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One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO: First Impressions

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines after undergrad. Not only was it the best education I ever got, but it made me keenly aware of the amazing burden children in developing nations have trying to get an education while helping to put food on the family table. So, I was very excited by Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child project when it began three years ago. It speaks to my passions for education, developing nations, and techno-geek cool toys. ;o) So, I eagerly signed up for the “give one – get one” program they had last fall so I could donate an XO Laptop as well as buy one myself to test it out. I order on December 12, 2007 and by then demand had already outstripped their supply for the program and I didn’t get my XO until March 22, 2008.
Though I was keen to put the XO through the paces from a tech-geek perspective, I decided to take another approach. (If you want to see detailed technology analysis of the XO, a great place to start is the Wikipedia entry.) I wanted to get the perspective of how the laptop would be received and put to use by a child in a developing nation. Now, I don’t have any travel to developing nations planned any time soon, so I decided to take the next best route: I would give the boxed XO to my eight year old son, Ian, and let him have at it with no direction or assistance.
So, on March 24, I plopped the XO box on our dining room table, got out my camera and notepad, and told my son to have at his new laptop. What follows is a summary of what transpired.
Assembling the XO laptop 3:40pm: Ian quickly opens the box, shreds through the protective wrappings of the XO and the battery and begins to assemble it. He struggled a bit with getting the battery to fit in properly. Three attempts later he had the battery in and was ready to open the laptop. This proved more difficult than expected. At one point he was perplexed enough he decided to check the setup instructions. There were none included – well practically none – only simple visuals of what the basic buttons on the XO do and they already showed the XO opened. (This makes sense – trying to develop instructions for every possible language would be a fool’s errand and it should be simple enough to not need directions.) From one of the pictures included that showed the XO open he was able to deduce how to get it open. That done, he found the on/off button quickly. Fortunately the battery was juiced up and it began a slow boot process.
OLPC XO boot completing3:51pm: The boot is complete and Ian has started playing with some of the applications included. Being very computer savvy (he has had a computer since he could sit up – a touch screen PC I rigged up especially for him) he was quickly bored and at 3:59 he said, “This should really come with the mouse.” He found the touchpad and buttons frustrating to use. (Note: I later plugged in a USB mouse and it worked fine with no driver install required.) As expected, Ian was anxious to get online and he found the browser and opened it at 4:04pm. The browser teased by showing a Google screen, but when he tried to search, he got a “no connection” error. He tried a bit to figure out how to get an Internet connection himself, but then looked at me expectantly. (Since he is only eight, I still provide all the IT support in our home. I look forward to his reaching puberty so he can take that over. ;o)
Network setup dialog on XO4:08pm: Dad weighs in. So, it may be that a child given an XO in a developing country may not be given any support in setting it up and using it. Hopefully, this will not be the case, And even if it was, I have little doubt that desire and ingenuity will get every XO connected eventually. But in our house, it was time for Dad to get the XO online. Though I wouldn’t say that navigating the mesh network interface was intuitive, I did have the XO connected to our secured wireless network by 4:12pm.
4:13pm: Ian is surfing using the browser installed with XO and immediately goes to Adventure Quest to play (so much for the educational value of the OLPC program ;o). This causes a problem. The browser does not support Flash (read why here) and like many sites kids visit to learn and play, Flash is required at Adventure Quest. This is where IT support gets really frustrating. I’m now on a mission to get the XO to where it will display Flash content. To make a long story short, this means I have to install a version of the Opera browser for XO, then install an (somewhat) older version of Flash, and then reboot the XO. This was not simple stuff. It took over an hour for me to complete. This will be a considerable additional burden to whoever is supporting the XO in developing nations if the kids using them need to access Flash-based websites.
Using the Opera browser on XO5:45pm: Ian is back on the XO now that he can use the Opera browser to access the Flash-based websites he frequents (Adventure Quest, Club Penguin, Webkinz, PBSKids, Playhouse Disney, etc.). While I’m impressed by the picture and sound quality (I know how little muscle the XO has), Ian is frustrated by the slowness of the graphics and game play. Obviously he is not the intended audience and is visiting sites that this educational tool was not designed to handle. But given the huge amount of e-learning that is produced in Flash (or Authorware), the XO may not be able to deliver a host of learning. In any case, my experiment has come to an end at 6:04pm because Ian has lost interest in trying to use the XO with any of his favorite sites. (I do plan to do some additional experimenting with him: I want him to use the XO to research, write, and print one of the small assignments he gets from school – hopefully that will be in a post coming soon.)
7:04pm – The XO battery goes dead. I had continued to put the XO through some paces after Ian quit. I wanted to see just how long the battery would last as I continued to surf the Web and try out the other XO applications. The battery warning light went on at 6:34, so I would have had ample time to save any work and find a way to recharge. But, at a little over three hours since boot, the battery life was impressive.

First Impressions and Thoughts

So, as I worked through this little experiment and put the XO through some (very limited) paces, this is what struck me:

  1. The XO seems to be quite durable and though it is lacking (probably unnecessary) computing muscle, it boasts a number of features such as webcam, speakers, microphone, USB ports, etc. It’s power consumption is low and it seems like it could stand up to the rough and tumble life in a developing country fairly well.
  2. The mesh network is a great feature. This will allow an entire village to leverage one Internet connection. This is crucial for the XO to move beyond communication tool and become a learning tool.
  3. Given how tech savvy the Peace Corps volunteers (and all the other development workers worldwide) are these days, I’m sure they would love to get a truckload of XOs and implement an advanced learning program at schools.
  4. A small matter perhaps, but I though it was important that the battery was fully charged upon delivery. I can foresee implementations where power will not be immediately available and adoption could drop substantially if the initial experience is no experience at all.
  5. I was very disappointed in the poor browser and lack of Flash support. I understand why they did this (read here), but I feel they could have come up with a better solution. There should be simple service that educators configuring the XO could run quickly on each laptop to install Opera and Flash. There is simply too much valuable learning content available only as Flash – the OLPC committee needs to make it easier to support Flash.
  6. Speaking of IT support, I’m sure any many instances the XO will be deployed through a program that has the resources needed to reconfigure and continually support the laptops to assure they perform as needed. But I also foresee situations where individual users are simply given an “out of the box” XO and left to fend for themselves. In such situations, it would be helpful to have some type of support documentation included in the box. The should be at least enough to get them booted up to access additional support documentation on the XO. The documentation loaded on the XO is tucked way down under “Other” in the Browse activity and only addresses using some of the included software, but nothing on setting up an Internet connection, etc.
  7. Finally, the though that kept haunting me as I worked with it was this: Has the XO’s window of opportunity passed it by?  Is what was a great idea three years ago now behind the times?  Many people are predicting that mobile devices are where the Web is going.  Should we be working on “one iPhone per child” instead.  There are many sound arguments on the XO/laptop side, but as mobile devices continue to improve their computing power, perhaps they make more sense in a developing country.  There are many locations throughout the world that are soaked with cellular connectivity with little or no WLAN connectivity to be found.  Thene there is also the fact that I can purchase refurbished laptops with all the features of XO and running Windows XP for nearly the same price as XO.  Granted they are not as rugged and they consume more power, but would they be meet the same learning goal as the XO without us having to create new PCs?  It is interesting the Intel abandoned the OLPC project to continue developing a competing product (read more here).  The OLPC program has just begun its implementation of the XOs worldwide and I will be anxious to see if they are widely adopted or are superseded by newer, cheaper mobile devices.

Posted in: Adapting, Learning

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