Tuesday, April 28, 2009

OLPC Nepal Project overview

Randal Schwartz interviews Bryan Berry, of Open Learning Exchange Nepal, the NGO implementing the OLPC project in Nepal

I've transcribed a substantial portion of this interview below, rough notes only, without comment at this stage. Numbering is just for id purposes if people want to discuss particular points.

Skip to 12:45 minutes to avoid the chatter and google summer of code adverts at the start

1) Bryan Berry, CTO Open Learning Exchange, Nepal

2) Describes geography, weather, population

3) 6 million kids in Nepal need education – how can we do it? Education makes all the difference

4) Literacy about 45%, young people 80%

5) There are hardly any libraries, even in Kathmandu (the largest city in Nepal) – most peoples parents are illiterate or barely educated, there aren't any books at home

6) teaching method is that teacher speaks and the kids repeat – one teacher for 50 kids – teachers are doing their best but they have almost no resources

7) problem with rote learning
example of a kid knowing that 2+1 = 3 but not knowing what 1+2 equals ...

8) OLPC project provides opportunity of putting a lot more resources into the hands of kids and teachers

9) xo described, I skipped this bit

10) Open Source software critical to high quality education – education has to be very customised, to the kids, the teacher, the environment and the country – not something you can design in New York city and will fit another country

11) In the OS community we know that through the iterative process of other people looking at your code / work they can make it better – and that's true for education as well

Q) What kind of customization had to happen to the software for your particular project?

12) Problem of rendering Nepali properly – very little support across different applications

13) Had to conform to the Nepali national student curriculum – absolutely critical

14) 99% of teachers care about their kids, want them to learn and don't want their kids to fail their exams at the end of the year – if their kids fail they are set back a year – they have to make sure their kids don't fail that exam – it is a standards based curriculum

15) So we created a whole set of learning activities which conform to the national curriculum

16) transitions in what program to use to develop curriculum content and the reasons why (etoys --> flash --> HTML5 + javascript)

17) etoys
started off doing the curriculum in etoys / squeak – first 6 months
  • performance
  • very small community doing what we were doing
  • squeak programmers are smart people who tend to move onto something else, eg. PhD
18) flash
flash is a great technology but run time is proprietary, unfortunately (considered using gnash but that created some stability and performance issues) – we release our code under the mit license

19) HTML5 + javascript
Way to go because there are a lot of community people who use those tools, there is a lot of momentum in that area - proprietary code is really baked into education but if you use javascript and HTML you almost can't keep your stuff proprietary – it creates a virtuous feedback cycle as in the AJAX community where releasing your source is good for the whole community

20) Open Learning Exchange (OLE) Nepal
Nepali led organisation, led by Rabi Karmacharya; 30 people - full time some part time; non profit; team of developers; teachers working together with developers; teachers are creative, know how to engage the children

21) Once we showed the teachers learning activities then they welcomed it with open arms; Nepali government is very supportive

Q) How has this changed the classroom from the teacher speaks, student repeats?

22) The xo frees up the teacher to interact more individually with kids

23) Sugar UI has collaboration baked in

24) History of xo in Nepal
Started with 150 laptops to two poor schools in April 2008 just outside Kathmandu to 7th Graders and 2nd Graders (?). Worries about misuse did not eventuate, the kids treated their laptops like gold (they don't have possession of their own)

25) 1:1 ratio critical; take home (core principles)

26) Cultural difference with USA, Nepal kids want to become engineers and doctors, not pop stars and baseball players; they don't say maths sucks or maths is boring; they are excited about learning

27) Internet connection issues discussed (skipped this)

28) Email can only be done with web mail such as gmail. More needs to be done on the server side, hard to complete everything in such a complex project

29) We can always find someone to fix the hardware but training someone to master the linux command line is harder

30) The server has to be as simple as possible

31) If there is a problem with the xo there is a firmware tool called testall which can test all the hardware

Q) Do you have objective numbers on performance?

32) If we teach to the test then test results will improve. Walter Bender has said that the hard part about education is that you have to wait 20 years. However, assessment is important in terms of justifying the expense of what we are doing.

33) Expanding this year to 2500 laptops (cf. 150 laptops last year) to geographically dispersed settlements representing the breadth of life in Nepal

34) The huge challenge is to grow the support organisation to support the deployment

35) Running a grassroots volunteer organisation is very hard. You have to find the people who are really serious as distinct from those who are curious but temporary supporters – people who want to chat and visit but who are not prepared to do the hard grunt work

36) It is not like online FOSS which has an automatic barrier to entry which filters out those who are not really interested

37) Parents want books – digital books! They equate education with books

38) There is enthusiasm for FLOSS in Nepal – Nepal won best software freedom day 2 years in a row from FSF. But there is not much open source software being developed.

39) Those who could be developers have little free time. Kids here have to study hard and have extensive family commitments (far more so than we have in the west)

40) Main funding for the project came from the Danish Embassy

41) OLPCs were donated by Swift organisation, a Banking co-operative (European Banks)

42) Raising money for the laptops, although the largest cost, is the easiest part of the funding

43) The hardest part is building the support organisation and developing curriculum content

44) Kids keep the laptops at the end of the year

45) Wade Brainerd has developed a great typing tutor, called typing turtle

46) etoys is a fantastic environment but requires a high degree of dexterity with the touch pad, the drag and drop features – the teachers really struggled with that

47) A key thing we need to do is to tie lesson plans into working with programs like etoys and turtle art – teachers are busy if it's not part of the curriculum then its likely to not happen

48) Education is the central thing for poor countries to move out of poverty – but it takes a long time to build up

Q) What was the biggest hurdle or hurdles?

49) You have to create a firewall between the local company (OLENepal) and the FOSS community. Early on some people saw it as their personal project and that was very detrimental – once money becomes involved – it was ugly – this is why we formed OLENepal as a separate organisation

50) Create local content first – before the flyers, before government meeting – develop local content in their own language

51) Linux supports Nepali, Microsoft doesn't

52) If Bryan had more money he would focus on building digital content (K-12) before laptops – once there was this content then everyone would buy laptops


Randal L. Schwartz said...

Thanks for this excellent transcript... we should point to it from our main page.

Bill Kerr said...

thank you Randal for excellent questions in the interview

there is some discussion here on the IAEP list

Especially read the Martin Dengler comment which continues the discussion from Bryan's "content is king" conclusion:
me re-think the ebook-concept-as-trojan-horse argument that's been made before: its big advantage is that it short-circuits the "lack of content" problem by definition: it seems popular discourse takes for
granted that e-book readers are separate to e-books but not that
educational laptops are separate from educational content"

This is a fascinating discussion for me.

Bryan's logic is hard to fault and leads to the conclusion content is king

This is contentious and hard to express simply but progressive education, eg. constructionist, in the west is moving away from content is king

These points are not incompatible if we look at development as a continuum which much touch both the content and constructionist extremes

Does Bryan overplay the local factors ("when in Nepal do what the Nepalis do") as distinct from Enlightenment principles, which alan kay calls the non universals ?

Perhaps a little

This is the discussion which I feel we need to have but people are reluctant to have

Dickey45 said...

"How has this changed the classroom from the teacher speaks, student repeats?"

This is called choral responding. Students should know how to use language and learn new vocabulary (lots of research behind needing to learn vocabulary). Computers can become like a teacher that doesn't ask for choral responding thus end up not helping the student learn, expand vocabulary, and communicate. Choral responding can also morph to pairing students and having them explain a concept to each other.