A visit to Wonchi: OLPC’s Ethiopian Literacy Project

Evan Szablowski was in Addis Ababa, spending a week meeting Ethiopian entrepreneurs. Michael, one of the tech leads for our literacy project in Ethiopia, was one of the people he met with. He was captivated by the literacy project, and on hearing that Michael was heading to Wonchi (one of the two villages taking part in it), he and his teammates decided to tag along.

While he was there he met some of the students eager to show off how they liked to use the tablets (they are using Motorola Xoom tablets with mainly off-the-shelf Android literacy apps, with a few custom apps and tweaks by OLPC). At some point, one of the children (below) stood up to quiz the others on what they were learning.

Evan wrote up the experience in a beautiful essay on his new blog, illustrated with photos from the day.



While this is just one anecdote from the project, the photo series is priceless, and puts the whole effort in context: the geography of the town, the social setup of the small farming community, and the economic circles of the village and the technicians supporting them.

An overwhelming sense of excitement and optimism overtook us, and we couldn’t stop smiling as we watched. We left with such a feeling of inspiration and optimism, amazed at witnessing two completely different worlds [fuse] with one another… Zach said this was the best thing he has done in a long time, and I agreed.

I hope they realize it someday. I hope that someday one of those kids will say, ‘When I was only 4 years old, the laptop project from MIT came to my village, and it forever changed my future.’ What an amazing perspective that person will have.

This was not foreign aid, or handouts… This was education, and just the first step in enabling them. Enabling the young minds of Africa for brighter futures. For a brighter nation, and a brighter continent.

@Evan: Thank you for sharing the day with us!

OLPC comes to North Carolina! Knight Foundation sponsors XOs for 3,200 students in Charlotte

The Knight Foundation yesterday announced it would join community leaders from Charlotte, North Carolina in contributing to Project L.I.F.T., a 5-year $55M+ project to improve education in West Charlotte schools.  (It began last January with a $40M round of fundraising; and this year raised another $15M.)

Knight’s contribution will fund a community engagement coordinator to keep parents and local communities in touch with the project as it develops, and for an OLPC program (including XOs and training) for all students and teachers in grades K-5 in the L.I.F.T. schools: roughly 3,200 in all.

This builds on our work together earlier this year, to develop a digital literacy program at Holmes Elementary School in Miami.  Our experience so far suggests that giving elementary students access to computers – and letting them take them home and use them with their families – helps promote better informed and engaged communities.

We are delighted to see this new project take off within the framework of the existing L.I.F.T project. And looking forward to working more closely with the Knight Foundation, whose input has already informed some of our practices. Their background is in community engagement rather than education, which complements the viewpoints of our other partners. And the added focus on community engagement is one of those necessary elements that can make all the difference in longevity and impact.


Children receiving XOs in Miami’s Holmes Elementary School

From Jamaica: OLPC and the need for early childhood education

Craig Perue posted this wonderful video from Jamaica about their work with the first 115-child school to take part in one laptop per child.

And the Jamaica Gleaner last week covered a speech given by Dr. Ralph Thompson to the local Rotary Club about the necessity of early childhood education.

The Government is supposed to provide one trained teacher for 100 children but in practice, this more likely works out to one trained teacher to 1,000.

No country can make overall progress if the vast majority of its citizens are kept in ignorance and poverty. Not in a democratic society. Demagoguery feeds on ignorance. The result will be either chaos or dictatorship.

IDB’s Eugenio Severin on learning from Peru’s OLPC experience

The lead author of the detailed IDB study from Peru, released earlier this year, has published a good summary of their work and its implications. He highlights the tremendous efforts of Peru’s government for supporting the research and data-gathering, which will help not only Peru’s education work but that of other countries following in their footsteps.  And he groups the outcome into four key results:

  1. major change in access to knowledge, and reduction of the digital divide,
  2. improvement of cognitive skills, across many different tests
  3. no change in standardized tests for math and reading
  4. no change in school enrollment and attendance.

You can read the essay on the IDB blog.  An excerpt:

It is very important to commend the efforts of the Peruvian government for doing a serious evaluation of this program, and for sharing their results so transparently. It is a fact that there are few impact evaluations on the use of technology in education. Therefore, any contribution of knowledge helps support the efforts of many countries in the region and the world that are working to improve educational conditions for children that technologies can provide.

These are our results. First, the program has drastically reduced the digital divide, allowing many students and teachers, even in remote areas, to have access to laptops and educational content. Second, positive results were found in cognitive skills tests. The applied tests sought to measure reasoning abilities, verbal fluency, and processing speed in children. The very results are important, as they have been shown to be predictors of academic and work performance. The results indicate that children who received a laptop got ahead by 5 months of what the natural progression would have been in the development of these skills when compared to children who did not receive a laptop. Third, after 15 months of implementation, we found no statistically significant differences between children in beneficiary schools and children in control schools on learning outcomes measured by standardized tests of mathematics and language. No differences were found in relation to school enrollment and attendance.

Warehouse fire in Peru destroys $100M of Quechua & Ashaninka books, XOs, and solar panels

Update: OLPC and Quanta have offered support to Peru to help them get new materials shipped to schools quickly. UNICEF Peru has asked national organizations to offer what help they can to allow schools to start on schedule.  National newspaper El Comercio has offered to reprint the books on newsprint, quickly and at no cost, as a temporary measure — and is asking for donations of local-language educational materials to print.



A tremendous fire Thursday night in the Breña district of Lima destroyed a major warehouse of Peru’s Education Ministry, which contained $100M in materials being prepared for deployment to eastern Peru. This included a half-million books, 40,000 XOs, 21,000 other laptops for teachers, and 6,000 solar panels. The books lost included one of the country’s largest caches of early-literacy texts in indigenous languages such as Quechua and Asháninka, aimed at children from 3 to 5 years old.

The XOs were the latest part of the roughly 1 million laptops Peru has purchased for their national XO program, the world’s largest. They have been focusing on their rural and indigenous schools, such as the communities that were scheduled to receive these materials.


Salas speaking, and the fire from a distance Thursday night


The disaster mainly affects the schools in east Peru, many with limited electricity, which are starting their fall semester. Peru’s Minister of Education Patricia Salas (above) talked to reporters about the loss, and President Humala said his government will make sure they deliver materials to those schools despite the fire.

“Quiero señalar que esto no va a interferir la política del Estado de cumplir un cronograma de metas, de proveer de material didáctico para los escolares … Tenemos un lote de contingencia para ir cumpliendo el cronograma.”

The fire raged for over 10 hours before being put out Friday morning, and led to two days of air-pollution alerts in the surrounding area.

This is terrible news, and our thoughts are with our friends and colleagues in Peru. Thankfully, it seems that noone was hurt.


The former warehouse, unrecognizable the morning after


South Africa: Building grassroots support for access to a modern education

As noted last week, Jackie Lustig has compiled a report from our South African projects. It draws on background data from the country, and highlights work done there over the past four years.

Starting with a gift of 100 laptops from donors on Boston, and expanding through the interest of a number of OLPCorps projects in 2008, South Africa has expanded its OLPC community to almost 1500 students and teachers today.


OLPC South Africa case study, 2008-2012

(This is an 8MB pdf, so may take a moment to load)

New Scientist interviews Nicholas about the no-intervention literacy experiment

Vijaysree Venkatraman of the New Scientist interview Nicholas about the pilot experiment to see how access to a tablet with books and appropriate software can help children learn in the absence of structured intervention (like an enforced class at a school).   They cover the potential sites for the eventual project, and the pre-pilot beginning next month.

It’s offers a quick overview of the effort, from the audience (5-8 yr olds) to infrastructure and power issues, to the timeline for assessment of the results (2 years).   Sugata Mitra is helping designing the minimally invasive pilots and will oversee the one in India.

Minimally invasive education

Antonio Battro wrote recently about spontaneous reading and literacy experiments with laptops, in an essay on computers as reading prostheses (for children and others). In it he refers to Sugata Mitra’s work in India with the Hole in the Wall project:

In this sense, we should also experiment with spontaneous reading using a computer. OLPC will start now to deliver XO laptops with special software to remote communities with no schools where children and adults are lacking reading, writing or number skills. An inspiration was the famous “hole in the wall” experiment done in India with illiterate children who spontaneously started to read while sharing an unsupervised computer, what Sugata Mitra calls “minimally invasive education”.

Everything we learn in life is part of our education — most of it not conveyed explicitly by instructors. From your own experience: how has minimally invasive education been part of your life, in contrast with controlled, highly directed learning?

Computers as reading prostheses

by Antonio M. Battro, Chief Education Officer, OLPC

Children can learn a new common and universal language that we may call “digitalese”. Even before speaking, infants can perform with the computer many interesting actions by pressing a key. This elementary action, the “click option” – to click or not to click- is the consequence of a conscious choice made at the cortical level of the brain. The remarkable ability of our brain to make simple choices and make predictions about the outcomes of an action is the basis of the acquisition of a universal “second language” by any kid in the world with access to a computer, the so-called “digital natives”. In a sense we are witnessing the unfolding of a new “digital intelligence” (Battro & Denham, 2007).

Children learn to speak any language without the help of a grammar, just by hearing how others speak in their community, and they also learn to communicate with a computer -and via the computer with other people- when they share the same digital environment just by peer-to-peer interaction. This is why “saturation” is a central principle of the OLPC program. It is a matter of scale. We need a large numbers of participants in different cultures to enhance the diversity of strategies for teaching and learning.

It may take some time to find the best spontaneous strategies to learn how to read and write with the help of a computer but we already have some hints about successful prosthetic devices in education. For instance, nobody will deny that the cochlear implants have changed the life of a deaf person. Today the implanted deaf person can hear not only environmental sounds but understand language as well and early implants in deaf infants is increasing the formidable success of those neuro-prostheses. We can expect similar neurocognitive breakthroughs in reading and writing soon thanks to the “prosthetic” use of a computer at a very large scale.

As a matter of fact, many children using the OLPC platform since early ages (another basic OLPC principle) learn to type before they learn to write with paper and pen! In a sense we are witnessing something that educators didn’t predict. In most schools the explicit or implicit rule is to learn handwriting before typing and children start with the difficult analog skills needed to draw a letter, a word or a sentence (by a continuous and precise hand movement) before they are allowed to use a keyboard, a much simpler digital skill (a simple discrete action). The alternative is to start with the digital skills before “going analog” but for many educators and parents this strategy is considered a “forbidden experiment”. However it happens that nowadays in many places children enjoy the right to use a laptop not only at school but at home, and the once forbidden experiment is happily and spontaneously performed. In the “expanded school” of a digital environment children don’t need a pen and paper to write.

In this sense, we should also experiment with spontaneous reading using a computer. OLPC will start now to deliver XO laptops with special software to remote communities with no schools where children and adults are lacking reading, writing or number skills. An inspiration was the famous “hole in the wall” experiment done in India with illiterate children who spontaneously started to read while sharing an unsupervised computer, what Sugata Mitra calls “minimally invasive education”.
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Why laptops? Advice for parents from New Zealand

Rob McCrae, ICT Director for Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls, shares a conversation he had with parents at his school about why laptops are a fundamental platform for children learning. Via Scott McLeod.

What has become important is the “just in time” model. A model which sees essential habits and attitudes of learning being the focus. A model which sees the ability to think about our own thinking as a focus.

And expect to see traditionally-held beliefs challenged. Here is a model of the human brain showing the areas that are being engaged as the same person (an experienced Web surfer) reads a book and, at a separate time, is browsing the Web

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