Engineering a single laptop to serve the educational needs of young students throughout the developing world is no easy feat. Designers at MIT's Media Lab needed to keep the cost of the machine well below $200, and yet it required many of the same features that owners of traditional laptops have come to expect: a wireless internet connection, USB ports, a color display, a built-in webcam, and a processor powerful enough to record and render video files. There were also special needs to take into account: a durable case that wouldn't crack when dropped, a waterproof keyboard designed for young hands, and an operating system designed from the ground up which could be easily altered and adapted to develop specific applications for use in the classroom.
Designing the laptop, it turned out, was probably the easiest piece of the puzzle. OLPC founder and chairman Nicholas Negroponte had originally touted the XO as the "$100 laptop", but in order to produce the machine at such a low cost they would need to convince dozens of national governments to purchase tens of millions of laptops. Instead, the program was until very recently only able to convince the government of one single country, Uruguay, which ordered 100,000 machines back in October of 2007 at $188 per machine. Fast-forward 20 months - and 200,000 more laptops - and the Technological Laboratory of Uruguay (LATU) is just a couple month's away from delivering the very last green and white laptops into the hands of every single Uruguayan primary school student.
As I described in an earlier article, the first two years of the OLPC deployment in Uruguay "have been characterized by implementation and incubation. The laptops have been deployed to schools, manuals have been created, tech savvy volunteer groups have been formed, wireless internet connections have been established, teachers have slowly learned how to implement the laptops into their curricula and classrooms, and, as Rezwan has covered previously, a community of open source programmers has developed educational applications for the laptops."
Last week I visited Uruguay myself to witness how teachers and students were incorporating laptops and wi-fi connections (now in over 1,000 schools) into the classroom environment. My first gray blistery morning in Montevideo I joined a van full of professors and students from the Universidad de la República who were headed to Santa Lucía, a small town in the department of Canelones just an hour's drive from the capital. After a few accidental detours and several thermoses of mate tea, we pulled up to Santa Lucía's one and only primary school. Dozens of primary school students in white frocks were sitting on steps and tree trunks with their XO laptops, pecking away as if they were in a wi-fi café in Tokyo or New York City.
Santa Lucía's "Escuela 104" (every school in Uruguay is given a number) teaches all of the town's young students in morning and afternoon shifts. That is, half of Santa Lucía's students come early in the morning and stay until lunch, and the other half arrive in the afternoon and stay until the early evening. When Pablo Flores, a professor of engineering at the Universidad de la República and a coordinator of Flor de Ceibo, asked the school's teachers if they had any problems or complaints regarding the XO laptops, one immediately responded, "the kids hang around here all day long. We can't get them to go home. Is there anything you can do to helps us?"
Pablo later told me that such reactions are typical during his frequent visits to schools around the country. However, while I found the comment to be entertaining, Pablo smiled softly with discouragement. On the way to Santa Lucías several of the volunteer students from the Universidad de la República shared their stories of teachers who felt threatened by the presence of the laptops in their classrooms. The younger teachers, they all agreed, tended to embrace the change and try to incorporate the laptops as much as possible into the classroom environment. But some of the older teachers felt that their position of authority in the classroom was threatened by the presence of the laptops and the power they gave the young students. As many university professors have discovered in recent years, laptops and internet connections in the classroom often lead to students chatting behind the professor's back. Or, as George Landow put it in Hypertext 3.0, "Technology always empowers someone. It empowers those who possess it, those who make use of it, and those who have access to it."
I do not want to overstate the point. After all, this particular morning we were in the school's humble computer lab surrounded by eight or so teachers who all took time out of their busy schedules to learn more about the XO laptops and how they can make better use of them in the classroom. They were eager to learn and quick to make entertaining jokes about their frustrations with the new technologies. I imagined myself as a primacy school instructor - with over 20 years of teaching experience - having to learn new teaching techniques from volunteer university students who have never experienced the enormous challenge of keeping a classroom in order.
We were in Santa Lucía to give workshops explaining how to use the EduBlog blogging platform developed by a team of Uruguayan and American programmers. The XO laptops have been great at bringing information from the wider world to Uruguayan students, thanks to projects like Wikipedia and Conozco Uruguay, both of which come pre-installed on the machines. But, as Pablo explained to the gathered teachers, the laptops also permit Uruguayans to contribute content, stories, and knowledge to the vast repository of civilization that is the internet:
Each of the teachers created her own individual blog, and they then created a group blog for the entire school titled, appropriately enough, Escuela 104 de Santa Lucía.
One teacher, who registered under the username "sancac", wrote:
Te cuento que soy una maestra de primer año de la escuela Nº 104 "Leticia Volpe" ubicada en la ciudad de Santa Lucía ,depto Canelones .Se encuentra ubicada en las calles R. Argentina, Tajes, Brasil y Tajes.Es una escuela de doble turno con un total de 700 niños aproximadamente. Estos son mis hijos........
Another teacher, "ladelsanta" published a post with photos of nearby landmarks:
La Escuela Nº 104 se encuentra ubicada en la ciudad de Santa Lucía, a orillas del río del mismo nombre. En sus comienzos, fue escuela sólo para varones, con el correr del tiempo eso cambió y se transformó en escuela mixta como sigue siendo actualmente. Mi madre concurrió a esta escuela, que la llamaban la "escuela grande" porque ocupaba toda la manzana (actualmente compartida con el liceo Nº2). Se destaca en nuestra localidad el primer hotel turístico del país, el hotel Biltmore
The morning blogging workshop was facilitated by Pablo Flores and Mariel Cisneros Lopez, both professors from the Universidad de la República. But in the afternoon session, attended by over a dozen teachers, the university students took the lead, facilitating an outstanding workshop that got the teachers enthusiastic about the possibilities of blogging in the classroom. Flor de Ceibo will continue to organize expeditions to primary schools across the country in order to show teachers and students how they can share their stories, articles, and homework assignments online by using the EduBlog platform. Later in the year, with the financial support from their Rising Voices microgrant, they will organize a competition which awards prizes to students who publish the best entries about particular topics chosen by a committee of judges.
In the second part to this post, we will examine how EduBlog was created and how the CeibalJam movement is creating a local, dedicated community of open source volunteers who program for the XO laptop.