OLPC

Hannah and I are running an honours project that is conducting a user study of the XO laptop along with two other commercially available netbooks (namely the Intel Classmate and the Asus EEEpc). We'd been keen to purchase a couple of the XOs through the Amazon G1G1 scheme but turns out they are no longer doing that. But it turns out that Ron (new guy in the CoE) knows Morgan Collett and he has graciously decided to lend us two units for the study (small I know, but its hons level, they are not big and generally never statistically relevant, but the project should be the ground work for a more in-depth study). And I will then have to write a proposal to be sent to the XO people to apply for more - I have 4 people on campus currently keen to undertake various research studies using the laptops, but do you think I can get them to sit down with me for 30 mins just to flesh out their ideas so I can write the multi-project proposal?

Anyway, these things are cute. They are unbelievably tiny and generally are pretty nifty (although there are aspects that I don't like much but we'll get there). I'm going to start with my impressions of the hardware. The small form-factor and light weight are very ++. Something this tiny in your backpack you're hardly going to notice. I was really disappointed though that they don't actually come with a crank (like the wind up radios) and so require grid electricity (not needing grid electricity would have placed them in a league above the alternative netbooks on the market). Another great thing is that there are 3 usb ports for your "hard disks" ;-) The rubberised keyboard is also a pretty cool idea. It'll be more difficult for children to break and perhaps not as detrimental if they spill a liquid on them (not keen to test that theory though in case I do really break it!). Difficult for touch typing which sucks a bit, but once you get use to it its not too bad. But hardware wise my ultimate favourite has got to be the monitor. It can swivel a full 180 degrees and then be folded back down into (for all intents and purposes) an e-book. It then has controls on the monitor to move around the contents of the screen. If nothing else I would have something like this for an e-book so that I could comfortably lie in bed or on the couch and read - all other netbooks should note this feature and see about building something similar, it is seriously awesome.

I haven't extensively used the software on the laptop but rather played around and gotten a feel for things.  The interface is rather different and the way of doing things too. I am told that the interface is such that it is intuitive for a child. I am curious with regards to that and would be interested to know how they came about that idea, i.e. was there a study with children in order to produce the design? (OLPC HCI guidelines and interface). I think that the new metaphors for the XO are rather clever and some of the features or representations within that are just brilliant. I am particularly fond of the neighbourhood and group ideas. The spacial representations of friends and nearby networks is awesome and I really like that. I also like that there are no "applications" but rather activities for the children to do. However, there are some things that I think are not intuitive, based on having some prior computer experience. For example, not being able to open a file from within an activity, but rather having to search the journal for the last instance of the file and opening it this way. I understand the logic behind why the developers argue that this is better, but if you have some back ground PC experience its not exactly obvious. It will be interesting to see in this study how the learners and teachers respond to this, esp at one of our previously disadvantaged schools where they have been very keen on windows and seem a bit scared of Linux and "different". Here is a post from from Flosse Posse where perceived advantages and disadvantages of the XO are discussed. Some of his ideas are interesting and would be cool to see in the implementation.

I think that because this has been punted as the laptop for the children masses of the world we have expected a machine that can work in much the same way as a regular PC, i.e. having lots of memory and being able to create large files of content like project reports or whatever (as yet I have not worked out how to save to flash stick, from what I have read on the wiki about the journal activity its not really possible as yet). So its not really a productivity machine, its a machine with specific educational purposes, namely thinking skills through the various activities. So it would be best placed in classrooms where teachers have specific ideas on how they wish to use the laptops, for example, to introduce programming concepts to children using TurtleArt (which is effectively graphical logo and is very cool!). It also allows for collaborative work because peers can network and also as a method of accessing information through possible web connections. The only thing then that I can see as a potential problem is that none of the activities are aligned to any sort of curriculum. They are more general than that and so that could prove a problem or be a limitation to their use if teachers feel that they don't meet the curriculum needs in SA which they are mostly bound by (certainly with external exams, learners must be able to understand and complete the curriculum in order to pass the exam). The other thing is language localization. This is an important issue because it seems to be generally accepted as a good thing that children learn in their mother tongue for the first 3 years of schooling. It seems however that the people at Sugar are working on language packs and at this stage in terms of SA languages they have only Afrikaans available but about 8 of our official languages are on the list of those to be translated (assuming they intend to produce all of those on the List of ISO 639-1 codes that they refer to).

While getting to know Sugar through the XO I have also installed it on my laptop running Ubuntu. This was a fairly simple process - some of the activities and an emulator are available in the repo tree (but not all unfortunately). Instructions are at a number of places on the web such as this, but note if you encounter any problems there is a dependancy error. Sugar needs gstreamer0.10-alsa (which I didn't have already) and produces an error in your .xsession-errors that complains about "gst.ElementNotFoundError: alsamixer". Anyway, when working, it works great, which leaves me wondering if I can have a productivity computer and an educational computer all in one (possibly even on a small form-factor netbook) why go for the OLPC? Esp now that there are rumours that OLPC is going windows (however, the OLPC team say that they are not going to stop producing XOs with Linux), then what do you really get out of it? The best part of it right now is the software. There are two hardware features that I truly love, first the screen that can flip back on itself and form an e-book, but surely other manufacturers could do something similar with their machines in the future too? The second, which is something that we don't currently see on other netbooks (afaik), is the mesh network capabilities that allow the children to work collaboratively. This is probably one of the strongest features of the OLCP. I am keen to see if that collaborative metaphor can extend to sharing physical resources amongst machines and not just virtual learning spaces. I am also very keen to see what the experiences of the teachers and learners are going to be in this little study. I know that we won't have any statistically relevant data from it, but it will give us an idea of where things might be going...

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