I'm just back from a very productive vaca^W summit in the Caribbeans, where I met plenty of interesting people from various deployments and some old OLPC friends.
Uruguay confirmed some of the things we knew already from Paraguay: the nation is completely transformed by the project, you see children everywhere in the streets using their laptops to do everything from school work to videogames. Many children arrive to school earlier in the morning to get Internet access, but when school starts batteries are already low. Parents are extremely supportive of the project, to the point that the new government elected last year was basically forced to continue what was started by their opposition. Plan Ceibal has often been criticized for not doing enough on the teacher training front, but apparently the short-term goal is global connectivity and hopefully triggering the "generation inversion" phenomenon in which children help their families learn about technology. A generation of teachers with strong ITC skills will come along as a byproduct of this revolution.
Like Paraguay, OLPC Afghanistan is also running a pilot with 5000 laptops. Before expanding the program further, the ministry of education wants to see factual evidence proving that children who have been learning with the XO are doing substantially better than a control group on which the same $250 per student has been spent on traditional school infrastructure: libraries, video projectors, extra curricular activities, and so on.
This approach made a number of eyebrows raise among the most constructivist participants. After some discussion, we reached the agreement that some scientific data would be nice to have even though the "drug study" methodology may not apply well to radically different teaching paradigms. Afghanistan does not seem like a nation obsessed with assessment, as students get the first standardized tests of their lives when they apply to university.
Mike Dawson of OLPC Afghanistan proposed that a fair comparison does not necessarily have to focus on traditional curriculum. If we're looking for increased critical thinking, problem-solving ability and creativity, we could challenge students with puzzles designed to measure these skills.
Mike Dawson also introduced eXe, a free and open source authoring tool capable of crearing simple interactive learning games. Its strength is that it can be used by curriculum experts with absolutely no computer programming skills.
Mike is looking to form an inter-deployment coalition to develop the basis for a library of reusable blocks which could be used to build a national curricula, in the style of CK12 or Curriki. These projects already provide very high-quality static content in PDF and HTML formats, while we're looking to create is media-rich and interactive activities.
Mike will be meeting this week with representatives of the Sugar community in Boston to propose eXe as an official Sugar Labs project. There's a lot of technological and pedagogical similarity beween eXe and the Karma project sponsored by OLE Nepal and Activity Central. Perhaps the two projects will cooperate rather than compete in this area.
Richard Smith, very skilled firmware engineer from OLPC, helped Waveplace to resurrect a pile of "bricked" laptops donated by former G1G1 donors. Richard gave me a serial cable and taught me how to carry on the procedure. Hopefully we'll be able to replicate this in Paraguay to recover some of the broken laptops at no cost.
Adam Holt came with a bunch of very interesting books, from "Disrupting Class" to "Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology". I couldn't finish any of them during the meeting, but the first chapters anticipated very interesting conclusions.
Because of his Sugar/OLPC duality and technical/educational balance, Adam was able to recruit and organize a huge army with diverse backgrounds, interests and nationality. Many of us see him as a central reference point for a wider community which includes both Sugar and OLPC.
The non-profit organization Waveplace has been running pilot projects in Haiti with orphans and other unprivileged children. Since the earthquake, they redoubled their efforts with the help of other international aid organizations.
The team of educators and technologists led by Tim Falconer developed a set of comprehensive lesson plans for grades 3-6 based entirely on eToys.
In parallel with the Realness Summit, a group of high-school students from the Columbus School for Girls, Ohio, organized an after-school program for all the three schools of the tiny St. John island. The program was also sponsored by Waveplace and adopted the same eToys teaching materials developed for Haiti.
Even though I already knew eToys, it was surprising to see how flexible and powerful it can become in the hands of skilled teachers. At the end of the two-weeks program, children were able to create complex stories by making objects move around and interact with each other.
Christoph Derndorfer, one of the OLPC News editors, reported about the status of pilots projects organized by OLPC Austria. Like the St. John pilot, this is also an after-school program tailored at augmenting traditional school rather than restructuring it. The Austrian Ministry of Education would also like to see some hard numbers proving the effectiveness of ICT in education before putting their full weight into the project.
Christoph summarized the status of the general OLPC/Sugar community. Like me, he would like to see much more academic participation. On the positive side, Graz University of Technology is working on RekonPrimer, a Sugar activity tailored at improving skills on the four basic arithmetic operations.
By the end of the summit, a strong binding was formed among all the participants, regardless of our widely different professions and approaches to world-wide education.
Many of us asked to follow up by creating some kind of super-organization embracing volunteers from all camps: OLPC (hardware), Sugar Labs (software), educators and deployments.
As a representative of Sugar Labs, I'd be more than happy to embrace this idea. We've been traditionally been very weak on the education front and loosely connected with deployments. We've been trying to solve the problem by attracting people with those interests into our organization, but our overly technocratic community managed to repel them.
By starting off with a balanced blend of educators and technologists, we might be able to achieve what our individual organizations couldn't. Rather than trying to focus everyone on one particular aspect of education technology, it would endorse a wide spectrum of skilled professionals involved in solving the same fundamental problem of radically improving education world-wide through technology, constructionism, interactive curriculum, free software, rugged laptops, teachers without borders and the organized enthusiasm of thousands volunteers.
I also gave three short talks:
We all had a great time together. Besides seeing again my old OLPC colleagues, it was great to meet plenty of new friends who played different roles towards our common goal to provide free and open basic education to all the children of the world.
See all the photos from the event.