Archive for December, 2007

Thank you Opera

We installed the OLPC Opera package today.  Opera is an alternative web-browser that is “out in front of the pack” when it comes to the OLPC project.  They have released their software to run on the device – and, in my opinion, is a vast improvement to the default browser the machine ships with.  Here’s why:

  1. Tabbed Browsing – you can open up multiple websites through the single browser.
  2. Handles popped-up windows (through tabbed browsing) – many websites these days pop-up content or other websites.  I know there are web developers out there who cringe at this – but it is necessary to support!
  3. Defaults to a (although shrunk) 1020 pixel width.  Most modern sites (cnn.com, nytimes.com) these days have designed their websites to fit on a larger screen than the OLPC default browser supports.  Opera fixed this – and also has zoom-in / zoom-out features.
  4. Bookmarks – enough said.
  5. Options to configure plugins/java and a web proxy.  MANY school systems go through a web-proxy and filter these days.

Here’s the installation instructions off of the OLPC wiki:



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Installing Flash on the OLPC

Ok, so I may have over-reacted a bit yesterday.  It turns out setting up the adobe flash player instead of the Gnash player on the OLPC isn’t as tricky as I thought it might be!  Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get it working.  Going through these steps will fix a lot of issues with flash-based web content / video / animations – all that fun stuff out there:

  1. Go into the Gnome environment by clicking on the little foot icon
  2. Open up the Terminal
  3. Login as root by typing in “su” – press enter
  4. Get the flash player linux package – type in: “wget http://fpdownload.macromedia.com/get/flashplayer/
    current/flash-plugin-” – press enter
  5. This downloads the file to your computer.  Next install the package by typing in:
    “rpm -i flash-plugin-” – press enter

That’s it!  The default browser will now use the adobe flash player instead of the gnash one.  BTW, OLPC already thought of this, and had a page – I just didn’t search long enough to find it…also, their instructions didn’t work (for me) – I had to get the file locally first before it installed:


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I did some more playing around with the OLPC operating system today – this time with an eye to on-line content, particularly literacy content.  We are thinking about how a pilot might run with the OLPC machines in a k-2 classroom environment; and there are some stumbling blocks, but also a lot of potential.

The number one stumbling block at the moment is the lack of a real flash player on the device.  Gnash is the open-source flash player that runs through the default web browser on the OLPC.  And while it does “play” flash files – it does not support many of the basic scripts that most online flash content uses!  This is a big problem for us (Teaching Matters) because a lot of our literacy content (www.writingmatters.org) uses flash animation and tutorials.  We can and will fix our content if we have to; but there is a vast pool of great resources that already exists out there that may have to do the same:

I’m sure this is just a few – and this is by no means meant as a criticism of these wonderful sites who developed their content the way the rest of the world developed flash content.  It is instead to make the important point that the OLPC device needs a real browser with a real flash player and java client.  I know it goes against the philosophy of the machine in a way – but it is sacrificing SO MUCH without them.  The browser interface is great otherwise, it just needs a simple update on the plug-ins that it runs. 

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We are still patiently waiting for our first shipment of XO machines.  Ok, not so patiently waiting.  So in the meantime, I discovered the OLPC livecd that has been floating around out there.  What it lets you do is run the OLPC operating system off of a CD on your regular PC.  Everything boots off of the CD – so when you’re done, just pop it out, restart – and your back to your regular operating system environment:


So I was playing around, and here are my initial reactions:

  1. Very confused for 30 seconds
  2. Had a “I see moment” and then it was really easy to use as a student (after you figure out how to navigate)
  3. Pleasantly surprised by the back-end “admin” interface
  4. Realization that I need to figure out some linux if we’re going to configure these machines at all

I then went through and tried to setup some external browsers (Firefox and Opera) just to see what the process would be.  You do have to learn some basic Linux commands to get the packages and then install them – but it is not the end of the world.  What will be frustrating is figuring out how to integrate those applications into the student interface.  Firefox (as we know it) doesn’t have an integration for this – however, the default XO browser is Firefox-based…so it might not be worth the trouble.  Opera DOES have an integration package.  And the Opera browser rendered pages much better (and faster it seemed).  It also had many more features and configuration options.  The one issue was getting the flash player to work through it – which wasn’t immediately obvious or easy to do….still working, however I think Opera has the most potential for working in NYC classrooms and through the NYC proxy.  Here their link to the project page:


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David Pogue Introduces the Laptop

David Pogue gives a nice overview of the laptop. 

Features, getting started and why he thinks this is a great laptop for “poor kids from other countries.” 

The question we have is what does this laptop offer students and teachers who want one to one access in school? The demo of the indestructible keyboard made me happy.  Let’s all admit, at least among those of us in New York, that the number one problem with computers in most classrooms, one of the main reasons we are calling tech support is to replace keys that have been pulled off.   Frankly, I have lost a key or two in my time.   We need something built to withstand a little abuse and we need a good battery. 

We aren’t looking for the latest coolest device  to specifically motivate students to work and learn.  We know one to one laptop initiatives fail unless the instruction changes.  It is about new teaching and curriculum that  gets kids excited and engaged in school, teaches them to  think, reseach, analyze, collaborate, and write — not the device.  Check out what I mean by a good curriculum unit. Its a resource site for a Civil Rights unit for grade 8.   http://rights.teachingmatters.org 

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Goals for Middle School Pilot


Writing Matters with One Laptop Per ChildIncreasing student access to tech-rich literacy environments.

Teaching Matters is conducting  a collaborative pilot with the New York City Department of Education to test One Laptop per Child (OLPC) mobile computing devices in connection with our Writing Matters content in a middle school ELA classroom.  The purpose of the pilot is two-fold. First, we want to determine if the OLPC device can significantly lower the cost of technology access for schools by lowering the total cost of ownership (hardware and ongoing maintenance.)  Second, we want to  test this environment in conjunction with a curriculum that has been specifically designed for one-to-one computing.  Many laptop programs have failed to increase student achievement and purposeful learning because teachers have been provided with devices and training but no suitable content that takes advantage of the power and appeal of the technology.. 

Goal 1: Lowering Total Cost of Ownership

Currently schools pay up to $1300 for laptop devices and comprehensive managed support.  This price makes it difficult for Teaching Matters to scale the technology-enhanced curriculum it is designing for social studies and literacy.  Through this project we will document the number of laptops that require outside maintenance to identify a total cost of ownership.  Teaching Matters will purchase replacement laptop (at a rate of one laptop for every ten students) allowing the cost of ownership to be 10% above the initial cost of the laptop. This will be tested over one full year.  Our test school currently uses the managed care services extensively provided through the DOE, thus providing useful  comparison data.

Goal 2: Improving Instruction   

To fully understand the purposeful use of the one-to-one computing in the classroom,, Teaching Matters began by observing traditional learning environments.  We selected the writing classroom as one area where technology has shown promise for improving student success.  We observed two major challenges to improving the quality of student wiriting that could be addressed  through effective application of technology.  

First, new teachers often lack the knowledge and experience needed to effectively implement research-based practices for teaching writing.  While schools offer coaching and institutes to prepare teachers, teacher turnover reduces the scalability of these important professional development models.  In addition, we found that teachers needed on-going information and specific strategies for teaching the craft and mechanics of writing.

Second, middle school students, especially boys, demonstrate significant decline in writing performance and motivation levels from elementary to middle school.  Research has demonstrated that technology, in combination with effective instruction, can increase students’ writing performance. Moreover, the gains among underperforming students are even more significant than those of average and high performing students.  

Writing Matters uses technology to address both of these concerns. First it uses the technology to scale the distribution of a structured, flexible, curriculum that helps new teachers advance their knowledge of how to teach writing.  Our curriculum is scaffolded to offer additional supports, teaching narratives, sample texts, animated content, explaining key skills, and student exemplars that can be utilized by new teachers to learn effective practice. It also organizes the teaching process making the various stages clear to both teachers and students.      Second, Writing Matters offers online tools and visual resources designed to engage struggling and middle school learners, as well as, clear embedded instruction on when and how teachers should use the technology within the context of rigorous, research-based practices in writing instruction.  

The objectives of this pilot are to:

  • 1) Test whether OLPC laptops are viable on the NYC school network
  • 2) Test whether the device can support middle school core and new literacy objectives around research, writing, revision, and publishing.
  • 3) Determine if the device can support Writing Matters and Voices and Choices digital content.
  • 4) Identify modifications required to the laptop or to the content programs to ensure compatibility.
  • 5) Determine whether device is accepted by middle school students and teachers as an acceptable alternative to higher end devices.
  • 6) Observe improvements around motivation for writing, quantity of writing, and meaningful use of technology.
  • 7) Document the number of technical support issues encountered by students and the degree to which they can be resolved without outside intervention.

** Note. The Center for Children and Technology is conducting a larger research project on Writing Matters impact on student achievement.



  • § Secure devices.
  • § Teaching Matters’ technology staff will test a device with Writing Matters content. Identify adjustments that need to be made prior to distribution.
  • § Teaching Matters’ technology staff will collaborate with DOE to modify the devices to function on the DOE network.
  • § Teaching Matters’ technology staff will distribute devices, with limited to no training to make observations as to what students can do with the laptops on their own.
  • § Students will take devices home and the school will organize experimental time with the tool, providing students access to web information on their use.
  • § Teaching Matters’ professional developer will conduct site observation of the distribution and experimentation taking notes on necessary training.
  • § Teachers and students will participate in Writing Matters program model training on January 23.
  • § Teaching Matters professional developer will work with classroom to set up a process for documenting tech support issues from January – June.


  • § Teaching Matters’ Director of Educational Services (DES) will conduct site observations with DOE, to observe motivation and uses of technology as compared with classrooms using regular technology.
  • § Teaching Matters’ professional developer will document progress on weekly basis and update DES on tech issues.


  • § Teaching Matters professional developer will meet with teachers and principal to review student work quality with teacher, and compare with prior writing samples from the class.


  • § Final report will include recommended modifications to program, laptop, and training model based on pilot.

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Getting off the ground

Teaching Matters has decided to pilot set of OLPC laptops in a middle school in Harlem to determine if the laptop will provide the access necessary to take advantage of the programs we are designing to support technology rich learning environments. We will test out our middle school writing program – Writing Matters first.   

We had a conference call with the school principal, Teaching Matters staff, and discussed goals and expectations of the project.  Our first classroom at KAPPA IV in Harlem has been indentified, are on board and excited.  Now if we could only get the XO to connect to the internet!

Our formal draft of the goals and objectives for the project. 

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