Imagine you are sitting on your comfy couch watching TV. You decide to tune in to 60 Minutes. They are talking about a nonprofit organization that is bringing a low-cost laptop to children in developing countries. You think that is a great idea and decide to learn more.
Fast forward two years, and you are in the middle of a floating fishing village in Ha Long Bay in Northeast Vietnam. You have started a project to bring a number of these laptops to the only school in the village. While there you are tackling a variety of speed bumps that arise. These range from easy to extremely challenging. As the days pass, you can see the joy in the children and adults of the village. You realize that you have made a difference and changed their lives. You have changed their world for the better.
This is the story Nancie Severs of New Hampshire relayed when she presented at OLPC’s Cambridge headquarters. Hearing Nancie speak is inspiring. She has heart and energy. Last year she visited the Vung Vieng Floating Fishing Village with her husband Mark. She thought of OLPC and realized she could bring the XO to this village with a plan. She says if the XO laptops work out here “in the middle of the sea” where learning resources are limited, books are destroyed by the salty air, and newspapers blow away or get wet, then she will be convinced that it can work almost anywhere.
Nancie was surprised that when she returned the villagers told her she was the first foreigner to ever come back to this village to do anything for the people. She was the first foreigner to ever sleep in the village. She slept in the small pearl shop for a few days at a time and worked from the mainland for several weeks.
She learned that school attendance drops dramatically as the children get older. She also learned that on the mainland there are Internet cafes where kids hang out and use the computers. But kids are being left behind in the village, and not pursuing much education. Her plan is to ignite the children’s learning experience with the XO. She hopes that the children will take this excitement through high school and graduate.
The VVV XO Laptop Project got off the ground because of two people in Vietnam. Mr. Tuyen Luong, the Vietnam project co-director, was Nancie’s tour guide when she first visited the floating village. He has volunteered many hours arranging logistics, translating, and looking out for Nancie’s safety in Vietnam. His boss, Mr. Dung, owned Indochina Junk JSC, the ecotourism boat company with which Nancie first visited the village. They believe education will improve the lives of the village residents, and hope to see the kids find good employment after graduation. The villagers are thirsty for learning and for views of the rest of the world. Together they quickly realized they can help each other accomplish goals.
It’s a three and a half hour boat trip from the mainland to the village. Floating docks connect most of the buildings that you walk across to get from place to place. Food is sometimes sparse (two cups of rice per day and sometimes a bit of fish). The parents in these places had never seen a computer. The only school in the village is cramped to say the least. The teaching style is rigid. Teachers lecture and the children are expected to absorb the information relayed. There are many problems in the village. However, the adults truly want their kids to learn. There is a lot of support for this project from them and the local government. The first time that Nancie was showing the XO to the children she showed them how it could speak. This was completely unexpected and every child broke out into laughter!
There were challenges along the way. None of the teachers at the school spoke English. Nancie worked with a young woman named Hong who had gone to high school on the mainland. She learned how to use the XO, and joined Nancie’s team. Nancie took her and a friend out to eat pizza for the first time ever. Hong became an integral part of the team, teaching the teachers how to use the XO. Another challenge: the endless meetings before any action took place. Each step took a long time. And then, how would they deliver solar power to the floating village?
The community also worked in a strict hierarchical way; everyone had a boss and a rank. The teachers had to be shown everything on the XO; and it was not their learning style to poke around on their own and figure things out. In the end, she was able to work with her team to bring many solutions to these problems to the community.
Opportunities lie behind challenges. The children clamored around the XO. There were not enough of them, and sometimes small fights would break out. Even the younger kids were learning learning much more advanced concepts than the alphabet and math basics. They learned how to build their own memory games with their own images.
One time Nancie was delivering a teacher training session, and a fish farmer from the community joined them. He was typing on the XO one finger at a time. He struggles with comprehensive language skills but was thoroughly enjoying the XO. Nancie was absolutely thrilled to teach him how to use it.
Nancie often wondered how this plan can benefit the community. The project thrived when the residents were onboard. Through her work she was able to get the teachers, local government and businesses involved. But she had to choose which problems to address. One remaining question is: how will teachers use the XO in class each day? Nancie does not know the answer, but has some ideas. The children will benefit by learning transferrable skills. The adults will benefit by learning about solar and other ways to produce renewable energy. She hopes the adults will realize they can also learn to use the XO… to create a letter, or a poster, or a business plan for a pearl shop.
Where does Nancie see this going? She hopes to secure some corporate partnerships, that word will spread and that her microdeployment can be replicated. There are seven similar fishing villages, and she would love to see the XO reach each one. When asked what she needs she responded with a resounding desire for more XO laptops. Nancie and her husband, Mark Severs have generously underwritten the expenses to lay the infrastructure for the OLPC VVV XO Laptop Project. The additional laptops need to come from donors. If someone wants to donate 100 or more of the XO then she will have one for every child in the VVV and can start a parallel project in
another floating village. Small amounts of money will go a long way. Ten dollars will buy three green and white mice or go towards headphones for the XO.
In Nancie’s own words:
To do this you have to be really gutsy!
A little naive but naivete doesn’t hurt.
Was this the retirement I was expecting? No!
Would I do it again? YES!
Is it important? YES!
Is it worth it? YES!
You have to believe that you can just do it.
After her presentation Nancie showed me the first email that Hong had sent her. I realized that Hong had made a difference in me! Further notes from Nancie’s work: