Archive for June, 2009

Salamah, Tompo

A quick update, as they all are until we get a steady source of internet access (thanks to Sam &

Violette for again lending us their modem!).

We’re still waiting for the laptops to get out of customs. I don’t want to conmment on the politics of

the matter (oh, there are politics), but long story short, we’re expected to pay about 13,000,000 Ariary

(~$6500) to get the laptops out of customs. We’re waiting for news because some more papers were

submitted. Independence Day is the 26 June (Friday), and we’ve been warned by both locals and the

US Embassy to stay out of Tana (or, really, any crowded area) because of the political turmoil.*

*A quick primer, if you have missed the Malagasy news: in February, Rajoelina, a young

former-DJ-turned-mayor, decided he wanted to be president. Ravolomanana, the democratically

elected president, protested. Rajoelina managed to rally supporters, including, eventually, the army.

Ravolomanana escaped to Swaziland. The Constitutional Court pronounced Rajoelina’s transititional

government valid until elections, which, last I heard, are planned for October 2010. The international

community calls this a coup, and the AU and SADC have expelled Mada, and most governments

have cut off aid funding, which is a huge blow to many people. The power change, as far as African

power changes go, was very peaceful, but unfortunately there were still 100 people killed over two

months. There are still occassionally demonstrations in Tana, but they are peaceful and limited in

scale and scope. There are rumors that Ravolomana will return this weekend, but that seems unlikely.

We’re very safe in Ambatoharanana; we’re about 2.5 hours from Tana, and national politics are less

impactful on this scale. While everyone certianly has opinions on the politics, there aren’t

demonstrations or unrest out here.

So that’s politics. Because of all this, we still don’t have the XOs. We’ve been able to show the Lova

Soa teachers our personal XOs, and pass it around with any visitors we get, but that’s about it. When

we were passing around an XO at a teacher reception on Thursday, one of the teachers had opened

Write and written us a message:
“thank you for coming to ambatoharanana. we are very happy to have you.”

As usual, Record was a favorite of all the teachers, where they took many pictures of themselves (and us).

We were also able to go down to Lova Soa and play with the kids. This has two purposes: one, it’s

fun, and two, it gets them accustomed to us. We taught them the Hokey Pokey,

Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes, and any songs we could remember from our summer camp days.

The kids there are young – 5-8 is the age range we’ll be working with there. We’re also planning, but

may or may not be able to, work with another school. More on that as the situation becomes clearer.

So our plan for the week, since the XOs are in customs until, at the very soonest, next Monday, is to

continue working on community outreach. That’s a fancy way of saying, “accept every invitation that

people present us with.” We’ve been to a variety show, community center, church, chapel services

(we live on the campus of an Anglican seminary), stores, the outdoor market…you get the picture. We

want the community to get used to us, and to understand our mission here. That’s more daunting

than it sounds, considering we speak about 7 words of Malagasy, and there aren’t many people who

speak English. There’s some French, and I speak some French; we also have friends who speak

English and Malagasy, so they’ve been a godsend.

Much of our days are planning and making meals. Rice is the staple; Malagasy eat it at every meal. We’re not quite ready for breakfast rice. Still, though, we eat it twice a day, and it takes about 30-40 minutes to cook each time. We also have to boil water for everything from drinking to sanitizing dishes to brushing our teeth. We have a nice gas stovetop but it’s pretty time-consuming. We’ll get used to it!

Here’s our Malagasy progress:
salamah (sah-lah-mah) – hello
tompo (toomp-koo) – sir/ma’am (an honorific – “salamah, tompo” is common)
azafady (ahz-ah-fah-dee) – please
misoatra (mee-sew-tra) – thank you
madrapaona (mah-drah-pea-own-a) – good-bye (in the see-you-later sense)
velomah (vay-loom-ah) – good-bye (in the good-night sense)

-Kate (with help from Mary)


June 24, 2009 at 7:48 am 3 comments

Madagascary, the Early Days

We arrived in Madagascar two days ago and we’re having a great time so far. Malagasy hospitality is quite impressive. We were greeted by Sam, a British missionary who’s lived in Ambhatoranana, with his wife Violette and several of the teachers from the Loava Soa school where we’ll be working. Sam and Violette have been amazing, helping us settle into our house. Several of the people in the village came over to work on our plumbing last night, volunteering their time after a long day for them to make us more comfortable.

So far, we have attended a reception at Loava Soa to meet the entire staff and see the grounds. We also went on a 5km trek to the local community center to celebrate the end of sewing classes that many of the villagers have been attending. Today, we attended the service at the Anglican church here and also watched a play put on by the Mother’s Union. We are looking forward to meeting all the Loava Soa schoolchildren tomorrow.

We’re just checking in to report our recent activities, which are mostly focused on getting used to Madagascar and meeting as many people as possible. Later this week, we’ll update with how our community outreach is going once we are more adjusted and have a chance to discuss our laptop initiative with community leaders.


June 21, 2009 at 5:44 pm 1 comment

Dispatch from Kigali: Thoughts on Our Deployment

The workshop is over, and we’ve been in Kigali for about 10 days. It seems like so much longer – we’ve done so much. I realize (and apologize) that we haven’t been blogging much – chalk it up to a spotty connection at the hotel, really full days, and being worn out by 9 pm every night. From a huge Rwandan government
ceremony-and-conference to school visits, one question has been at the back of my mind: what does this – this specific talk, this story, this piece of advice – mean for our project? I’m going to use this post to try and synthesize the major points we’ll be taking with us from the workshop to Madagascar.

First: feedback and input. My concentration at university was international development, and I’ve heard the refrain a thousand times – successful projects must, must, must have feedback loops built in. Awesome, sure. But that didn’t really sink in as a practical lesson until we were working in the schools with the teachers and with the classes. I was at Rwamagana B, the first school in Rwanda to receive laptops, with almost 100% saturation (some laptops broke and are being fixed). Most of the teachers used the computers in class to some degree. We walked into the first teacher session with a loose plan, ready to show and tell and construct. And that was great for some teachers. I was working with the school principal, who had less hands-on XO experience because she wasn’t in the classroom. To see things click for her was great. About halfway into the session, though, we asked the teachers what they wanted to work on. Though the principal was thriving in the session, we were being repetitive for others. Once we asked what they wanted to know, what problems they wanted to address, we could adapt. I continued working with the principal on certain activities and giving her a survey, while someone working with a P5 math teacher shifted their focus. Ask, listen, and adjust.

I think this particularly has to be a mantra for us. We’ve done research, written down scores of ideas, and contacted many people. But that’s not going to match talking to the teachers, parents, and students. Juliano, who’s Director of Learning at OLPC and worked on sucessful deployments in Brazil, even brought this up while talking about learning projects. Learning projects are multi-subject, multi-activity projects that emphasize kids working on what they’re interested in, what affects them. We can roll up to Ambatoharanana with 80 planned learning projects, but none of them will be effective or utile unless we ask the kids what they want to learn about, what they want to do. Feedback – short-term and long-term – is vital, and input is another facet of that. If we ask teachers how the XO can work for them, if we work with our local partner to create a learning space both physically and socially in and around the school, and if we ask kids, parents, and the community writ large how they want to engage, that will create a successful project. That’s a pretty nebulous success metric, we know. And that’s the next thing.

Second: measuring “success”. It would be pretty hard for us to come out of this deployment with crazy statistics: “The students are now 2000% more computer literate, because they have used a computer.” Well, yeah. And tests as a metric are also flawed – think No Child Left Behind, think
the smart kid who doesn’t test well, and think impracticality and external factors. How can we then measure the success of our project? I’m not sure there’s a solid answer. We have goals. They are also nebulous. They include things like the XOs being used in schools in 6 months, like successfully handing-off control of the project (though we won’t stop being involved once we leave, obviously), and
introducing about 85 kids to the XO and showing them how they can reach beyond Ambatoharanana. The first can be measured in numbers, sort of – but numbers won’t tell us the qualia of the experience. The second could be measured in numbers too, I guess, or even a simple yes-or-no, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The third is another yes-no. If the computers are then used as doorstops, the yes/no doesn’t matter.

So what’s our metric? I want a metric, I can’t lie. That would mean we would be able to say, “our project is good because” and “things we need are” with numerical proof. There can’t really be such a number. What we can do is constantly report from the field, write a report of our successes, failures, mistakes, and missteps, and work to be honest and open about how the project is working. We can also work to ensure future monitoring of the project – not in the panopticon way (that would be strange) but in the reporting way. We aren’t going to Madagascar for ten weeks, then just leaving. We’re jumpstarting a project with MSP that will continue, with us and without us, after we are back in the US.

David Cavallo, OLPC VP of Learning (and whose talks have been some of the best here), told us today, “Your job is to create a positive experience for these kids and the community.” That sounds simplistic. That’s all we can guarantee in ten weeks. We can plant the seeds for sustainability; we can fundraise and meet with people and do as much teacher training, but on August 25, we leave. We can’t make a perfect project that will be perfect after August 25. We can create a positive experience such that people are invested in the XOs, MSP, and OLPC as a whole. We can do the first push.

I’ve got a notebook half-full of ideas to consider, questions to ask, and things to consider. In practical news, we’ve run into some potential hang-ups in customs, and that might end up being a big deal (but can’t figure out more, because we currently have no internet in the hotel). We’re still not sure if we have electricity at the school (and can’t ask, because again, internet issues). I have a list of goals and thoughts that needs to be organized. We’ve got a day of travel ahead of us. There’s a lot of work to do, and we’re ready to start.
[nb: this was written last night, Wednesday.]

June 18, 2009 at 7:28 am Leave a comment

Dispatch from Kigali: On OLPC’s Future

As the workshop comes to a close, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the future of OLPC in light of what we heard from OLPC’s senior staff.

OLPC has historically avoided taking a hands on approach in specific countries, prefering to act simply as a manufacturer of low cost laptops and an ideological proponent of laptops in learning. David Caviello and Nicholas Negroponte both made it abundantly clear that, with the XO 2.0, OLPC intends to move away from manufacturing computers and instead take a more hands on role in specific deployment countries.

Given that industry has made huge advances in terms of producing low cost netbooks that are more powerful than the XO and could be easily modified for the developing world, this approach definitely seems necessary in order to prevent the XO (and possibly OLPC) from becoming outdated. This should also give OLPC the opportunity to see a few key deployments through from start to ‘finish’. These highly successful deployments could then create a network of experienced individuals who could, without central direction from OLPC, oversee a grassroot explosion of deployments (based on diffuse hardware and self-directed initiatives).

Although OLPC’s departure from the laptop manufacturing arena is several years away, and OLPC is still dedicated to developing and releasing the XO 1.5 (which will be twice as powerful, but cost the same, as the current iteration), it has already taken several concrete steps to begin the process of emphasizing learning. The most important of these seems to be the launch of the OLPC Learning Center in Kigali (which will house the entire learning team that was formerly based in Cambridge as well as lots of local staff). Hopefully, this combination will allow OLPC to adapt its learning techniques to the local demands of Rwanda (and elsewhere in the developing world) while simultaneously putting OLPC central staff in a position to be accountable for that specific deployment.


June 18, 2009 at 7:26 am Leave a comment

School visits (pt. 1)

Today all of us were sent to different primary schools in Rwanda which have XOs to get hands on experience training teachers in the basic XO programs.  While most of the schools have had the laptops for a while, they are rarely incorporated into the curriculum.  The teachers aren’t very familiar with them, likely attending only a few workshops, and also have difficulty integrating them into lessons.

This seems like a common problem that is easily underestimated.  Since the vast majority of the schools in Africa are dealing with tons of students and scarce resources, the primary method of learning is route memorization, i.e. the teacher copies material to the board and students write it down in notebooks.  This is obviously a method which constructionism directly challenges: the laptops open up many opportunities for individualized exploration.

But in instances like Rwanda, the curriculum is fairly rigid as it is tested in an examination at the end of 6th year which determines whether students can continue to secondary school.  How can the teachers use the laptops constructively when dealing with classes of more than 50 students and the demand of the national curriculum?

In this context, OLPC’s insistence on preserving the ability of the students to take the XOs home makes sense.  Entirely transforming educational systems would require more time and resources than just giving XO to every child.  But, if the students can take the XOs home, then they can explore and learn independently.  The kids can teach themselves and each other, regardless of the classroom environment, which will eventually help the entire school.

Today’s experiences also made me even more committed to comprehensively training the teachers before we give the laptops to the kids.  With a significant language barrier with most of the teachers, the training takes time and can also easily be overwhelming.

Michael and Kate will post later tonight about their experiences at the schools they visited today.  On Monday, we’re all going back to our respective schools to work with the kids taught by the teachers we trained!


June 12, 2009 at 3:04 pm 1 comment

OLPCorps Official Launch

It’s 7am on Wednesday here in Kigali. Yesterday was the second day of the OLPCorps workshop and the official launch of an OLPC learning research center in Kigali. OLPC will be moving their entire learning team from Cambridge to Rwanda. Given Rwanda’s rapidly expanding XO deployment, this seems like a great way to make sure that the pedagogy being explored by OLPC researchers remains relevant and impactful.

President Kagame of Rwanda also spoke at the official launch.  He has an impressive vision for transitioning Rwanda to a knowledge based economy.  Besides the massive initiative of providing an XO to every school child in Rwanda, he has also backed a plan to bring wireless internet to the entire country.

We also heard from Professor Nicholas Negroponte, Chairman of OLPC.  He detailed the plan for future laptops, including the XO 1.5, coming out in November.  The XO 1.5 will basically double all the features of the current version, so its twice as fast, has twice the memory, and twice the activities, all for the same price.  Negroponte sees the next generation of XOs (within the  next ~3 years) coming from industry, given the rapid proliferation of very inexpensive netbooks.

Later today we will be learning more about the technical aspects of deploying XOs.

Kigali is awesome, and we have tons to talk about – but we’re jetlagged and pretty scheduled.  Yesterday, we were up at 5:30 for breakfast (event security required some lead time) and were in bed by 8 pm. We’re looking forward to posting more as time (and internet connection speed) permits!

-Mike & Mary

June 10, 2009 at 5:58 am Leave a comment

Greetings from Johannesburg!

This is a test post to see if e-mail uploading works. We survived the 16-hour ATL to Joburg flight, and now will be leaving in a few hours for Kigali via Nairobi. We’re pretty jetlagged. It’s about 7 am Joburg time, but we’ve been up since 2 watching American 80s movies and CNN International in our hotel. It’s pretty nice to lie down after 16 uncomfortable hours. I have already been confounded by exchange rates as I can’t remember which country is which. i think SA is 8 rand to $, Rwandan francs about 575:$1, and Malagasy ariary 1500:$1

Apologies for the disjointed exhausted post. Tomorrow is our first workshop day in Kigali, and I should have substantial things to say – unless I collapse beore I can type things up!

June 7, 2009 at 4:46 am Leave a comment

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This is the OLPCorps team from GWU and UMD. We'll be deploying 100 laptops to a rural village in Madagascar this summer. Stay updated by subscribing to our feed and checking back regularly. For more information on what we're doing, use the tabs above!
June 2009
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