‘One Laptop Per Child’ is both the name and the aim of the not-for-profit organisation headed up in Australia by CEO Rangan Srikhanta. It is an organisation that aims to create equal education opportunities for children around Australia through technology.
Part of a global initiative founded in late 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte (former Media Lab Director at MIT), OLPC began as a joint partnership between private companies, NGOs and governments, to produce the world’s least expensive laptop and distribute it to children in need around the world.
The resulting computer featured rugged child-friendly casing, low power usage, a long life battery, sunlight readable screen and was ad hoc WiFi capable – meaning that a single computer connected to the internet could share that connection to other computers nearby. They named it the XO, and with several nations signing on to provide the machines for their school children, began shipping it around the world.
Ever interested in pushing boundaries, the global tech community took interest and began looking for ways to get their hands on the machines themselves, resulting in a program being developed that enabled regular consumers to buy an XO for their own use. The program was called ‘give one, get one’ and consumers essentially purchased two XOs, one for themselves, and one that was donated to a child in need. This was happening in countries the world over, but not in Australia.
When then university student Rangan Srikhanta heard about the OLPC initiative in 2006, his mind was captured. Keen to learn more, and unable to sleep, he decided to contact the OLPC office in the US. “As it turns out, the middle of the night in Australia is a really great time to call Boston!” he says.
With the obvious focus on third world countries, the directors of OLPC had never considered our sunburnt country, but as Srikhanta impressed on them the needs of Australia’s rural communities and disadvantaged schools, the proposition started to make sense. While national internet infrastructure gradually improves, millions of homes in Australia remain disconnected from the web, with indigenous homes being 76 per cent less likely to have a connection than non-indigenous metropolitan households.
OLPC estimate that 40 per cent of Australia’s 2.4 million children may fall into the disconnected category, and with the future of the NBN up in the air, the need for different kinds of access to technology and the internet only grows more important. As the digital world becomes ever more pervasive and white collar roles continue to gain a large share of the job market, computer skills and internet know-how become increasingly essential. Children with limited access to technology are at risk of being left behind, slow to learn or unable to perform the working tasks of the future. This is the fate that One Laptop Per Child Australia is fighting against.
Taking heed of lessons learned by counterparts overseas, Srikhanta and his team have implemented an initiative called ‘One Education’. More than just a program for distributing XO computers, One Education encompasses training for teachers in usage of the XO, facilities for creating and sharing lesson plans, learning systems for children (and grown ups) in basic XO repair, as well as comprehensive and ongoing support. The One Education model combats inertia in teachers who, in the past, received their complement of computers but then were not sure what to do with them. Now under the One Education banner, OLPC distributes the devices only after an individual teacher has completed their training and is fully prepared to bring them to the classroom.
It is a grassroots strategy comprised of several integral pieces: teacher training, XO distribution, curriculum development, XO technician training and the recruitment of student and teacher champions. In the past, OLPC would travel out with the delivery of the devices and train teachers on the spot, only to discover that those teachers had possibly moved on mere months later – especially in the harder rural communities. By creating a supportive ecosystem from the bottom up, One Education ensures that XOs in schools are always useful and engaging. New teachers can be easily trained in the system, and teachers that move can take their accreditation with them.
The XO computer itself has received an impressive update in recent times, boasting a touchscreen that swivels, transforming into a tablet. With the new dual form factor, so came a new name: the XO-duo. Bluetooth capabilities and HDMI output have been added to the roster, as well as a slew of internal upgrades, while still maintaining the low power footprint and drop-proof casing. With regard to software, the XO-duo runs a variant of Linux with its own simplified interface named Sugar. The security of Linux makes the device less prone to malware or any virus that might make its way over the internet, while Sugar ensures that any of the less user-friendly elements of Linux stay well hidden behind an easily understood interface designed with kids in mind. Set up to play nicely with Australian school networks and make use of their child protecting proxies, there are no unusual security worries here.
Armed with this machine and the desire for change, Rangan Srikhanta set about securing funding for the program. It was not too difficult to convince some of Australia’s leading corporations that growing the tech-literacy of children around the country was going to be beneficial in the long run for everyone involved. Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Oracle, Salesforce and News Corp quickly signed on – committing millions of dollars to the program. This funding enabled the development of the One Education model, which lead to the biggest win of all: a fortunate discussion of the model and machine with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012, after which the federal government awarded One Laptop Per Child Australia an $11.6 million dollar grant.
With this grant in hand, a goal was set. 50,000 XO-duos to be distributed to schools by July 2014. The financing of the government and the many sponsors would enable OLPC to cut the individual cost of an XO-duo to a school from $400 down to $100, with support from the One Education program essentially free of charge. As the average order of 124 devices equates to an investment of over $37,000, it is not proving to be a difficult sell – particularly once educators see what the machines are capable of.
Already OLPC have surpassed 30,000 computers allocated to schools around Australia, and with more schools signing on every month, this number continues to climb – leaving the organisation very much on track to hit or surpass their 50,000 milestone.
While Srikhanta and his team are obviously thrilled to be making such tremendous progress, they view this as proof of success for a pilot program. “50,000 sounds like a big number, but it only represents 5 per cent of the children in Australia who could be benefiting,” he says. Srikhanta firmly believes that the best way to reach the other 95 per cent is via the One Education model, promoting organic uptake by students and teachers alike, eschewing the top down approach often pushed by policy makers who decide which school and which class will receive new technology. “This way the teachers decide when they’re ready to make the jump, while helping and encouraging others to do so, completely avoiding the bureaucracy that slows things down in between,” he says. “After all, this is ultimately an education project – not a laptop project. When we give our teachers new education options, they give our children better options in life.”
Paul Cotton is the Digital Producer at One Laptop per Child. If you would like to learn more about One Laptop per Child, or find out how to get involved, please visit www.laptop.org.au
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