Archive for July, 2009

I Fly Like Paper

So little time!

So – we’ve got 100 XOs. What now? Well, we wish we had ten more weeks to get our project done, but we’ve got 25 days. We’re in high gear now, energized by the laptops, adjusted to the culture and the village, and friends with teachers and staff.

This week has been intensive teacher training for about three hours a day. Due to the agreement we signed with customs (making someone financially responsible for any lost XOs, and requiring school ownership rather than child ownership), it seems we will only be deploying at Lova Soa, and not at both it and St. Paoly’s as originally planned. There are complications which means that this plan may be for the best. Lova Soa is also in all likelihood expanding from two classrooms (~60 students) to 6, meaning our full deployment will be absolutely necessary. We’ve also been able to do much more work with the Lova Soa teachers, and it’s run by MSP, while St. Paoly’s is locally run. All in all, we’re just making do with what we have.

Teacher training has had ups and downs. There are a lot of ups. On Tuesday, we introduced a learning activity that took several hours, the Paper Plane Project. We explained to the teachers what paper airplanes are, and demonstrated how to make several kinds. We then divided the teachers into groups, where they created their own planes. They documented the creation process using a variety of programs, including Record (taking photos, audio, and video), Paint, and Write. They threw the planes and measured how far they went using Distance. They then shared their final products in front of the class and on the XO.

One down has been that the server isn’t set up yet, which makes sharing anything difficult. We have 10 active XOs, and the wireless mesh created by the XOs is supposed to support 10. It does, kind of. We’ve crashed the network and computers when everyone paired off to use distance – too much communication. Sharing the plane project in Write also didn’t work too well – only 5 out of 10 were able to connect, and only one XO was able to load the full document (the others just saw a blank Write screen). There’s the issue of the frame, which we may end up resolving by taking each of the 100 XOs and making them less sensitive to hitting the corners (the frame is like the Start menu on a PC, except it shows up when you touch the corner and creates a border around the screen. It can be distracting, and, if you are not great on mouse skills, hazardous). And, of course, there’s the language barrier. The teachers have varying English skills, and two speak better French than English (the others don’t speak French at all). In a nice coincidence, the teachers are taking English lessons for an hour before teacher training, and the English teacher, Mr. Josy, has stuck around for XO class for the past few days. Not only is he fascinated by the XO, he’s fluent in English and Malagasy, so he can help us out.

What else? We’ve gone through Write, Distance, Chat, Paint, Speak, Record, Browse, Maze, sharing… Besides sharing, click and drag is still hard for the teachers. In Paint, changing color takes 4 steps – in Microsoft Paint, it takes one (this issue confounds me – why do the XOs require you to click a menu button, choose the color on the wheel, choose the color on a triangle, and then press OK just to change to a basic color? Oy vey – far too complex for something so simple). Distance was fine once we staggered the activity, as the network overloaded itself. Write has been buggy on a few computers, and won’t allow you to properly wrap text around images. And the touchpad – oh, the touchpad, you never fail to mess up in the middle of a project. But we’re working through the issues and getting there.

Tomorrow’s the last day of intensive teacher training, and the teachers have been assigned to create a lesson plan they could use in the classroom. Though we’ll be modeling potential activities during the 12 days of summer computer camp, we want to get an idea of where the teachers stand. Since the method of teaching here is
teacher-centered and based on oral repetition of things on the blackboard, it will be interesting to see if the XOs have sparked any ideas. We plan on giving constructive suggestions and more or less noting where the teachers stand, rather than turn tomorrow into a constructionist audition. We can’t change a teaching style in 10 weeks, much less the 4 we’ve really had, but we can plant a seed, and hope it grows.


July 31, 2009 at 10:38 am 1 comment

The Laptops Finally Arrive!

At last, we have 100 XO computers for the children of Loava Soa. The computers were delivered to us in Ambhatoharanana by a DHL truck that managed to make it through the rough roads from the capital, Antananarivo. Late last week we got the final okay from the government finance office that the shipment would not be taxed. Kate and I were able to met with the director in his office, and show him pictures of the XO and the OLPC website, which interested him. The paperwork and maze of offices were difficult to get through, but once we had an opportunity to talk directly to people in the government offices we had much more success.

We also got the computers just in time as our formal week-long teaching training camp begins tomorrow. We will finally be able to give each teacher their own personal XO which they can take home to experiment with activities independently of our sessions. I think this will be an important opportunity to communicate our
constructionist methodology; we want them to learn by doing so that they’ll teach the kids in the same manner.

Since there was such a massive delay in getting the XOs, we have to catch up on all the technical work we’d planned to do earlier. In addition to our 3 hours of teacher training this week, we’ll hopefully set up the school server and access points, and update the XOs to the most recent version of Sugar, the operating system.

We only have about a month left but we have an enormous amount of work ahead of us. Luckily, we’re finally to the exciting part: actually giving these computers to the eager children at Loava Soa!


July 27, 2009 at 12:26 pm 4 comments

Updates: Training, Customs, and Meetings

A brief update:

Customs issues are not done, and we’re looking at going into town a few days this week. Patience is a virtue. So they say.

Customs is, to be short, messing with our jam. They want 13 000 000 ariary (~$6500) [which neither we nor our NGO can pay]. We don’t want to pay them 13 million ar. It turns our Madagascar is party to some document…I believe it’s la Reunion de Florence or the Treaty of Florence or something. Anyhow, all signatories must all tax-exempt import of goods going to primary schools (thanks to Joseline at MSP for finding this somewhat-obscure document). Well, customs didn’t like that. The letter sent from OLPC with the XOs mentions child ownership. Customs told us that if we’re going to be tax-exmept under Florence, we cannot give the XOs to the kids, and they will send inspectors every month for three years to ensure that all the computers are at the school. If any are missing, MSP will be fined 3x the stated value of the XO(s) (which is $180).

Child ownership is a fundamental principal of OLPC and of our project. The computers last longer, have a far greater impact (see previous posts for a discussion of this), and are used better. I can’t describe the disappointment and anger we have regarding customs’ insistence. Therefore, I’m not going to try – it’s still too frustrating and disappointing.

We’ve devised a system in which we can best approximate child ownership if we do end up getting the laptops under Florence. We’ll assign a child the XO for his or her time at Lova Soa. That child will be the sole user. The children will be allowed to bring the computers home under a check-in/check-out system, so that all XOs are always accountable by MSP. This is far, far less than ideal for us, we know. And if more than 3 or 4 are lost (which is the risk MSP is willing to assume), we’ll have to stop the children from taking them home.

There’s a slight, slight glimmer of hope – we may be able to work through the US Embassy and USAID (thanks to contacts from OLPC) to get the laptops released not under Florence. I can’t hold my breath, though – it seems like we keep getting excited, and then nothing. We also can’t get the laptops any time soon – apparently everything has gone through too junior of an officer at the Ministry of Tax.

It’s kind of funny at this point, because what else can we do but laugh and continue brainstorming? OLPCorps Madagascar: our customs sucks worse than yours. (Unless anyone else wants to fight us for the title.) Also, OLPCorps Madagascar: Now with rats, giant spiders, two chickens and a dog (kind of. Long story).
We had our parents’ meeting on Friday, and it went amazing. We were very worried about turn-out. I went down to the school around 10 and just played with the kids (it was the last day of school). They’re becoming more and more comfortable with us. Some of the girls wanted to braid my hair, which ended up…interesting (but removable). Around noon, we anxiously waited in one of the classrooms with 4 parents. Then there were 10. Then around 40! It seems that almost all the parents came. We passed around the XOs so that everyone could see them. Then, with a speech that was outlined in English and French (English for us, French for the principal), I spoke in English, while Mme Raline (the headmistress) translated into Malagasy. The parents, once they realized what was going on, started clapping and smiling. It was fantastic. Here’s the outline we worked off of (apologies for the franglish):

I. Who we are
-Americans from an organisation non-gouvermmental (ONG) called One Laptop Per Child (Un Laptop Par Enfant?)
-received a grant to give computers
II. Computers
-called an XO
-made especially for kids in developing countries
-durable, okay with some water, virtually indestructible
-many deployments around the world
-the first deployment in Madagascar
III. The program
-next year, Lova Soa will receive 100 XOs
-explain library system
IV. Camp
-will begin on Monday, August 3 with a presentation ceremony to the community
-M-R, 9-1130
-ends August 23

Well, we start making the announcement of camp when all of a sudden, we realize something we’ve missed. About 100% of these parents are farmers – and Mondays are the market day. Oops. We quickly discuss changing the date – now camp begins August 4, and runs T-F. Much better.

After the parents meeting, we had an in-depth meeting with the teachers. We had these plans for training – only to realize (just in time), hey, we should probably ask them how much more training they want. Duh. So we did. We presented a few ideas, and asked them what they thought they needed. It was a consensus among the teachers – Intensive training will be 3 hours a day, starting the Tuesday after this and running for four days. We’ve been keeping our trainings to about an hour, so the 3 hours will give us more time to get in-depth. We’ll also be able to do it at Lova Soa, which will hopefully have power by then (the company came out yesterday to scope out the project). Two teachers will come to camp each day (out of the 4), and after camp, we’ll have a half-hour wrap-up with the teachers about projects, suggestions, and problems. We might do more training as needed. We also want to train some of our NGO staff in the computer and how to maintain it. If I can take an XO apart, anyone can. As we’re holding 10 computers back for parts, there will be the ability to fix any if they break.

In the meantime, we have this week “off”. School is out, and no training. By “off”, I mean there’s still plenty of work to do. We were hoping to get the computers this weekend, but, uh, yeah. We’re going to help wire Lova Soa (when I say “we”, I mean not me, because power is not my area of expertise; it’ll be Mike and Mary and Sean on deck for this, and I’ll stand around and get in the way and hand people things), start setting up the server and the APs for the school. Lova Soa is a two-room building with a neighboring house. We’ll have our server locked in the house. Lova Soa is also expanding to include the next year of school, so they’ll be building a third classroom, hopefully during this winter break. We’ll try and prepare as much infrastructure (or at least diagrams) to encompass that class, too.

Questions? Know anyone in Malagasy customs? – leave us a comment or email me at

July 19, 2009 at 8:03 am 1 comment

Waiting and Working

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been continuing teacher training, working with the kids in short shifts (remember, we only have 4 XOs), and working on our Malagasy. It’s not much, but it’s something. Today is the last day of school for the kids at Lova Soa, and we’re holding a parents’ meeting to discuss the XOs and our computer camp.

Teacher training has been, in turns, frustrating and satisfying. Yesterday was a particular high note – the teachers found, in Browse, pictures from the space shuttle Columbia to a picture of broadleaf tropical forests that happened to be taken in Madagascar! We also used the maps to show our journey to Madagascar. The teachers – yesterday we worked with only three, Madames Julie, Irma, and Lanto; generally, we have around 5 – would click on a picture and ask, “Excuse me, what is this?” And I would explain the Taj Mahal in my best simple English: “It’s a castle in India built a long time ago. A man built it for the woman he loved.” The first sentence brought furrowed brows; the second, laughs. It was using the XO for more than just its technical abilities to add and and subtract and type; it was using the XO to expand curiosity. But there are also times when the teachers hit the frame repeatedly, and it keeps popping up in the middle of an activity, and we explain again what the frame is and how it works. It was intuitive to us – it’s a Start menu, we tried to tell them. Well, no dice when a few of the teachers have only used a computer once or twice before. But patience is a virtue, and we’ve got some more time to continue with everything. The teachers have really taken to Speak, Write, Calculate, and Maze. Oddly, Maze took about an hour of explanation, and I still don’t think a few of them get it. The arrow keys (used to navigate the maze) are less intuitive than I thought. Implode is nearly impossible for the teachers, although one now loves it (I’m basically an addict – for those of you without an XO, Implode is kind of a reverse Tetris game, where you try to clear the screen by clicking on groups of blocks).

We’ve been down to the school with our four XOs and worked with about 40 kids in shifts of 8 (2 / computer). This is so far less than ideal. The kids get about 10 minutes on the XO each shift. They don’t get to use their own XO. They have to leave quickly, and don’t get to explore the interface. And they’re still shy with us and the computers (though some of the girls have been brave enough to touch my skin and then run away – it’s curiously adorable). But when the choices were, “kids never see the computers until camp” and “kids at least get to play with the computers somewhat”, we chose the latter. And the kids are starting to get excited. On Wednesday, one took the heretofore unheard of step of asking me to open TamTam Mini (a simple program that allows the kids to click on pictures to create a variety of sounds, like laughing, a car starting, drums, or a cow). I happily did so, though the cacophony that ensued was less than lovely. It made the kids laugh, though. Wednesday is a half-day for Malagasy schools, and our TamTam Mini station gathered quite the crowd of not-ready-to-depart students.

Customs: The customs issue is so complex and so freaking frustrating that I’m not quite ready to put things down. Basically, bureaucracy is inefficient (that is a ridiculous understatement) and there are so, so many issues. We’re apparently the only OLPCorps team without the XOs – how’s that for a prize. It makes me want to kick things. We might be able to get them within the next few days, but I’m certainly not holding my breath, considering nothing to this point has worked at all.

Parents’ Meeting: is today at noon (the parents are coming in to pick up the report cards). We’re not sure how effective our note home was. Many of the parents are illiterate, so even if we had settled on the perfect phrasing (we discussed the note in English with Kathy; she discussed it in French with Mme Raline, the principal; Raline wrote it in Malagasy), it’s unclear whether the impact got across. Regardless, we’re hopeful.

We’re looking to proceed with camp in two weeks – if we do manage (by some miracle) get the XOs soon, we need to nandblast them (a process that allows us to update all 100 at once, rather than going through with a USB to each), set up the server, test them, label and catalogue them, set up the access points to create the school network, load server content, and cross our fingers that power works out. We want to have a big presentation ceremony for the students, parents, community, and school board on the first day, and then basically have the school open for the kids to come and play with the XOs whenever they wish for the first two days. Then, we’ll settle into a schedule of 3 mornings a week, and the kids can start taking them home the second week. Three mornings a week sounds sparse, but it doesn’t seem like the kids can come every day, nor can the teachers. We’ll also have 30 minute sessions at the end with the teachers every day of camp, as well as a full training session once or twice a week (to be determined with their input).

In other news – it’s the weekend. That doesn’t mean much because we live in the middle of nowhere. I read other OLPCorps blogs that are like, “today we went to a bar, and danced at a club” and it is pretty sad. There are no clubs, bars, or restaurants in Ambatoharanana. We go to the outdoor market once a week and we have to walk an hour – that’s our grocery shopping. We eat rice at every meal. We are vegetarians because no one wants to buy freshly slaughtered zebu (in either unidentifiable or all-too-identifiable parts). There are three shops in the village, and shops is really a generous term. One we call the “cow store”, and that’s where we can get our sugar fix of Coke or Fanta. Every time we get Coke there, they laugh at us for some unknown reason. It’s called the cow store because it is seemingly in the middle of a farmyard. Goat store or pig store or chicken store would all also be accurate. Then there’s Madame Rose. We bought a bunch of Coke there two weeks ago and she hasn’t stocked up since. We might be offending her by frequenting the cow store but she has no Coke, so oh well. Then there’s “other store”. Other store sometimes has carrots, so if we run out of veggies to go with our rice, we can buy them there sometimes.

Other than that – we play a lot of Spades (so much Spades) and are trying to learn Pinochle. We’re watching Battlestar Galactica on Sean’s computer, which is spectacular. I’ve actually started taking horseback riding lessons with an incomprehensible Frenchman. It’s 10 000 Ariary ($5)/ lesson and I’ve got my second one on Sunday. I went over there to meet him and he said some things in French and then all of a sudden I was riding again! He wanted to test that I could ride (I rode for about 8 years when I was younger), which apparently I did to his satisfaction.

Fingers crossed that next week is better, and that customs answers come soon.

July 17, 2009 at 5:54 am 2 comments

Teacher Training Begins

Today we had our first day of teacher training with the XOs. After school, 5 teachers from Lova Soa School and 1 teacher from St. Paoly’s gathered in our living room to check the computers out. Since we still don’t have the 100 XOs that will be staying here, we have been using our personal XOs for demonstration. The training went well; the teachers seem very excited and curious about the laptops. Once we overcame the initial difficulties with using the mouse, we generally let them explore the various activities, helping them if they were stuck or needed an explanation. Right now we’re focusing on getting the teachers comfortable with the laptops themselves with no pressure to immediately apply the activities they’ve learned to the classroom setting. We easily achieved our goal of having a fun experience for the teachers. They loved the games on the XO, explored Paint, and laughed at the noises of TamTamJam, a basic music composition program.

In the midst of our teacher training, there was a minor distraction. An obvious rat infestation in our kitchen caused considerable concern, but luckily Sean quickly attacked with our broom to ensure our group’s safety in the living room. It was more awesome than it sounds.

The teachers left after a little over an hour, but have promised to come back tomorrow to learn more. In the future, we hope to focus on more complex activities, like Scratch, a basic computer programming activity. We also think that things will move more quickly once we have the XOs, and can let the teachers take them home at night to explore on their own.

In other news, customs issues look like they are finally getting resolved, and we should have some basic power infrastructure at Lova Soa so that the XOs can charge by the end of this week.


July 8, 2009 at 6:10 pm 3 comments

OLPC Ampitso

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!
July 2009
« Jun   Aug »