo! I fooled them with my electrified fooling machine (running Linux)!

Recycled PCs and Linux thin-clients

In 2001, I wrote a paper entitled "Champagne at beer prices" about building affordable computer labs using recycled PCs donated by corporates, as Linux thin-clients.

Cos those old PII machines with 32Mb RAM just aint no good for Windows XP, man. So I networked with colleagues in NGO's involved with computers in schools, advocating the opensource option.

These days, just add one new dual-core Linux box with 4 gigs of RAM, hang 50 recycled PCs off it, and mesh it wirelessly with all the other schools around you.

So I networked with colleagues in NGO's involved with computers in schools, advocating the opensource option. This included UK-based ComputerAid, who recycle PCs from corporates for use in schools in the developing world. They offered us 220 PCs with no hard drives (from the military), which they couldn't recycle (as Windows PC's), but of course we could, as diskless Linux thin-clients. I referred the offer to my colleague Hilton Theunissen, who was getting off the ground, backed by the The Shuttleworth Foundation. They have now deployed 150 labs, benefitting over 100 thousand learners, woohoo!

On the Ground

We deployed one Linux lab ourselves in 2002, which was successful, if at nothing else, at teaching us about some of the challenges of "computers in education." We had it relatively easy because we chose a school that had a passionate "champion," that is, a teacher at the school that believed passionately in computers in education, and had the support of the principal in this.

He taught his students to use the computers as a tool, to assist them in their regular education. For example, he taught how to use OpenOffice for writing up school projects, and how to use a spreadsheet to assist with some specific subject-related exercises, and such.


One problem with Linux and opensource, as opposed to Windows, has been that the best offline resource is Encarta. In fact, from many an educator's perspective, the best reason to have computers in schools is Encarta. That is, useful content. When your school is offline, it's Encarta or bust.

Most teachers are scared of computers (and VCRs and such too). They don't wanna touch them with a barge pole. And by the way, most kids are better taught by teachers, without any interference by computers. Hey, excuse me for referring to "learners" as "kids," and "educators" as "teachers," i'm out of practice at the correct lingo.

Maths, Science, History and such, are better learnt by kids than Computer Studies. In my case, i reckon Latin made programming seem easy to me, taught me to problem solve, and was better learnt at school than "Computer Studies," which i wasn't taught. I didn't study Computer Science either, d'oh!

Maximising Limited Resources

Since only a small percentage of South African learners have access to computers at home, computer skills should be taught at school. The problem is, only a small percentage of South African schools currently have computer labs.

In order to urgently maximise the impact of our limited resources, we need to prioritise. And so it's not realistic for all primary schools to get computer labs, or for high schools to offer computer time to all students concurrently, in the near future.

Personally i'm an advocate of no computer classes until the final years of schooling. Students in their final years, should of course enjoy access to a computer lab, and training on using computers as a tool. That is, how to Google for information, use email, use Wikipedia, and such. These are what you could call "life skills," i.e. everyone needs these skills in their lives, professional and otherwise.

Having said that, i believe that all learners who are interested in "playing" with computers, should be given access to the computer lab as an "extra mural" activity, and be mentored by older students and/or teachers. Therein be future players in our IT industry.

The Microsoft Option

In 2002, as the noise levels of opensource in schools was steadily increasing, Microsoft (South Africa) announced that some Microsoft software would be supplied free to all schools in South Africa. Incidently, the Microsoftie involved in that subsequently joined Novell, to promote Linux :)

If some of the noise we were making about opensource in schools contributed to this policy of free software for schools, then i see that as a success, even though it pulled a rug from under our feet. People would argue that exposing learners to propretiary software, rather than opensource software, is wrong. Well, they should give a whole lot more credit to kids, and people in general. Because people aren't so sheepish, that they won't switch when it suits them to do so.

If schools are getting free software, albeit closed-source, this is gonna mean more computers at more schools (and/or more money for schools to spend on sports and stuff), which means more computers for downloading opensource software, and i'm all for that.

The problem is that it turns out that the offer only applies to upgrades, so schools still to have fork out for Microsoft licenses for new deployments.

One Laptop Per Child

These days we have the OLPC project. We read that Jon "Maddog" Hall (of Linux International) suggested that using recycled PCs is a good approach, because it creates local employment. It also addresses ecological issues as well.

Anyway, we all support the OLPC. I'm sure in 10 and 20 years time we'll be reading countless stories of IT luminaries whose first computer was an OLPC, running Linux, with wireless mesh networking :)

Focus on the Teachers

There are other aspects of computers in schools, namely for administration, teacher assistance, and curriculum delivery. Teacher assistance is an interesting one, where you deliver relevant teaching material (eg. curriculum, exercises, and such) to the teacher. So the teacher can login, and get a helping hand as to what to teach that day.

In South Africa, we have one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world (over 40% in some provinces, i believe), and this is affecting teachers as well of course. That is to say, the shortage of teachers is getting worse. Because teachers too, are dying of AIDS. As a result, we have to accelerate the training of new teachers, and of course provide new teachers with every assistance.

I believe that before our schools offer "computer studies" to learners, we should focus on universal "teacher training." That is, training teachers to use ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) as a tool to assist them in their duties, e.g. via content delivery to teachers. Because it's all about the content, and not about the computers.

I believe that universities and tertiary institutions (which are subsidised by government grants) should be tasked with the responsibility of teacher training, content development for teachers, and ICT deployment and curriculum delivery, eg. via GSM or wifi to low-cost laptops, PDAs and such.

So I would have suggested an "OLPT" programme ie. One Laptop Per Teacher, before an OLPC one. Actually, many teachers might feel more comfortable with a PDA which feels more like a cellphone, than a computer. So these teachers' devices would be used to deliver curriculum and assistance to teachers. To help our teachers to teach our children.

Here's a human story. Machines cannot teach humans! Only humans can teach humans. Humans can teach themselves some stuff of course, that is, when we get older eg. to high school level. Then we can use computers to discover content, and learn stuff. Problem is, given the choice, we might just use computers for games, which are way more fun than homework! Give me Doom over Geography any day!

Computers for learners

The next step after a "PTA" (Portable Teacher's Assistant), be it a GSM-enabled PDA or wifi-enabled OLPT, should be providing computer access and skills to mature learners. One approach is a large lab of thin-clients, possibly with one or two thin-clients in classrooms, e.g. on the teacher's desk, for the class to use Google, Wikipedia and such.

Alternatively, there is the OLPC model. The idea of giving each learner a personal device sounds great. This can used to replace text books in class, and go further than text books eg. interactive exercises and searchable content. I believe this is what education technologists mean by "curriculum delivery." Whether this is an OLPC laptop, or handheld PDA, doesn't matter.

Textbooks are expensive, and getting the right text books in the right quantities out to tens of thousands of schools, in time, is a challenging logistical problem. And rural schools often come up short. Not least because they have no integrated administration systems, and in many cases, no phones, sometimes no electricity even.

So i think that OLPC is an awesome project. I do confess an ulterior interest, that is, an "IT vocational" one. A child that has a programmable OLPC, has a good chance of getting interested in computers, and might well go into the IT industry later. Anyway, in most careers and jobs, proficiency with computers is required. So every child that is given an OLPC, will be glad of it, now and forever.

There is a "chicken and egg" debate over computers in schools. Educationalists say they is no point in "dumping" computers in schools without content e.g. localised interactive text books. Technologists argue that schools must have computers first, and then content can be developed to leverage that platform.

The educators are right are of course. But as an IT vocationalist, i want computers in schools to teach basic computer skills to learners before they leave school, and to give those budding geeks a playground to blossom in.

Hardware cost of computer labs

Considering it might take a while to really give every child a laptop, I guess education departments and schools and NGOs are still gonna be building computer labs for a while.

What has promise is multi-headed PCs, eg. with four video cards and USB keyboards. That can get the cost per seat to below $150. But it's quite a specialised configuration, albeit using commodity PC components.

Some thin clients setups are already available for below $200, including monitors. At some stage in the near future, they should be available to school programmes in volume below $150. However, one has to add to this the cost of the server, e.g. $50 per client.

One should note though that the hardware cost is only a small part of the picture. There are many other costs to factor in, eg. furniture and security, training and support, content and connectivity.


A problem with Google and Wikipedia (as opposed to Encarta), is that you gotta be online. This was a much bigger problem-with-no-solution a few years ago, eg. in the case of rural schools, and poorer urban schools. (Connectivity costs in South Africa are 10 times higher than other developing countries, they say.)

These days the solutions are emerging. Rural schools should have sponsored and subsidised GSM connectivity, and urban schools should use wireless meshing. Cities in South Africa are planning WiMAX metropolitan networks, and i imagine in future all urban schools will be connected this way.

Connectivity is also crucially important to enable remote technical support. Otherwise the support cost of labs becomes prohibitive.

IT Vocationing

Actually I'm a "vocational IT advocate." I believe that at least all high school children should have access to computers, like i did (as alluded to in My Desktop OS: Windows XP). Because it changed my life. And there are thousands of school children that, if had they access to computers, would become dedicated professionals in our industry.

If more school computer labs existed and had afternoon access, there would be many more a child happily immersing himself or herself in a bright new digital world, and for a while forgetting their problems at home, the poverty and such. They would be empowering themselves for a future where there is no poverty in their family, but rather, riches, such as a great job, a lovely house, their kids at good schools, and playing in safe streets. So every year that goes by, that school kids have no access to computers whatsoever, is a mournful thing.

I've read that the most effective action towards achieving the UN Millenium Development Goals, is promoting the education of girls in developing countries. Because girls become mothers, responsible for education and primary health care. Through projects like OLPC, hopefully very many will be responsible for primary data care as well!

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