Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Kicking off a gen-1.5 development process: Updating the XO hardware

OLPC is excited to announce that a refresh of the XO-1 laptop is in progress. In our continued effort to maintain a low price point, OLPC is refreshing the hardware to take advantage of the latest component technologies. This refresh (Gen 1.5) is separate from the Gen 2.0 project, and will continue using the same industrial design and batteries as Gen 1. The design goal is to provide an overall update of the system within the same ID and external appearance.

In order to maximize compatibility with existing software, this refresh will continue with an x86 processor, using a chipset from VIA. The memory will be increased to 1 GB of DDR2 SDRAM, and the built-in storage will be 4 GB of NAND Flash with an option for 8 GB (installed at manufacture). The processor will be a VIA C7-M [1], with plans on using one whose clock ranges from 400 MHz (1.5 W) to 1GHz (5 W). The clock may be throttled back automatically if necessary to meet thermal constraints.

Monday, June 15, 2009

XO Software Release 8.2.0 now available

Announcing the General Availability of XO Software Release 8.2.0

XO Software Release 8.2.0 was developed by OLPC engineers and the OLPC open source community.

The XO and its software is the only major computing platform designed specifically for the educational benefit of children in the developing world.

Release 8.2 is based on a child focused graphical interface called Sugar, a Red Hat Fedora 9 Linux operating system and OLPC customized implementations of core software including power management, wireless drivers, NAND flash file system, Open Firmware, and other components.

XO Software Release 8.2.0 runs on the award winning XO Laptop.

Major new features in this release include:

* A updated Home view and Journal with new options for finding and organizing activities.
* An enhanced Frame for collaborating with other XOs and switching between running activities.
* A graphical Control Panel for setting language, network, and power preferences.
* An automated Software Update tool which finds the latest version of activities and updates them over the Internet.
* Integration with the School Server for backup of XOs and restore of files to the Journal as needed.
* New and updated translations for many languages.
* A new user manual shipped with the XO as an activity.
* Hundreds of bug fixes.

For installation instructions and more details on the new features, see the the 8.2.0 Release Notes

Thanks to the many people who gave their time and energy to make this release a reality.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Enter the laptop kids

The One Laptop Per Child scheme aims at revolutionising education among the poor. But is it feasible in India.......

Just 81km from Mumbai, Vastishala Khairat-Dangarvada school is not very different from most primary schools in India. The one-room school has a single teacher. A painted black strip on the mud wall serves as a blackboard. Children, till the fourth standard, attend classes in the same dimly lit classroom with the same teacher.

One small difference makes this school special, not just in India but the world over. Each of the 20 children in this school has got a green-and-white laptop, no bigger than an oversized lunchbox. With the laptops — called XO — children learn their lessons almost by themselves, oblivious to what is going around them and even to what the teacher is saying or doing.

The teacher, Sandip Surve, doesn’t mind because some of the children have indeed picked up ‘XOing’ skills much better than him. Says Surve, “XO has solved problems like absenteeism. Now children relish coming to school every day.”

The children, however, aren’t even aware that they have been participating in an ambitious global education experiment called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). The project had its genesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US four decades ago. XO represents a learning theory proposed by Seymour Papert who had worked with the educational theorist, Jean Piaget. Inspired by Piaget’s work, Papert developed the theory of constructionism, which proposes that children learn most effectively when they are doing things rather than when they are just sitting and listening. Later Papert’s colleague Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of MIT’s Media Lab, became an ardent believer of this seemingly utopian idea. Through a series of experiments, Negroponte and his team zeroed in on the computer as the key to enlightening poor children across the world.

“XO is not just a computer but an educational tool meant for collaborative, and self-empowered learning,” says Satish Jha, President & CEO, OLPC India. According to him, XOs have been devised keeping poor kids in mind. The laptop consumes little power, has got a screen visible in sunlight, is resistant to damage and can be powered by solar energy or electricity generated by a hand crank. “The entire course content of primary schools can be fitted in it. Kids won’t need any books, bags or even a school building,” says Jha. To enable collaborative learning among children, XOs are equipped with a novel mesh network that makes each laptop capable of talking to its neighbours. With broadband connectivity the mesh works even better.”

The laptops are sponsored by individual donors, companies, non-governmental organisations, international funding agencies and schools.

XO’s software is also unique. It is pre-loaded with various ‘open source’ or free software and supports most operating systems. It also has Wikipedia, and a program called Squeak E-toy — inspired by a programming language innovated by Papert for children — which helps kids visualise, simulate and create projects based on their lessons. According to its creators at OLPC, its central concept is ‘play… it makes children explore instead of being force-fed information’.

How is it working in the Indian pilot study? Says Jha, “The Khairat children have already cruised ahead of those that learnt without XOs. Even a six-year old can write in Marathi and English. They can work with videos and use Wikipedia for their curriculum.” Pilot studies in Nigeria, Brazil, Peru, Cambodia and even Nepal show similar results.

So far so good. But is the programme really feasible in hundreds of thousands of threadbare primary schools across the country? Notwithstanding the success of OLPC in the poorest setting, scepticism abounds. A top bureaucrat in India’s education ministry famously brushed aside the project as ‘pedagogically suspect’ and described XO as merely a ‘fancy tool’. Says Kumar Rana, a senior research associate at Pratichi Trust, a charitable trust promoted by economist Amartya Sen, which conducts research in primary education and health in India, “The concept is wonderful in theory for its potential to bridge the digital divide among people. But it doesn’t seem to be feasible in practice when there is so little infrastructure in primary schools in West Bengal, Jharkhand or Orissa.”

Others contend that the economics of providing a laptop to every child is daunting. Stephen Dukker, CEO of Ncomputing, the low cost computer company, wrote in technology magazine ZD Net, “Given the economic realities in the developing world, $200 (Rs 10,000) computers cannot generate the profit essential for the creation of a robust IT ecosystem, which is essential to ensure successful deployment, ongoing operation and maintenance.” Incidentally, Dukker is now in discussions with the Indian government to introduce his small desktops in primary schools.

Such scepticism is just the tip of the iceberg of hurdles that the OLPC project faces. Because the XO costs just around Rs 9,500 — the next version (XO2), set for launch next month, is going to cost even less (Rs 4,000) — it has irked big computer companies. These companies, which have been selling exorbitantly priced laptops loaded with extravagant tools (also called ‘bloatware’), are in a mad rush to launch cheap machines which are described as learning tools.

Jha ripostes that Dukker is talking about the economics of running a bus when OLPC is akin to a bicycle as an appropriate means of transport in villages. empowering everyone. He also says that the pilot project has shown that XO works even in situations with minimal infrastructure.

As the debate rages, two things are clear. First, OLPC has made laptops somewhat affordable for the masses. Second, the XO pilot project could have far-reaching significance for primary education in India.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Planning to start a 20 XO laptop deployment in July

Dear OLPC Pune Members,

We are planning to start a 20 XO laptop deployment in July. Lets gear for the same. All the technical specs and the deployment plan will be taken care by OLPC Pune members.

And the funding details would be handled by me. I would try to chalk out a detail plan with you all soon in coming week.