I recently read this news about David Cavallo (who isn’t listed here). Together with the fact that NN seems to be back at MIT, this pops up the question about the “learning” part of OLPC’s mission.
However, what interests me more is the OLPC Foundation and the stated purpose. How, if at all, does that get impacted ?
The OLPC Foundation’s mission is to stimulate local grassroots initiatives designed to enhance and sustain over time the effectiveness of laptops as learning tools for children living in lesser-developed countries.
I didn’t read any official comments about these and of course nothing much by the way of providing a forward looking statement.
How does this impact SugarLabs ?
OLPC News has an article with the original headline (in fact I took the lazy way out and re-used it). It seems to be posted by ‘Guest Writer’ but the footer of the article says that “Satish Jha is the President and CEO, OLPC India” so I guess OLPC India is in some form involved with the content that is has.
It is an interesting piece. There’s another interesting thread on a mailing list here.
I would have expected it to talk more about the possibilities of doing OLPC stuff in India rather than becoming a somewhat neither-here-nor-there kind of non-committal response to the $35 device that the Ministry of HRD so loudly released. To understand what can bring about the adoption of OLPC India, one would have to probably go back to a post I wrote some time back.
The problem that was highlighted still remains. There is no community of any form,shape or sort around the OLPC in India when compared to OLPC efforts/initiatives and deployments in other countries (the nations that are so eloquently held up as shining examples of OLPC success). There is a significant lack of a downstream community of volunteers and participants and, more importantly, a lack of any sort of publicly discussed plans as to whether any educational institute would volunteer students for a while to keep the deployments going forward. Then of course there is the added discourse around availability of the actual XO hardware.
When I met Dr. Nagarjuna at GNUnify (that’s February this year), he indicated that he was actively looking at using the Sugar Desktop Environment on standard COTS desktops available much easily from vendors because there wasn’t much clarity about the how and when of the hardware availability. In fact, this has been a murmur that has been around for a while – what specifically is the value add of the hardware if the desktop environment is available via a standard Linux desktop/distribution. Which is where an active group of developers working on activities that would be useful in the context of the deployment is a good thing to have. And for that to happen, there needs to be work on building a downstream community – contributors who use the artifacts provided by OLPC and Sugar to develop their own thing.
A distinct advantage that OLPC/XO/Sugar has is brand recognition. Anyone who is peripherally involved in doing things around Free and Open Source Software in India know these names. They may not fully understand the depth of work or, the roadmap of the individual projects, but the name recognition is a jump-off point that should be utilized much more. For example, in a space like the College of Engineering Pune, which has a fairly active mailing list for FOSS related stuff, holding a 2 day event with the aim getting work started on new or, un-maintained activities, teaching the basics of testing/QA stuff would probably be more useful than just wishing about growing a community. I am fairly certain that there would be other institutions like CoEP where a day-long or, similar camps can be organized. Why aren’t they happening ? On that I have no clue.
A recent mail to a list I read had the following:
One of my colleagues had the following to say about OLPC in Nepal:
“Nepal has had perhaps one of the most active grassroots OLPC community, that became active in the fall of 2006. The OLPC Nepal movement has needed to develop its deployment plans, school server architecture, and strategies of interfacing with government. The most active members of the OLPC community within Nepal formed a local non-profit organization in July 2007, OLE Nepal, to implement Nepal’s initial OLPC deployments. All of these became the exemplars for later deployments ..”
What has prevented the development of such a movement in India? Bangladesh? Srilanka? Pakistan? Bhutan?
The fun part about this is that there is no single silver bullet response. A primary issue with the effort around OLPC in India has been the lack of investment in building up a community around the project. While there has been breakthroughs around the deployment and proof-of-concept runs, there hasn’t been a single sustained thrust in ensuring that there is a buy-in with a larger group of people who contribute. Which means that while there are significant areas where OLPC could do with community love, there hasn’t been any plans made in public on them.
A much secondary issue is the lack of clarity about who is OLPC in India. For a certain period of time, any OLPC related issue was discussed with the team handling the Khairat pilot. Moving on, there exists a lack of structured information about how the organization plans to work – what the plans moving forward are and how it plans to attract volunteers to the cause. Scaling up the deployments and notching up the numbers is a measure of success. Another yardstick is how much of interest has been developed with newer contributors.
Thanks to two fine gentlemen, I have an XO to play around for a few days. The reports prove to be correct – the keyboard is obviously not made for stubby fingers like I have and of course not the heavy left hand that I use on the keyboard. It does have an awesome battery life and the screen does work well in sunlight (I tested it out in moderate direct light at around 1100 and 1300 hours in Pune).
In short it is a fun thing to have around As a friend put it – it is an amazing piece of hardware and coolness that kids can get.
So I poked around the wiki a bit especially the sections relevant to Etoys and Educators in order to figure out what the project thinks about the possibilities of this hardware. To continue from my earlier rant on OLPC in India, the OLPC India team does need to figure out the way forward beyond the pilot (at Khairat). The pilot can teach valuable lessons about the feasibility of the hardware, the corner cases of mesh networking or even the applicability and usage of the hardware in the pedagogy. But taking those lessons and extrapolating them into much larger, distributed deployments is going to require a heavy dose of community (or capacity) building. This means doing much more than just being a deployment/services unit for the project as a whole
- focus on transparent and open development by using lists, IRC, technology roadshows to ensure that developers get interested in working on the hardware
- give everyone a fair shot at contributing by lowering the barrier to contribute to the project
- go back to school – the current set of activities that are with the projects needs to be expanded and extended and that means one requires competencies of developers, educators, academicians, usability folks and one of the easiest means of getting all of them in the game is going back to schools, colleges and universities
- show how to extend the possibilities – do not attempt spoon feeding. Show how things can be done and then allow an organic community to contribute
- advocate the technology and evangelize the philosophy – build up a core group of believers who can communicate the possibilities and the culture of collaboration so as to ensure that there is enough credibility around the development
Localization is not the only thing that the OLPC would require in India, though it is one of the important things. What would be required more upfront is a range of activities that can allow the target users to start using them in their daily lessons ie more content around activities. This means that sooner rather than later there has to come up a server that can be the repository of such learning objects which can be (re)used by OLPC deployments across the nation.
The OLPC effort in India would be going through a sufficiently critical phase. While a large chunk of work is being done at the backend in getting Indic rendering, printing etc fixed on the browser and applications, getting the physical keyboard layouts in place – the focus would now be required to be put on to how to get buy-in for the product. There has been a by now controversial buy-in of the concept, the next obvious stage would be to figuring out a “GoToMarket” strategy for the project.
Such a strategy would include the details that allow potential pilot sites to assess where and how they stand vis-a-vis requesting a pilot, a set of codified preliminary requirements for a pilot and a set of objectives or lessons_to_be_gleaned from the pilot. This would translate into having a means to actually have the hardware on the ground. For developers, an emulation environment or (a single unit) serves well as the platform. The platform for a pilot is the hardware itself. A mashup of the hardware with appropriate content would enable the India team to assess and quantify what they want to achieve with the project and where they stand with the current roadmap. Right now there are a large number of queries happening about “How do we pitch in” but barring G1G1 there’s no real input or map towards getting the hardware in place. In fact, there is not much in terms of how to replicate Karjat in various other suitable places.
The other jarring note is the explicit lack of community around the OLPC in India. Conversely, there seems to be a growing sense of attachment to the Asus driven hardware. When I say community it is not the community limited only to developers. From what I read and here there are a few developers who are actively contributing to it. A community in this case would be the target audience, the potential audience, the potential contributors and the mavens who find more uses for the program by pushing the envelope. A small but not unimportant bit of the task of Community Engineering involves putting in place the infrastructure that allows inclusive participation. One of them is the Pootle deployment for translators which is an awesome thing to happen. At this stage of the program in India, a larger part is played by evangelising the Project. Till date, the negative PR that has happened has fortunately been limited to a small set of press notes. A coherent and cohesive effort at Community Relations through various media means available would actually allow more folks to “get the message”. There has been some thought around this for sure,
OLPC cannot survive without a strong community. From where I sit, OLPC
engineering is in a classic trap right now -- all work on production, but
almost no work on capacity. Community building is capacity building;
that's why it's so important.
The reason the “capacity” bit is important over here is because without it the OLPC would only remain as a marvel of what a concerted effort at innovation can achieve in the field of computing technology. And if that is the only reason for OLPC to exist, then it is a sad one indeed. Perhaps it is more of a “vision” thing. Figuring out the intersect between the EEE and the Classmate and the OLPC (in terms of OLPC software) may just be a way forward. Would it be a good thing to have installable LiveMedia with Sugar being available so as to get folks to test-drive and if happy install an OLPC interface on their conventional desktops ? Would that increase the disconnect between the target users and developers ? Is that one of the possible ways ?