OLPCorps Tulane University & UC Davis – Sierra Leone

Broadband coming to Sierra Leone at a dial-up modem’s pace
April 7, 2010, 11:10 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Looks like Sierra Leone is looking at working to improve their internet connection in the semi-near future.  Check out an article on Global Post about it.  This would be great news for programs like ours!

48 Hours of Pure Adrenaline
August 7, 2009, 1:11 pm
Filed under: Logistics, OLPCorps

There are a number of cliché idioms that might be used to describe the past week or so here in Kenema, and specifically the 48 hours of pure adrenaline that made up last week’s Sunday through Tuesday.  For example:

When it rains, it pours.

Time flies when you’re having fun.

Get  the ball rolling.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

When in Rome…  (“That expression doesn’t really apply to what I’m talking about.”  “I still don’t understand what it means.”  First person to name that movie gets a prize.)

After a month and a half of contemplating the futility of our roles in this program, at the brink of utter frustration and despair caused by our apparent customs-and-internet-problem-solving impotence (see XO’s Please Continued)… something happened.  Things started moving, things started going right.

Banie and Katie M with 20 boxes of XOs, transport bus in the background

Banie and Katie M with 20 boxes of XOs, transport bus in the background

On Sunday, July 26th at around 1:30 in the afternoon (start clock- 0hrs 00min), our shipment of brand new, bright green XO laptop computers finally, finally, FINALLY arrived at Defence for Children International’s Kenema office.  Well, 99% of them arrived, but that is enough for us to start the program, anyway.  We worked all afternoon to get them unpacked, numbered on the side with a Sharpie, serial numbers recorded, and NANDBlasted (software updated).  NANDBlasting went pretty well, although the copies that we made of the USB stick that Reuben gave us in Kigali did not work for whatever reason, so we made due with just the one original stick.

Though we had enough work to keep us at the DCI office until late into that night, a prior engagement brought us back to the Pastoral Center (our home away from home) on Sunday evening (clock- 3hrs 19min).  We had planned a big, huge birthday party for all the kids that live nearby and their families, to celebrate all of the birthdays that will happen in the next year when we’re not around.  We first met this group of kids around the Pastoral Center last summer, and they have proved to be not only great friends who kept tenaciously in touch with us over the past year, but also “cultural brokers” to help guide us as we stumble awkwardly through the inevitable cultural mishaps of international travel.  They are a wonderful group, curious and so smart, aged from 2 to 20.  Meeting them was one of my favorite things about coming to Sierra Leone last year, and the eagerness and potential I saw in their bright eyes was certainly one of the main inspirations in applying for the OLPCorps grant in the first place.

Pinata at the Pastoral Center birthday party, pre-riots

Pinata at the Pastoral Center birthday party, pre-riots

Having the birthday party on Sunday seemed like a good idea when we thought the laptops were going to be there Saturday, but both events on the same day was, well, hectic to say the least.  The party was certainly a success, though it started out a bit awkward with the parents and then almost turned into a riot at the end.  The party really got started with a dance competition (which was awesome), judged by the parents and separated by the youngest, middle, and oldest kids- we have some great video of that.  Next, we all went out to whack at (or flog, as the kids say) the piñata that Jamie and Chelsea had constructed out of palm fronds, cardboard, duct tape, stickers, and colorful plastic bags… which turned into an absolute, fist-throwing riot when the candy finally spilled.  It was actually kind of terrifying, and I was afraid that some kid was going to get trampled or smothered to death, or at the very least that the parents would all yell at us for endangering their children’s lives… but everyone survived and they actually all seemed to love the whole piñata ordeal.  We finished off the evening (clock- 7hrs 51min) with a veritable birthday cake, icing and sprinkles and all (it was even baked, Emily).

Eastern Radio had us as guest speakers on 2 of its hour long radio shows

Eastern Radio had us as guest speakers on 2 of its hour long radio shows

Bright and early on Monday morning, Jamie, Banie and I took a trip up Freedom Mountain to Eastern Radio 101.9 Kenema, the voice of justice and development (clock- 17hrs 07min).  We were the live guests on the hour-long morning show, which focused mainly on the long-awaited commencement of our project, telling the entire Eastern Region the benefits of these laptops for kids, and answering questions from callers.  Then we signed autographs for all the fans that lined up outside the radio studio after the show… ah, just kidding- we’re not that cool yet.  It was a pretty fun way to publicize, and the radio show host and callers had some great questions.  Check out an audio clip of the program below (sound quality isn’t too great, we’ll try and improve it when we can)… ok nevermind, internet connection is a bit slow.


Simultaneously, as the radio waves soared invisibly through town, Katie M and Chelsea headed off to the DCI office to set up for the first real day of the program- meeting with the parents and assigning computers.  We had all the kids (95!) and all their parents come to the office for a presentation on the class and responsibilities of the parents (clock- 18hrs 30min).  We had the kids sign up for class times, and then we handed out the computers (95!!) so that kids could put their names on them and decorate them with the formidable leftover sticker collection of Katie M’s childhood.  We’re keeping 5 of the computers as spares, and our own computers will go to the class teachers.  It was a bit chaotic at first- there were plenty of children who were not on DCI’s list who appeared and asked for computers.  For those who were on the list, when it came time to hand out the XOs, the message that we have a computer for each child on the list, it’s not first come first served, was drowned by the clamoring mass (kids and parents) that pushed, shoved, and scrambled to get their computers before the others.  Overall though, parents were receptive and eager, kids were thrilled, the entire region was notified, and the program was finally launched.  All by 11 am last Monday morning (clock- 22hrs 30min).

As if this wasn’t enough for one 24 hour period, Monday afternoon brought another advance in the battle against powerlessness.  We FINALLY got a successful internet connection at the DCI office- not a wireless one (yet!), but a genuine, real-life internet connection.  We had been working on this for the past month, as well, battling/getting the run-around from one piece-of-crap communications company who sold us a modem and service for a modem that just does NOT work in Kenema (it works in Freetown, yes. Kenema, no- they just don’t get it).  If any of you faithful readers are in the market for a modem that functions outside of Freetown, or at the very least a communications company that has any idea how to operate the products that it sells, I would not recommend SierraTel.

The previous week, with the finality of a very strongly worded letter delivered to the heads of the main office in Freetown, we had finally given up on SierraTel, resigned to the fact that we would probably just have to eat the money and time we wasted on their modem.  However, inspired by the working internet on our trip to Sahn Malen and not giving up on the idea of internet yet, we had another communications company, Zain, come out to the DCI office on Monday afternoon to set up their modem… and it worked.  Almost instantly.  It was amazing.  We checked email right there (clock- 26hrs 11min).

Tuesday the actual class started with the kids (more on that soon), though I didn’t get to see it because Jamie and I caught the early bus to Freetown (clock- 38hrs 13min) to drop him off for his flight home.  Not ones to waste a trip to Freetown, we walked straight from the bus station in Freetown to SierraTel with our worthless, poor excuse for a modem and copies of both our receipt and our strongly-worded letter to demand, even though it was probably hopeless, a full refund.  And it worked.  Almost instantly.  It was amazing. (Clock stop- 48hrs 00min).

Whew!  These 48 hours brought about the conclusion- in our favor- to several of the battles we’re been fighting since we arrived here.

Just to re-cap, in 48 hours:

  1. Computers arrived
  2. Unpack, number, record, NANDBlast
  3. Birthday party and piñata riot
  4. Eastern Radio
  5. Parent Meeting and XO assignment
  6. Zain modem and working internet
  7. Travel to Freetown
  8. First day of class with the kids
  9. Full Refund from SierraTel
  10. Jamie back to the U.S.

The rest of the week was still busy, but in a controlled, manageable way.  Faaez, from the other OLPCorps team in Sierra Leone, came to the rescue on Thursday like a wireless internet super hero, tights and all.  Thanks to his magic touch and the sweet Linux nothings he whispered to our server’s ear, we are now broadcasting the signal of our functioning Zain modem through the server and the wireless access points.  We have the first wireless internet spot in all of Kenema and probably the whole Eastern region.

Photo taken by one of the students on his XO in the first week of class

Photo taken by one of the students on his XO in the first week of class

The first week of class was great.  We’re still trying with our teachers to find the right balance between instruction and constructionism, but the kids are so smart and so eager, they learn so fast.  We have uploaded several pictures form the first week on our Flickr page that I would highly recommend.

July 26, 2009, 11:42 am
Filed under: OLPCorps, Team Info

We received our laptops today!

Well, 99% of them anyway… we were missing one. More updates about that later.

Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth’s project in Kenema
July 20, 2009, 10:27 am
Filed under: In the News, OLPCorps

This project is a marathon, not a sprint. And during a marathon, there are times when things get slower, right? In the middle of the race, when the adrenaline from starting has worn off and the adrenaline of finishing has not kicked in, things slow down. Well, that’s where we are now. We’re in the middle of the race, coming up against several large hills. We’ve blogged quite extensively about the hills: our internet access and connectivity, and the ever present and mercilessly steep mountain of customs. But now, we’d like to provide an update of the long marathon, the part after we “Hit the Ground Running.”

Since we have had so much time without the laptops, and we have been unable to begin the children’s classes, we’ve been everything we can think of to prepare for everything else.

We finished a very thorough and very successful teacher training more than a week ago using our own personal XOs instead of waiting for our shipment of 100 to come in.  It lasted about twice as long as we expected it to – we had training all day, every day for about 2 weeks straight!  Our teachers and volunteers were so interested in learning, even when we said we were done, they stayed to explore, read and learn.  We try to look at this as one positive thing that came out of our quarantined laptops: if we had had them at our site sooner, the teacher training probably would not have gone on as long as it did before the classes started.  So, at least this way we know that our teachers and volunteers really have a good handle on the laptops.

Throughout the training people would come and go throughout the day; but, for the most part, many of the teachers and volunteers came everyday and stayed for several hours, if not the whole time.  We had our DCI teachers, plus a volunteer or two from each of the organizations who contributed to the selection-of-children process and some representatives from the Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) in the four communities targeted by DCI. Additionally, some of the other DCI volunteers would drop in between the young adult computer classes that they teach in an adjoining room and some of our friends from last year that would just drop in to say hi and eventually end up in from of an XO for a little while…  In total, about 15 adults were exposed to the XO training in some form and about eight had extensive training. We set up a post-training evaluation on the server for them to access on the last day. We’ll include some updates on the evaluations once we’ve been able to look at them thoroughly.


Barrie, Vanday, Banie, Katie and Katie during our Training of Trainers

These teachers and volunteers will act in several capacities. First, those from the CWCs and the partner organizations will act as satellite troubleshooters, child protection advocates and XO community advocates. They will be able to communicate with the DCI staff in case of any problems and they are familiar faces for the kids.  If only we had some kids for our teachers to teach…

Actually, we do have kids for the teachers to teach.  DCI has finalized a list of about 80 kids for the classes, with the option of adding more depending on if any of the 100 XOs are broken beyond repair when they arrive.  Since our project is more of a community center set-up instead of school set-up, DCI collaborated with some of the other child protection organizations in town to include kids within our age range from their programs.  We’ve had a lot of time to think about the schedule and outline of teaching for the kids.

The schedule for the classes, because it is summer vacation for most of the kids, is pretty flexible.  We tried to break it down so that we can balance between not having too many kids at once and having kids for a long enough period of time so that they can leave with a fully or almost fully charged battery.  There are three class session times (morning, mid-day, afternoon), with two classes of 12-15 kids during each session.  Each child will have the opportunity to come a half hour before or after their class session to charge their laptops.  If only we had the laptops so we could bring in the kids…

The curriculum is also slowly coming to fruition. Paul and Barrie, our DCI teachers, having spent some time mastering the XOs, are putting the finishing touches on our curriculum.  We brainstormed a bit last week about material beyond computer skills, resulting in a curriculum cocktail of DCI’s mission (protecting the rights of children) and the background of four-fifths of our OLPCorps team (international public health) as material for the classes.  We decided use the XOs (supplemented by e- texts, internet research, and guest speakers) as a tool to educate our young pupils on important public health and human rights topics, teaching them computer skills along the way.   We’ll split up the weeks among small learning projects on malaria, recognizing basic symptoms of illness (headache, stomach ache, etc.), hygiene, the international rights and responsibilities of the child, as well as local laws in Sierra Leone that protect children.  Guest speakers, friends of ours from the Kenema Government Hospital and Eastern Polytechnical College, will come in provide talk about some of diseases and hygiene, while DCI staff will cover the human rights arena.  Kids can use this info as the starting point for some of their learning projects, and can research more information as their interest dictates.  An cool example that Banie (one of the DCI staff) gave… after a some basic info on malaria, kids can use Wikipedia to look up additional information on it, can go online and find a picture of a mosquito to see what it looks like, use paint to draw their own mosquito, and use Scratch to make an animation showing the mosquito biting a person and transmitting malaria into their bloodstream.  We thought that was cool, anyway.

Another great resource that we’ll incorporate into our lesson plans (thank you, Emily!) and make available to our pupils and, possibly just as importantly, their parents and families is an electronic version of a book called Where There Are No Doctors.  It is handbook written for anyone who wants to do something about his or her own and other people’s health.  Even where there are doctors and medical centers nearby, it is a great resource with guidelines on how to recognize common health problems, what to do about them, and when to go to for help.  If only we had our laptops so we can start classes…

Still waiting for our laptops on the new benches...

Still waiting for our laptops on the new benches...

We also have the part of the DCI offices all ready to be our classrooms.  We’ve commissioned and received tables and benches for the children to work on and oriented them in several different configurations- they’re currently empty and lonely in the main classroom instead of supporting the weight of little bodies and eager minds…

We built a shelf for the server and access points; figured out where plugs are and where power strips should go so that each child can be plugged in while in class, we even (almost) have internet set up (more on that later).  We successfully Nandblasted one of our own XOs to make sure it would work (it did).

Stickers and Buttons

Stickers and Buttons

We brought T-shirts for our teachers and our volunteers, to be handed out at the opening ceremony, along with some beautiful certificates of appreciation.  We even have little XO buttons for each child and stickers for kids when they master an activity.  If only we had classes to use them in…

We have met with staff from the DCI Headquarters office in Freetown, with the Deputy Director of Education in Kenema, c

ity council members in charge of education, etc. to explain the project and ask for their blessing.   We even had a spot on the radio this week about the project, or at least, Mary, Margaret, and Elizabeth did…  The radio journalist didn’t catch our real names, so he just made some up.  Either way, it was about our laptop project, and people in town heard and they are excited.

We are excited too… and we are running out of ideas on things we can do to prepare…

T shirts close up

OLPC Kenema T-shirts

If only we had our laptops.

Teachers Training Teachers
July 20, 2009, 9:31 am
Filed under: Teaching

Book on Common Diseases that Affect Children, made by teachers at the Bo FoSL Teacher TrainingLast Friday our group got to take its first jaunt outside of Kenema (excluding Freetown of course), and headed to Bo, an easy 45 minute taxi ride. The ride was cramped (although we’ve had worse), and cost about $2 a person.

We went there to give our project presentation to a teachers workshop. The workshop was called Teachers Training Teachers and was led by Katherine and Richard Frazier of Friends of Sierra Leone (FOSL), and was also supported by Schools For Salone (SFS). Drs. Frazier (both Sierra-Leonean Peace Corp volunteers from 70’s) had found that school teachers of the area felt paralyzed by the lack of available educational materials. The goal of the workshop was to show them that they did not have to sit idly by, waiting for funding and materials, but could instead reach out to their community, find people of particular skills, learn from them, and make their own book! To show them that this was possible, that is exactly what they did during their week long training.

The 73 teachers were split into groups. Each group decided what they wanted to write a book on, what education level they were targeting, spent a couple of days researching the topic (going to meet and speak with the local clay-pot makers or the blacksmith etc…) and then wrote up what they learned. This exercise gave them a sense of empowerment and showed them that there was already a wealth of knowledge within their communities.

Kid and Katie M reading book on malaria, made by teachers at Bo FoSL Teacher Training 5At the end of the week there were 15 finished books with the following subjects:

  • Common Diseases that Affect Children
  • The Unprotected Water Well
  • The Making of Gari
  • The Buying and Selling of Agricultural Products
  • Baby Growth Food
  • Garbadge Collection in Bo City
  • Malaria is a Dangerous Disease
  • Science and Indigenous Technology: Charcoal Production
  • Pa Kanu Needs to Support his Children: Aluminum Pot Making
  • Making Gara Cloths
  • Pa Ngoka the Distiller Need Money to Pay School Fees
  • Joe’s Journey
  • Teenage Pregnancy in School
  • Blacksmiths Workshop

Our team was so impressed with the final results we wanted copies for our pupils. Fortunately, the facilitators of the workshop had scanned each book and made electronic copies as well. So, we bought a CD of the books (in the form of a donation to FOSL). We are planning on putting the information onto our server. That way, all 100 children will have access to these wonderful books!

Although we felt slightly awkward presenting our technologically advanced computers at a workshop that was targeting the feeling of paralysis felt by teachers who don’t have adequate school supplies, Drs. Frazier were able to eloquently connect the work that we were doing with the work that the teachers were doing in the workshop. They also used our project as an example of the benefits and potentials of grant writing. Their words were very inspirational and we were very happy to have participated in such a great event.

If you would like more information on FOSL, please visit their website at: http://www.fosalone.org

OLPCorps Redeemed
June 18, 2009, 12:49 pm
Filed under: OLPCorps

Training in Kigali has come to an end. As various teams depart, and we prepare for our last day in Kigali and our flights to Freetown, we’ve come to several conclusions about OLPC, the Corps, our time in Rwanda, and the purpose of our project.

The past 10 days have been full of highs and lows, as mentioned in previous posts (see “The OLPC Roller Coaster”). But several important points come to mind as well as some things we would like to emphasize. This experience has greatly exceeded our expectations. The training, especially the technical sessions, were well thought out and designed. They were informative, helpful, and encouraging. Even when they went poorly (some of the teacher training sessions), the lessons to be learned were emphasized and provided excellent learning experiences. And, in reference to the teacher training sessions, they renewed our resolve to continue working in developing countries and underserved areas.

While we had doubts about OLPCorps, we are extremely supportive of it coming out of these 10 days in Kigali. The program gives us tons of flexibility at our sites, but also tons of responsibility in making it work. And, we truly do think that college students are the right implementers of such a problem (or at least, not the wrong ones). The OLPCorps teams (and staff!) we have met here have enormous drive, initiative, enthusiasm, fresh ideas, and diverse experience.  Additionally, the networking that OLPCorps created between teams was invaluable for exchanging ideas, cooperating and learning about other cultures and customs.

Our immensely positive experience in Kigali would not have been possible without the OLPCorps staff – Brian(s), Paul, Reuben, Nia, Lynn, David, and others. They did an excellent job in organizing a vast group of students, all with different skill and experience levels.  They covered pretty much everything that we wanted to cover so that we feel very prepared for our project.  They also addressed issues as they arose and planned the conference/training sessions very well.

For example, after the formal conference with Negroponte, Kagame, and other government officials, in which Negroponte made several off-putting comments (see “Caught in a Ponzi Scheme”), several teams felt discouraged or overwhelmed by what Negroponte said the stated objectives of OLPCorps were. The OLPCorps staff responded to the raised concerns and provided excellent feedback about what they saw as the intended objectives of the Corps and what realistic expectations of our projects should be. While there seemed to be a disconnect between what the OLPCorps staff and Negroponte said, it was reassuring to hear that this project was worth our time and money to bring this project to various sites in Africa.  Maybe, for those of you with an M&E background, Negroponte was describing impacts of the project while OLPCorps staff was focusing on the outcomes. Here are some of the objectives and advice the OLPCorps staff provided for us:

  • “Create excitement around the XO” – If you do this, governments will take notice; but you don’t need to go through the government.
  • OLPCorps teams to connect with each other to create a network of empowered and enthusiastic young people. (If young people won’t do this, who will?)
  • “Create quality learning experiences for 300,000 kids”
  • On sustainability
    • Identify who will continue the project. The best thing to do is to find a few people like ourselves who are excited about education, excited about the XOs, etc. They can be from the NGO, government, or citizens.
    • Keep fundraising

We really felt that the OLPCorps staff and the training here in Rwanda redeemed the mission of OLPCorps in our eyes, especially after the off-putting remarks of Negroponte last week, and re-confirmed to us that our project and OLPCorps as a whole is truly worth our time, and worth the investment that OLPC is putting into it.  And, the XO is a valuable learning tool. It made us excited to arrive at our site and get working.

With this in mind, we came up with a specific goal for our project: to reach out to vulnerable children in the community to encourage learning and empowerment… because a big part of it is doing something special for kids without parents or kids effected by the conflict.

“…Like little girls are passionate about… err… other things”
June 16, 2009, 4:20 am
Filed under: Rants and Raves

Due to the fact that the issues in this post strike a very significant chord in my heart, that they are indeed my passion and motivation for choosing the career field that I chose (Public Health, but specifically women’s health and rights), this took a significant amount of time and care to compose.  It is in Gender and laptops?response to the conference that was held more than a week ago, and so in order to retain a more coherent chronology to our team’s blog, I reserved this spot for the post before it was ready, and Katie M and I continued to publish posts about subsequent events.  We’re now filling this spot in…

Gender and laptops.  Nothing to do with each other?  Maybe.  “Leave it alone, Katie R” part of me says. “You can find gender inequality issues under a rock in the middle of a crater on the moon; don’t go looking to find cracks in a decent cause; pick your gender battles- some matter more than others…”  Maybe.  I tried to brush off some of the early wisps of smoke that tickled my sensitive gender fire alarm.

For example, during one online chat seminar months ago in which OLPCorps teams were sharing ideas on topics for learning projects, a few did mention that their summer learning programs were going to “focus specifically on science and technology, obviously.”  This might seem intuitive at first (laptops=technology, right?), but to tout the program under such a title risks marginalizing little girls before the program even begins.  In cultures where strict gender roles/delineations/limitations are still pervasive both in practice (i.e., types of jobs available for women) and in perception (i.e., value of sons compared to daughters), a program emphasizing science & technology in the title rather than learning & education (which may appeal to genders more equally) automatically carries the connotation, whether subconsciously or not, that it is geared more for little boys than little girls.  Luckily one of the OLPC staff present at the seminar did respond that the programs should be more broadly focused, as the XOs are meant to be used for everything from music to art to photography to, yes, computer programming skills, but not just science & technology.

Another question/concern came up and was never addressed when, at the same learning seminar, I received no response to my inquiry as to whether any of the other teams were taking measures to ensure that little girls were as involved in the laptop programs as little boys.  It seems that most teams are deploying their 100 laptops to schools.  In the U.S., assuring equal access to both boys and girls in a situation like this would be solved by the method of deployment.  Because all kids are enrolled in school, no extra gender considerations are needed.

This is not the case, however, in most African countries.  The male to female ratio of school enrollment is alarmingly disproportionate, with more boys than girls enrolled in school in many countries and a gap that only widens as students get older.  Deploying laptops to children that are already enrolled in school in Africa means, in most cases, that little boys will be much more likely to benefit from the laptops, and little girls, who are more vulnerable to start with, are left in the dust.  However, there is little that a team of university students (OLPCorps) can do to change this inequality with their 100 laptops in a matter of 10 weeks.  I understand that, I really do.  I was just wondering if any of the teams (or OLPC, for that matter) had thought of it in terms of their deployments.

As it turns out, Nicholas Negroponte (the chairman of One Laptop Per Child) did refer to gender in terms OLPC deployments on Tuesday at the big opening ceremony for both OLPCorps and the Center for Laptops and Learning in Rwanda (see Caught in Ponzi Scheme).  Negroponte made clear that little girls would not be left in the dust at OLPC deployment sites and he sees an important role for them in the sustainability of programs.  For example, children in a rural town in Cambodia were so concerned about taking good care of their new equipment, Negroponte explained to the audience, “that the little boys had their sisters make bags for their laptops.”  Ah, yes.  Making bags.  A very important role for little girls to assume to help ensure that their brothers receive a quality education.

Negroponte conceded that some little girls may, like their brothers, have an interest in learning, though he seemed to stumble a bit on what it is, exactly, little girls could be passionate about.  When talking about how to enhance learning opportunities, he emphasized that children must first be passionate about learning.  Passionate about learning “like little boys are passionate about football,” he explained, “or like little girls are passionate about… (awkward pause)… other things.”


But, what is it exactly that is so offensive about his remarks?

A casual observer may not think Negroponte’s comments all too problematic. So a male, middle-aged, MIT professor doesn’t know what little girls like to do?  Big deal.  For all we know, Negroponte is very much a proponent of gender equality.  But, as the figurehead and spokesperson of OLPC at a high-publicity conference, Negroponte was addressing an audience of important government officials from all over Africa, some of whom (see The OLPC Roller Coaster) may already have misogynistic tendencies.  It is disappointing that Negroponte not only reinforced gender stereotypes (assigning football to boys and implying that little girls aren’t or would not be passionate about football), but was dismissive or unaware of the potential little girls have to be passionate about the world (beyond sewing bags).

As a prominent proponent of what could be (and is described by members as) an exponential improvement in education, Negroponte should be more vocal about the powerful potential these laptops have at improving gender equality, as much as he should be aware of the potential that propagating unhealthy gender roles and dismissing little girls’ potential has at deteriorating gender equality.

For instance, women’s education is one factor that has been shown to have a consistent and strong relationship to improvements in a wide range of health factors over the years, from decreasing high fertility rates (number of births per woman) to enhancing child and family health to decreasing poverty on a whole.  When educating women is overlooked and undervalued, and little girls are less likely to go to school at all or more likely to drop out of school early, the entire population bears the subsequent health burdens.  OLPC, with its mission to create quality education opportunities for every child, is in the powerful position to be the starting point in bridging these gender disparities.

Contrary to the underlying tone that I detected in Negroponte’s remarks, little girls are just as passionate, curious, and eager to learn about the world as little boys, and supplying them with a powerful tool like the XO could allow them continue learning whether the misplaced cultural values around them allow little girls to be enrolled in school or not.  In fact, OLPC has made significant and laudable strides in this direction in some places, such as Afghanistan.

In addition, while large problems like domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and sexual violence seem to dominate the violence-against-women discussion, smaller issues tend to make the most difference in people’s lives. Like is the case with stress, the smaller, daily stressors lead to lower quality of life than the big, life-changing stressors. Does a woman have to walk through an unsafe area to get water? Does the girl child get as much attention from parents and elders while growing up? Do women see powerful examples in their lives to emulate?

If little girls were given the same education as little boys, they might have the tools to fight the cycle of discrimination perpetuated against women worldwide, and also specifically in the African countries with OLPCorps deployments.  With better education, women would have access to more job opportunities, would be more capable gaining the financial independence needed to get out of violent relationships, would have other livelihoods to turn to before resorting to sex work.  These girls could become agents of change in their communities.

If this progress toward gender equality and toward improvement in the lives of women is a flame, then women’s education is the kindling, and OLPC is in a unique situation to provide the igniting spark by ensuring that little girls get XOs, especially those not in school….

However, when organizations, or the individuals that represent them, fail to recognize gender equality in their public statements, there is small hope that little girls, their rights, and their equal potential will see significant progress any time soon.

Caught in a Ponzi scheme
June 16, 2009, 1:44 am
Filed under: Rants and Raves

Well, maybe not exactly a Ponzi scheme…

Tuesday launched the new Center for Laptops and Learning here in Rwanda as well the initiation of the OLPCorps team. The launch included a day-long conference with all the pomp and circumstance that one might hope for to both maximize publicity and garner support from potential investors: OLPC country representatives from places where the government was supporting the project (Uruguay, Rwanda and Haiti); government officials from African countries (those that support the project, those whose motivations are purely political and a little misogynistic); Rwandan students who toted around and presented their XOs; even the president of Rwanda made an appearance (who seems to be a pretty legitimate champion for development and education for his country). Nicholas Negroponte, the CEO and a zealous champion of OLPC, was also there. The day, while defined by a packed schedule, consisted mainly of politicians fluffing themselves. Here are the key points that Katie and I took away from the session.

One laptop per child… not possible with 100 laptops given to the OLPCorps teams. It’s just not. So what is really the objective of OLPCorps?

Here’s where the Ponsi scheme part comes in… According to Negroponte, OLPCorps was designed with the main objective of, not improving educational opportunities for kids as I originally thought (or was led to believe), but instead igniting a grassroots movement in our respective African countries that inspires community members to call on their governments to join the OLPC bandwagon. In other words, Corps teams deploy 100 laptops to 100 children in a community with much more than 100 children. The community is exposed to the greatness of the XO laptop, those who don’t have laptops want them, and so the community puts pressure on the government to reform the education system, and spend 75% (this figure was an example given by one of the government officials at the conference) of the education budget on a bulk purchase of XO laptops for the country. So instead of improving education in our deployment communities (this would be only a minor objective/possible side effect of the program), OLPCorps teams are supposed to spark jealousy within the community, thus igniting the so called grassroots movement. Brilliant? Or an underhanded way of going behind the governments’ back?

Now, I don’t know exactly how grassroots movements ignite, but if this method were possible (i.e., citizens in several African countries calling upon their government to provide a useful tool), wouldn’t that have happened already with, for example, food, clean water, health care, or roads???

So that’s why there’s no plan for sustainability on OLPCorps side (i.e., tech support, more laptops/Corps teams next year in the same spots- do they really expect us to fundraise $18,000 to deploy 100 more laptops to our site??)… OLPCorps deployments are not supposed to be sustainable. They’re not even supposed to be successful on their own.

A final gem of the day, provided by Negroponte, was his response to a question about evaluation of laptop education projects, in order to provide some evidence-based recommendations for future deployments and to help convince governments who are considering XOs but might still be on the fence. “Laptops are like electricity,” Negroponte argues. “You don’t need to prove electricity.” Really Nick?

Spinning Cats & ‘Petites Histoires’
June 15, 2009, 6:05 am
Filed under: Teaching
Teacher training at Kagugu School in Rwanda

Teacher training at Kagugu School in Rwanda

On Friday we spent the day with one of the OLPC Learning Teams training teachers at Kagumu School in Rwanda, which already has 3020 laptops for its 3242 students, but is having some problems getting the teachers at the school to actually incorporate tme into their curriculum. OLPC has mentioned several times that training the teachers, and especially getting their buy-in on using the XOs, is one of the most challenging parts of implementing program. Some notes and observations on interaction with the teachers…

  • When teachers heard the word story, they thought of a written story. Getting them to make an animation took different vocabulary, such as the word animation.
  • It was fun doing a little project in Scratch- we went and took a picture of something outside and then used Scratch to add text, sounds, animation, etc. This required an adequate amount of time to actually come up with something, but not so much time that teachers start to develop Scratch project fatigue
  • They liked presenting the projects to the other teachers- the presenters seemed proud of what they had done and liked to see what others had done
  • One of the teachers suggested that we give out certificates (we were already planning on doing that, go team!)
  • Working in small groups or in pairs seemed most effective. Students were able to get their questions answered immediately, and teachers (the OLPCorps) knew immediately whether our responses were clearly understood
  • While some of the teachers took initiative and started thinking of ways to incorporate Scratch in the classroom, others teachers might have benefited from some ideas on what students can learn from Scratch.  With the teachers, more structure was better than less

Scratch is a program that uses commands to manipulate figures, pictures, text and sounds. One of the first things we learn to do on Scratch is how to make a cat spin around in a circle.

Why we joined OLPCorps…
June 4, 2009, 5:27 pm
Filed under: OLPCorps, Team Info

Reason #1    We love Sierra Leone!

Katie R, Katie M, and Emily spent the summer of 2008 completing an internship in Kenema and not only fell in love with the place, but fell in love with the people.  They made several great contacts and gained an understanding of exactly what types of public health, human rights, and education programs were up and running in the area (and also what was missing).  They noticed a few things:

  • A wonderful groups of kids that lived near the Pastoral Center, where we stayed all summer, were the highlight of our time there there.  They were a smart, innovative, charming group and they had an insatiable desire to learn about the world around them.  We want these kids and kids like them to have a tool to continue learning throughout their childhood!
  • Though computer skills are highly sought after at this point in Sierra Leone’s development, there were few resources available to develop them!  One program in town had computer classes, but the fee to join the class put this option out of reach to most adults.  Kenema’s chapter of Defence for Children International did have a small computer lab and offered a limited amount of computer skills training to young adults for free, but their programs were so popular they ended up having to turn people away.  Finally, we found nothing like this for younger children.

Reason #2   We love education!

Throughout several of our public health courses, it seems that many public health issues can be traced, directly or indirectly, back to education and it seems that improving education is the first step to improving plenty of public health issues- from disease management, to safe hygeine practices, to reproductive health, all the way to poverty.

Reason # 3  We love having such an involved project over the summer

As recent grads and grad students, we must admit that this is a pretty exciting opportunity.  It’s  overwhelming and quite time consuming to be sure, but to be given the freeedom to implement a program like this on our own at this point in our careers (read: the very beginning), to coordinate the equipment, create and follow a budget, fundraise, communicate across the country and across the world, etc, etc, etc, is pretty rare.

We’re famous!!
June 3, 2009, 4:35 pm
Filed under: In the News

Our first publicity!  Check out this article posted about our project on the Yucaipa Now blog, part of the San Bernardino County Sun newspaper’s website.  (Katie R is from Yucaipa, CA).  Next will be the New York Times.

Yucaipa Now

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India, Sierra Leone Place OLPC Orders
June 1, 2009, 12:55 pm
Filed under: In the News

India, Sierra Leone Place OLPC Orders

XO Saturation

XO Saturation

It seems like we won’t be the only ones with XOs in Sierra Leone in the near future.  In addition to another OLPCorps team like us with 100 laptops like us in the south of the country, it seems that a Freetown-based human rights organization called Human Rights Respect Awareness Raising Campaigners (HURRARC) has also come up with a proposal to deploy 5,000 XOs to primary and secondary schools in Sierra Leone by 2011, a project that will cost over $1 million  USD. 

Way to go, Sierra Leone.  One step closer toward XO saturation!

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Fresco Fundraiser!
May 28, 2009, 12:59 am
Filed under: Fundraising, Money


Thanks to everyone who came out to help support our team at Fresco Cafe and Pizzeria! We raised $100 from the sales the we brought in and Fresco generously donated another $25, for a total of $125.

We had a couple of the XOs laptops there that we shared with friends and with kids!  It was motivating to see how excited the kids were about the laptops and how fast they got the hang of the programs.

Also, thanks to some of our professors at Tulane School of Public Health for coming to Fresco: Dr. VanLandingham, Dr. Hutchinson, and Dr. Bausch!

Money, Money, Money!
May 21, 2009, 5:56 am
Filed under: Money

OLPCorps has been a learning experience so far for the team, to say the least, and, as it always seems to go, the more we learn about the project, the more we realize how much we don’t know.  For example, it seems that each day for the past few weeks we have discovered new pieces of equipment that need to be added to the already extended budget (router, modem, access points, adapters, cabling, power strips, extension cords, etc.), new expenses that we are expected to cover and didn’t realize at the start (power, fuel for a generator, solar panels, etc.),  and new (higher) prices for items that we knew we would need but thought would be more affordable (wireless internet)- all of which are essential in order to put together an effective and sustainable program.  And so, each day as we learn more about what it takes to make this project work, we learn also how fast our $10,000 grant is going, going… gone.

As it turns out, with our most recent budget estimate as of last week,  it looks as though we are about $5,500 in the hole… which is quite an intimidating sum to be expected to come up with in the 2.5 weeks before we leave.  If we had more time between the departure date and when we found out about being selected for the project, this might be a different story… but, alas, that is not the case and we have 15 days until Katie M. and Katie R. depart for the training session in Kigali, Rwanda.

So, we decided to kick the fundraising campaign up a notch this past week and, thanks to the generous support of plenty of folks, we haven’t done half bad.  Here are some highlights:

  • Dean Beukens of Tulane’s School of Public Health generously offered $1,000 to help us out with our most costly budget item- transportation.
  • Yes Press screen printing offered to donate shirts with our logo for the teachers and other local stakeholders in the project.
  • We sent out a flurry of personal donation letters to family and friends and we are starting to see some checks coming in.  A BIG thank you to Lu Larsen Haussler (Gretchen’s mom!) and the Lopez family (Katie R.’s aunt, uncle and cousins!) for being our first personal donors!

Happily, at this point we are just over 20% toward our goal of $5,500 within a pretty short period of time, which is encouraging.  There’s still quite a ways to go though…  and, as recent starving grad students, covering a few grand out of our own pockets would prove to be a difficult, near impossible, feat.

Laptops Bring World Peace?
May 21, 2009, 1:24 am
Filed under: In the News
XOs bring world peace?

XOs bring world peace?

The title of a CNN article from March, 2009 about OLPC and the XO laptops caught my eye today- “Laptops bring lessons, maybe even peace”.

Hmm, I thought as I read the title of the article.  Really?  Laptops beign responsible for world peace?  I am a fan of the little XO’s, they are clever devices.  But world peace?  That’s pretty ambitious.

So, I read on.  And, sure enough, CNN not only came across with a valid point about the importance of increasing education (via XOs), but also made a poignant observation that applies directly to Sierra Leone and its situation after the end of its long and gruesome war that ended less than a decade ago. By way of this education, the article argues that kids will be less inclined to join dangerous extremists during potential future conficts…


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