One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a non-profit organisation aiming to put all children on an equal footing for education regardless of socio-economic status by distributing computers throughout the world, first launched in 2005, with OLPC Australia being founded in 2009.
OLPC's One Education program aims to assign 50,000 devices to schools in Australia by June next year. Setting itself apart from the original OLPC objective, which was simply to distribute low-cost laptops to students across the world, One Education requires schools to apply for the program, with candidates then assessed on a needs basis and teachers given extensive training.
"Initially, we were involved in selecting the schools, but one thing that you can't really quite pick up on is whether the schools are ready for the change," said OLPC Australia CEO Rangan Srikhanta.
The initial OLPC program was criticised in April last year for not providing enough guidance for teachers on showing students how to effectively use the computers in class. Now, with One Education, the teachers of a chosen school are required to fulfil 15 hours of training before the devices are handed out to the children. With only 50,000 of the laptop-tablet hybrids to hand out in Australia, Srikhanta said it is important to ensure that a school will actually make use of them, and this will only occur if the teachers understand them.
Hilltop Road Public School (above), in Merrylands, Western Sydney, was the site of the One Education event last Thursday.
The laptop-tablet hybrid, dubbed the XO-duo, was developed at MIT, and designed specifically for use by schoolchildren around the globe. They ordinarily cost AU$400 per machine, but schools with an Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) value (PDF) of less than 1,000 can purchase the devices for AU$100 each. The other AU$300 is funded by the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and by contributions from OLPC Australia's corporate sponsors, including the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Oracle, and Salesforce. The AU$100 also pays for the training, software, charging racks, spare parts, and shipping to deliver the devices to schools.
The ruggedised all-in-ones run Linux and have a touchscreen that can be rotated 360 degrees, with ports on the side for HDMI out and Bluetooth 2.0. The learning software has programs for mathematics, art, reading, and creative thinking.
In the US, OLPC made its XO Learning Tablet (without the laptop capabilities) available for purchase from Walmart for $149 in August.
According to Srikhanta (pictured above with five-year-old kindergarten student Emma Kusumo), low socio-economic schools that choose to participate and then allocate budget to the program are more likely to make full use of the devices, rather than schools that were simply gifted laptops under the original project.
"People opting in are going to find ways of using this tool in a way that suits them ... we needed to get out of the business of telling people how to use the machine, and instead give them the tools, give them the opportunity and some space to learn it before getting the kids to learn it, because the kids are going to race ahead. Then the idea from that point forward is the teachers would use the machines daily," he said.
The XO-duos have allowed children as young as five to learn robotics and programming. Here, Emma Kusumo operates a Lego robot plugged in via USB through a computer program, entering commands of her own for the robot to complete.
The children we spoke to agreed that they would much rather do their schoolwork on their XO-duos than in books, with many saying that they can type faster than they can write.
Australian Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said of the OLPC program, "One Education is providing the tools and resources for primary school children to engage with technology like never before. It provides teachers and students with the means to connect with each other and to develop skills that are a pathway to our nation's continuing prosperity."
Here, a year 3 class works on programming a game.
Natalie See, the principal of Hilltop Road Public School (pictured with student Isaac Wahab) said the primary school instituted a staggered rollout, beginning with a kindergarten and a year 1 class last year. Now, all 670 teachers and students in the school have a device, with every class using it slightly differently.
"Our school has embraced the needs of our 21st-century learners, embedding technology into quality teaching and learning experiences," said See.
According to Srikhanta, the devices are rugged enough for use by children of all ages. "The XOs are designed for schoolkids, they're designed for school environments; you can drop them on the floor and they're repairable. Every classroom gets a little repair kit, and that includes spare parts for screens and keyboards, and we actually get the kids to become champion mechanics, where they pull the machine apart and put it back together," he said.
Each class seems to have a designated set of people who have taken it upon themselves to fix their classmates' computers when something goes wrong. In the picture above, a student in year 3 helps his friend code a game on his computer.
The year 6 students, who will have to hand the XO-duos back in when they graduate primary school in December, use the devices in a more traditional way: To research information and supplement their bookwork.
One Education aims to roll out another 30,000 XO-duos to schools by June next year.