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

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

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