One laptop per child starting pilots in South Africa and Nigeria

Although the roll-out date for One Laptop Per Child’s (OLPC) low-cost machine has been put back until October 2007, OLPC is using a limited number of trial machines to run pilots to gain experience of how it will work in the local context. The machine is made of tough white and green plastic, has a four-hour battery, a color screen and built-in Wi-Fi. Russell Southwood caught up last week with Antoine Van Gelder who is part of OLPC’s South African developer programme. He gave a frank but enthusiastic assessment of what’s being done to get the machine into use in Africa.

Q: What’s your relationship to One Laptop Per Computer (OLPC)?

I am a cheerleader for OLPC but I have no formal affiliation to OLPC Worldwide. We want what happens here in South Africa to be as grassroots as possible. It’s a case of ‘you’ve got the hardware, how are you going to market it?’ The idea is to be a central point for anyone who needs help.

Q: So how did you get the laptop?

We got the laptop for free. OLPC run a developer programme. At the moment it has a limited number of machines and these have tended to go to the software developers. It urges people to join this programme if they’ve got an idea. Morgan Collett is the other person in South Africa who’s involved.

Q: So how are you going to sell the laptops?

The reason the laptop is so cheap is because there’s a fatal flaw in the project. 50% of the cost of any project of this kind is the distribution and marketing chain. Nicholas Negoponte (the project’s founder) ‘fired’ the distribution and marketing chain! OLPC will sell you the laptops provided you make an order for 250,000. That’s better than last year when it was 1 million. There’s very few organisations that can put up the money for that size of order so it leaves Governments and UN organisations. The current price is US$175 so an order of that size would cost $4,375,000.

Q: So who are you talking to?

The idea is to give away a laptop to every child in South Africa. That’s a relatively small percentage of the education budget for one year so it’s not completely unthinkable. The machine has a lifespan of five years. If we can’t get the Government to do this, we’ll look at other options. We’ll find someone who’s got cash to float the loan and then collate orders for organisations and individuals. The price of an individual unit is the price of a cellphone. People can find that kind of money. Someone like a Foundation may buy the first 250,000.

Q: You mentioned starting a pilot?

Yes, the main thing at the moment is to get a pilot running. We need enough laptops to put them in every classroom in a place. We are looking at the Eastern Cape where most of the figures in the democratic struggle came from. We’ve got a candidate school on the Wild Coast and we’ve got a guy there who’s strongly involved in this local community. We cannot afford to be perceived as coming from outside with this thing that will change people’s lives.

The first thing we need to do is to get a handle on the leadership in the community and get to know them. It’s a case of convincing them that the 4-5 strangers who will come with these strange green and white boxes that may threaten their position. We need to work carefully with them and step one is getting that conversation going.

Q: What happens then?

If we can get buy-in, we’ll have enough laptops for every kid in the village for one month, which they get to keep afterwards. We’ll be there to see what they do with them.

Q: What’s your best guess at this point as to what will happen?

My only real previous experience comes from Scarborough which about a year ago where we started preparing for the OLPC pilot. We did this pre-pilot in a white, upper middle-class community. To start with we put in a free mesh network. After a year, the whole village was connected.

One of the first things that happened was that the kids started socialising using the network and playing games. There’s an incredibly strong community of kids as a result. We gave them a whole universe of their own they can play with. They’re now running their own radio station.

After about six months the adults started to get it. Scarborough has a huge but not much used community hall. A couple of parents started a youth centre with ping-pong and pool tables and a DVD player. They set this up for the kids. All kinds of politics came with it. There are new power structures, leaders and followers. So it’s not been all wine and roses but new life has been pumped in. We’re hoping for much of the same when we do the pilot.

Q: How will the laptop be used in the formal context of the classroom?

There’s no curriculum. There’s no training programme. Teachers will sink or swim. We can show them the e-Toys and other programmes on the laptop, but when we leave, they’re on their own.

If the goal is to create a nation of scientists and engineers, I don’t think we’ve got 1% of that with this. Mark Shuttleworth with the programme is tackling that need. We’re hoping that workbooks and worksheets will come out of that. He’s also putting his money into Python and Smalltalk.

Q: But how do you overcome the lack of engagement with the curriculum?

There’s a lot of scope to use the laptop as an exploratory tool. For example with geography, you can go to Wikipedia and look up pictures and information. It’s to do with the shifting of constraints.

Normally a classroom has to keep quiet so the teach can teach. Technology enables you to shift the classroom conversation (that might take place if everyone was not quiet) into cyberspace so as not to interrupt the teacher.

With e-Toys you can build things and the tools are very strongly focused on science and maths. This is great for science and maths teachers but there are not many projects for those who don’t follow that path.

I’ve also not mentioned the school servers. It’s not a standalone fileserver. There’s Wikipedia software on it. The server price is not yet finalised but it’s likely to be between $250-300.

Q: What’s the battery life of the machine?

Absolutely beyond awesome. It lasts for four hours with standard use and no power management. With the new battery chemistry, there’s talk of getting 8 hours. The screen of the machine is 10 inches, high resolution and in colour.

Q: What’s security like? Won’t the laptops simply go walkies?

If you give candies to every kid, there will be adults who want to take them away from the kids. The machines come with revocation keys. So if these are not renewed, the machine will disable itself. I don’t think that anyone is expecting that no machines will be stolen but the idea is to minimise it.

Q: Are pilots happening elsewhere?

Most of the other pilots are happening in Nigeria, Argentina, Nepal and Mexico.

Q: What’s happening in Nigeria?

Those working with OLPC found a village and put in the laptops and it’s been happening for about a month. It’s difficult to get a clear analysis but their web site has a lot of smiling kids. But the real take-home message was that the kids refused to go home and attendance figures have gone up to 100%. Indeed kids they thought were lost to the system have started coming back to school. So with no running software to speak of, no preparation and it is revitalising the school. Whether it will last, we’ll have to see.

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