Monday, October 27, 2008

OLPC in Australia

Greetings from the CASE hosted One Laptop per Child Open Day in Canberra. Pia Waugh of Waugh Partners is speaking about the One Laptop per Child Australia Foundation and her ongoing involvement with the Free and Open Source Software community. Pia used the OLPC web site for her presentation. Below are some notes on the publishable parts of her presentation.

Pia emphasised that the project is about interactive group education for primary school children (six to twelve years old). This is a group younger than the Federal Government's Digital Education revolution is targeted at, which is for secondary school children. The "One Laptop" is misnamed as it is intended to be an interactive teaching device, not a conventional laptop.

In Australia a trial has been undertaken at two schools: a typical Australia school and for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are also projects collaborating between Australia, New Zealand and Pacific countries. OLPC hardware sold in developed nations will be at a premium to subsidise the cost for developing nations. Also a support base, both online and with people visiting will be established. In addition fund raising can be undertaken.

There were 5,000 OLPCs donated to children of the pacific. The South Pacific Council are working with the countries on the projects. See: One laptop for every Niuean child (BCC News, 11:01 GMT, Friday, 22 August 2008)

Australia's first trial of the OLPC finished Friday and will be published next month. This is being done at a small primary school of fifty children. Also a small school in a remote area is being liked to a respite centre with specialist staff. This is also being considered for distance e-health. This is being independently assessed. Questions to be answered alter are: this good for typical students, indigenous students, those with special needs, who with this may to the curriculum.

The project tries not to assume a large infrastructure. The hardware of the OLPC has been optimised for use in areas without much infrastructure. The current cost of the OLPC is about $US180 and is expected to drop to $US50 by 2010.

There were some interesting questions at question time. One was about the extend to which the computers can be localised by the teachers. The OLPC can be customised at the national level for different languages. However, there are numerous indigenous languages used in Australia. The question is if the system can be customised for many small groups. Pia replied that this should be feasible to do as open source, so that it could be done and owned by the community.

The OLPC project is based on open access licences. Apart from the OLPC hardware and software, there is also OLPC School Server software designed to run on low cost PC hardware. The project is encouraging content developers to also use an open licence, so the content is available to schools.

The OLPC assumes a particular model of education, where each student interacts with their own computer. Even in developed nations this model has not been adopted, with many schools preferring to have students work in groups, even where a computer for each student can be afforded. Also a computer for the teacher and an interactive whiteboard which can be seen by and used for the whole class is seen as a priority over computers for each student.

The OLPC project may be aimed at education but many of those involved are computer people, not educators. I was the only one who put up their had when the audience was asked who as a teacher (and I am just an adjunct university lecturer, not a primary school teacher).

While the OLPC project appears meaning, it is not clear to me that the aid model it is based on is a good one. It might be better if the computers were sold commercially and developing countries were free to spend their aid money on the OLPC, on a rival product, or on other educational materials. The current model does not give the beneficiaries the choice of what they get.

It would also be useful to be able to decouple the issues of the OLPC hardware from the educational applications. Australian trials of the OLPC for remote education may well save the worldwide project, by emphasising education and remote access, and being able to communicate them to the educational and general community based on credible research. Australia also has a strong tradition and expertise in distance education with services such as the School of the Air.

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