Archive for January, 2008

Kicking Off at KAPPA IV


On Friday, Solangel Brujan (Teaching Matters’ consultant at KAPPA IV), Briony Carr (principal of KAPPA IV), and I introduced the XO project to the entire sixth grade class. I developed a presentation for this introduction. Our goal was to get the students excited while outlining our expectations that they take responsibility over their learning with these new devices.

I started by explaining the idea behind OLPC – that it is a small group of people with a big idea – make a laptop for kids and put it in the hands of every kid around the world. I asked the students to brainstorm ideas for how they would make a computer for kids, different than the computers they are familiar with. Some of their responses were very interesting. They want it to be durable. They want to use to communicate with their friends (like on MySpace). They want it to be different than the Apple and Dell computers they are used to. It should have cool designs, be easy to carry, take pictures and record video. Of course, they also wanted a computer that they could play a lot of games with and that they could keep private from their parents (hey, they’re kids).

I showed them the XO and explained many of it’s features. The students were all amazed by the machine and had many, many questions.

While our project will begin with one class, we wanted to make all of the students in the sixth grade aware of what was going on and explain how they could be involved going forward. We feel this is a critical part of our implementation plan. ALL students need to feel included. Because this is a staggered roll-out plan, it is critical to make sure students don’t feel alienated or resentful. At the same time, we want to ensure that all participating students understand their responsibility to share their experiences with their peers.

I left the auditorium to cheers and excitement from all.

We’re off to a great start.


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There has been a lot of conversation about the XO, the mesh network and connecting to wireless networks – developed countries are particularly interested because of all the existing infrastructure in place. In NYC, all public school classrooms have a Cisco wireless router broadcasting a wireless connection to their network (a hidden – maybe even cloaked SSID with a WEP password). It is a particularly difficult router for the XO to connect to; and I image a lot of other schools in the US have similar setups – so I will outline what we have tried, what works, and what doesn’t.

For those out there planning XO pilots in the states – a word of warning – get a couple for your tech department first and give them a couple weeks to play around…it takes a long time for figure out the best process to connect to existing infrastructure. Here’s what we have tried:

  • The most success we have had is with creating a simple python script that kills all network services and connects straight to the router. It works well, but unfortunately has a lot of negatives:
    1. The mesh is down
    2. Student have to go into terminal and type in “python wifi.py” to run this

The script is at the bottom of this post for anyone interested

  • Modify this file: /home/sugar/defaults/nm/networks.cfg (open terminal, type in “su -l” and type “nano /home/sugar/defaults/nm/networks.cfg”) and add this to the end of the file:

[your ssid here]
timestamp = 1201527916
bssids =
auth_alg = 2
key = your key here
we_cipher = 16

This works – sort of – we think our router is “cloaked” because it will show-up on the gorup wireless screen for a second and then disappear.

Here’s our little script. We installed “sudo” first (in terminal – “yum sudo install”) and then added the olpc user to “sudoers” file (google “sudoers file” and you’ll see how to play with this) so that students wouldn’t have to type in “su -l” each time they run the script:

import os,sys
os.system(‘sudo -i service NetworkManager stop’)
os.system(‘sudo -i service network stop’)
os.system(‘sudo killall dhclient’)
os.system(‘sudo -i — -c iwconfig eth0 essid <name> key <key>’)
os.system(‘sudo -i — -c dhclient eth0’)

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We’re back from Cambridge, MA and have had a couple days to reflect on the OLPC workshops.  Dr. Nicholas Negroponte joined us on the last day and took some questions.  The most interesting, and in a way, most promising aspect of OLPC and their mission is their ability to be honest and open about all aspects of their work.  This has many implications.  Education, and the people who work in education are altruistic in nature.  However, education is a big-business market in its own right; and educators have to sometime work with companies who may have altruistic intentions, but at the end of the day have stock-holders to report to: text-book companies, building contractors, technology companies and a whole list of others.  OLPC, we can all agree, is honestly altruistic in nature.  And Dr. Negroponte was honest in his answers.  He said outright they do not have all the answers and will never say to a district “yes, this will solve your testing or truancy or literacy or classroom management problems.” They are not even sure yet on how to best reach and roll-out their own product.  They do not have a sales force, or a marketing team.  He was even open enough to say that in five years they hope to be out of the manufacturing business.  All this is on purpose in order to stay true to their bottom-line which is providing students a high-quality educational tool at as low a cost possible.  What does all this mean?  For starters, it means:

  • The operating costs of marketing and sales do not factor into the cost of the device (which I will remind everyone, in public schools is paid for by tax-payers)
  • It means the XO laptop was designed so their batteries and AC adapters last longer than a year
  • All the parts are interchangeable and easy to get at to fix
  • The software that runs the laptop is free; and by copyright will always be free and community supported
  • There is no mercury in the device
  • The machine uses as little energy as possible.  Idling it uses 1W of power – your average notebook computer uses 25W.  200 standard notebooks in a school add ~$10,000 a year to the power-bill that tax-payers pay.  200 XO machines add ~$1,000 a year.
  • You can’t pop the keys off the keyboard, you can spill soda all over it, you can drop your backpack by accident without breaking it.
  • There are no 1, 3, or 5 year support contracts

My point is the playing field is different.  It is not fair to compare the XO to a Dell, or a Classmate or an EEE PC because the XO is designed under a different philosophy.  If the XO breaks and you have to buy a new one, OLPC does not profit from that purchase in the same was as a company with a bottom line does.  Intel and Dell would love nothing more than to have the education market think their devices are comparable to the XO – and they have marketing teams and sales forces ready to do so.

Even excepting all this, we can’t hide from that fact that US schools are now familiar with technology and they have defined their expectations about what a laptop means.  US schools expect to call a support line and have a place to return the device.  They expect their devices to be powerful and fast.  They expect hardware to be monetarily valuable, and locked up for safety.  And most importantly, they expect the manufacturers of technology to own the problem when the technology doesn’t work properly.

In order for XO devices to work in the USA, these expectations need to change.  Users of the XO need to expect to own their problems.  We need to expect to try and fix the device ourselves when the hardware breaks or the software doesn’t work correctly.  We need to expect that support will come from a community of users; rather than a company phone bank.  We need to expect that we will participate and contribute to this larger community of users.  We need to expect to take our machines home, experiment with them, understand them, own them, learn through them. 

I know what you’re going to say, and it is a natural initial reaction  – that this is WAY too much to expect out of teachers.  How in the world can we expect our over-burdened teachers to manage all this!  However, that too is an expectation that needs to change.  The device was designed for students – and students need to expect to own their problems.  This means student support teams and communities of knowledge at the student level.  It also means trust on the part of teachers, coaches, principals, districts, central technology department, superintendents, parents, ministers, city-council members and mayors – all agreeing to allow their students and children to own these problems.  It means parents working with teachers.  I guarantee if you say to any parent – “We would like to give your child a laptop – would you be willing to participate in the process.  Perhaps come to a couple workshops yourselves and learn along with us” – the answer will be “Yes, thank you.”  I can’t emphasize this enough – the students need have ownership over the technology, not the school, not the district, not even the parents.  When they own the tools for learning, they own their learning. 

It is not hard to see this as an opportunity for change.  There are a number of problems in NYC schools – access to technology probably doesn’t rank very high.  However, empowerment of our youth in our schools and communities is another matter.

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OLPC Workshop in Cambridge

We just finished day two of a four-day workshop series at the OLPC offices in Cambridge, MA.  There are 30 or so participants representing all sides of the education world – both literally and functionally.  So far, the sharing of ideas and philosophies has been wonderful and the missions and plans we all have is impressive to say the least.  Everyone involved on the OLPC end is outgoing, helpful and extremely thoughtful and dedicated to their mission. 

The focus of the conversation has not been about the device itself; rather the need to shift thinking about technology and learning at the school level.  It is a very grass-roots concept about taking advantage of opportunities for change and creating model experiences (classrooms and teachers) that can then go on to excite change in the local community.  As someone coming very much from the implementation side of education, it is very interesting to be having these conversations.  The skeptic in me comes out now and again and would like to point out the realities of some NYC schools.  However, looking at the project as a whole, it is very important that OLPC champion their cause in this way.  They are the inspiration and the change-makers (if not them, then who?) and it is important that they continue to inspire and strive to push us implementers to shoot for the pie in the sky.  After-all, they have brought the cost of a fully-functional laptop down to $188 – why would they expect any less from us.

So, in terms of some clear and very real issues that have come up – the top three that have become clear at this point would be:

  1. Sharing of resources and best practices out there in the community.  There are a number of pilots that are going on; and finding information about implementation and assessment plans/results is very difficult.   Technical support is probably the most built out – but there is so much more missing.
  2. Sharing of content and training resources.  Related to the above – the wiki (http://wiki.laptop.org) only goes so far.   It is evident that OLPC is championing constructivist learning – and pushing for a change in teaching styles (using their device).  But curricular content and training resources have not been brought together in useful and extensive way.
  3. Functional sustainable implementation models (again related to the above).  This is tricky because they would vary greatly between locations.  But it is a key question that keeps coming up.  How do we get teacher buy-in?  The best answer has been to look at it as an opportunity – an opportunity to involve the parents and community.  If it becomes an opportunity to better support the teacher in what they do and bring more parents to the table then no teacher will turn down the opportunity. 

Tomorrow I have meetings with Linux engineers and will get some answers and direction onf how to best configure the device for various wireless configurations.  School server is also a topic I’m hoping to find out more about.  Oh, and we’re physically taking the device apart and putting it back together – should be fun. 

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Asus EeeAllow me a non-olpc related diversion – the Asus Eee PC. It isn’t entirely unrelated; after-all these are both extremely cheap, portable, linux-based laptops targeting the education market. Like Intel’s Classmate, the Asus Eee PC is a $350 micro-laptop – and I will admit, is very impressive out of the box. I won’t compare the machine to the OLPC (at least in this post); but I will say my initial reaction was “this could be the middle-school / high school machine to accompany the OLPC in elementary.”

The Eee PC runs linux and the KDE desktop – which feels very much like a windows or a mac-like desktop. Open-office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint-like programs) are pre-installed as well as the Firefox web browser, google applications, some learning applications and a handful of other interesting programs. PLUS, since it is KDE, you can install and run more advanced programs – mind-mapping / photo editing / web-design like applications that are out there in the open-source community. Most impressive however, was the simplicity and familiar tools for browsing files and connecting to wireless networks! The wireless network application had any and every protocol for dealing with the fussiest of wireless configurations.

The hardware was also impressive (for $350) – an easy to use keyboard, mouse, video camera, nice speakers. The device comes with 3 USB ports, an ethernet adapter, and a VGA out (for hooking into a projector). My machine has 512 MB of RAM and a 4GB hard-drive. A couple draw-backs were the very low screen resolution (800 x 400 pixels) and, even though the keyboard was easy to use, the keys could (and will) be popped off by students! The design looks and feels like a grown-up device – which is why I am inclined to think middle and high school students would be drawn to the Eee PC.

$350 is an interesting price-point. It is definitely cheap enough that a school can consider a 1:1 configuration with their students. BUT, it isn’t so cheap that you would be inclined to just toss the device out and get a new one when support is needed. All in all though, it is an impressive device and could be a very nice solution for schools.

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First off, happy new year!  One thing I was worried about over the break was how the OLPC is going to work in a laptop cart environment (yes, my life is such that I worry about laptop carts on vacation).   The device is a user-centric design and would work well in a 1:1 environment.  However, a school or teacher might choose the more traditional laptop-cart model where classrooms share machines.  What happens then?!?

Well, for starters:

  • The journal would become something of a mess.  A teacher would have to label each machine w/ a number and assign each student that device.  Even then the device would have different students’ work in the journal’s time-line…too confusing to work effectively.
  • Students could have flash drives that they save their work to.  However, they would have to go to the journal at the end of each period and move the files over…time they could be using more efficiently.
  • The 1GB of space on the device would be shared over many users.  I’m not sure how long that would last.
  • The group networking and sharing functionality in the applications would be somewhat lost.  Students wouldn’t be communicating with other students’ names…but device names like “computer 24”

So, now that I’ve depressed you, here’s a proposed solution.  Google Apps.  In a multi-user or laptop cart environment, take the burden off of the devices and let google do the heavy lifting.  Google Apps is a email / calendar / content management system that is free for schools.  Of course, you could use any web-based OS or content management system that you like.  However, google apps is well supported, pretty easy to setup and pretty easy to administer.  Also, it’s google.  It’s not going to crash on you too often. 

Benefits include (to name only a few):

  • Email for students
  • Calendaring and resource scheduling for schools
  • Online document sharing (your files are stored online and not on the XO or a flash device)
  • Web-based document editing for Word, Excel, Powerpoint – these are “online versions” of the software you are already comfortable with using.

Problems include:

  • Your school’s policy w/ regards to student email
  • Initial setup of google apps
  • Load on your network (this is all web-based…so make sure your wireless can handle 30 machines on at the same time).

Please comment with any other ideas out there on how this can be done better.  I did some looking around to see if you could force a login screen on the XO w/ different users but didn’t find anything.  I bet the OLPC server helps to solve some of these issues too…but then you would need a server admin. 

Finally, for those teachers technically inclined enough to do a quick hack, there is a gmail activity for the XO (http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Gmail) that you can modify to launch to your school or class’ google apps page.  This is assuming you have setup google apps already setup (http://www.google.com/a/edu/). Here’s what you do:

  1. Install the gmail activity – download the gmail.xo file here: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Activities#Chat.2C_Mail.2C_and_Talk
  2. Once it downloads, click open – it should install automatically and put a mail icon on your toolbar
  3. Launch the terminal activity
  4. login as root by typing in: “su -l”
  5. edit the gmail activity by typing in: “nano /home/olpc/Activities/Gmail.activity/gmailactivity.py”
  6. you’re now in a simple editor called “nano” – use the down arrow to scroll until you see “Default path is now gmail” – change this to your school’s google apps url.
  7. Press “ctrl-x” then enter “y” to say yes you want to save the changes.  Press enter
  8. You’re all set.

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