Speech to the OLPC Learning Club of DC — with video

Just last week we had Bert Freudenberg in Kathmandu and last night I met w/ some more Deutsch-speakers. Who would think the German-speaking countries and Nepal would be some of the first movers on OLPC?I especially want to thank Wayan Vota of OLPCNews for organizing the meetup and putting me in touch with Christoph and Aaron.

Here is the text of the speech for anyone who is interested in reading it.


I am really happy to see so many people here are excited about the One Laptop Per Child Project. In fact, at this point it is fair to say that OLPC has graduated from being a “Project” to an international “Movement.”


For just a few minutes, please humor me and play along. Imagine that you have decided that OLPC is an incredibly exciting and important initiative, so important that you actually move to an impoverished country to implement it. Or, you might move to an impoverished region of a developed country.

Once there, you form an OLPC Learning Group with some locals that are just as excited about OLPC as you are. This group successfully lobbies the government to conduct a pilot of OLPC. Your team actually gets some laptops and you test them with kids. Things are going great. You are living the OLPC fantasy. Cheap laptops, mesh networks, and constructionist education are going to save the world. Then you slam into harsh reality, Specifically you run into the three difficult issues.

# 1: There is hardly any content for the XO. I used to think that giving a child a laptop would turn her instantly into a constructing, expressing, analyzing superstar. Well, that has not been the case from my experiences so far. Kids like working w/ the laptop but kids often get bored after about 90 minutes w/ the laptop, some after 10. There is a real shortage of basic activities for learning basic numeracy and language skills.

# 2: Teachers don’t have time for the XO. Teachers everywhere are busy, whether in Kathmandu, Washington D.C., or Vienna. Keeping up with the national curriculum leaves very little time for special projects. Further, parents and school administrators are loathe to spend time on anything that doesn’t help their kids do well on national examinations. As it stands, all the existing activities on the XO are outside of the national curriculum and thus fall outside regular schoolwork and grade-level examinations.

# 3: You have to prove it works! You absolutely, positively have to quantitatively prove to policy makers that OLPC improves the overall quality of education. There is no getting around this. You can convince politicians to approve a pilot but you will not convince policymakers and the general public to make integrate OLPC into the larger education system until you can show that OLPC makes a significant improvement in kids’ educations.

I have just walked you through what has essentially been my experience working on OLPC in Nepal over the last eighteen months. In the little bit of time I have I will tell you how we are dealing with these three issues in Nepal.Before I do that, let me tell you a little bit about myself and the Open Learning Exchange Nepal. I was a career member of the US Foreign Service for 5 years, serving in the Middle East and China, before quitting this last September to work full-time on OLPC. I helped start the OLPC movement in Nepal when I arrived in Nepal in September 2006 and I co-founded the Nepali NGO Open Learning Exchange Nepal. Open Learning Exchange Nepal is working with the government of Nepal to implement the OLPC pilot there. I would love to talk later w/ anyone who is interested in learning more about our pilot strategy and implementation plan.

Enough about me, let’s get back to those three killer problems.

#1 : There isn’t enough content

#2 : Teachers aren’t going to use XO’s if the laptops don’t help them do their existing work better.

#3 : We have to prove that laptops actually improve learning.

Here is how we are trying to create a lot of high-quality content, quickly. We are using the tool Squeak, the same platform that EToys uses. With Squeak, we can develop a learning activity within a few days and literally modify a learning activity on the fly without having to recompile. Additionally, EToys is cross platform. It is absolutely essential that people who don’t have XO’s can develop and test our activities.

We call our methodology “Educator-Driven Development” (Blog post to come on this subject) because we have two seasoned educators on our team that drive the development process. They sketch out learning activities, critique and revise learning activities created by others, and analyze how kids and teachers react to our learning activities. The team develops learning activities in several day long to week-long iterations. We test the activities with kids on weekly basis. Our educators know both Nepal’s national curriculum and more importantly how kids learn. By and large, programmers don’t know how kids learn. Great Teachers know how kids learn. We really see in this how programmers consistently overestimate the difficulty of teaching advanced skills and underestimate the difficulty of teaching basic skills.

Because Squeak is a graphical drag-and-drop environment we can develop learning activities quickly and non-programmers such as educators and graphic designers can manipulate the elements within a learning activity. There is only one tool besides Squeak that offers this functionality, Adobe’s flexbuilder. We are using Squeak because we feel it is inherently more powerful than Flex.

We have avoided developing learning activities using PyGTK because PyGTK applications are not particularly portable and Python code is just not “discoverable” like the graphical scripting environment in EToys or Flex. I do not foresee non-programmers hacking Python code written by others. I can and have seen non-programmers modifying fairly sophisticated EToys, such as the ones we have developed in Nepal.

Alright, on to problem #2: Teachers are busy. They are not going to use the XO unless it helps them do their jobs as specified by the existing curriculum. To manage this, we are aligning all of our learning activities with the national curriculum and for the first year we are focusing on the two subjects that Nepali students struggle the most with: Mathematics and English.

Not to be forgotten, we have to train teachers how to integrate laptops into education. This training has three dimensions:

1. How to use computers in general

2. Learn the principles behind child-centered/constructionist/experiential learning

3. How to use computers for child-centered learning.

Now to PolicyMakers: We have to show them some statistical improvement in the quality of education. This comes right back to content. By focussing on the subjects that students have the most difficulty with, we think we can show significant improvement within a short period of time.

Now I can talk almost indefinitely about the various aspects of OLPC and what we are doing Nepal. I will take your questions now and be happy to speak with you individually. Thanks for your time and thanks to Wayan Vota of OLPCNews for organizing this event.

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