Rangan Srikhanta was a 21-year-old student at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), in Australia, when he first learned about the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative. It was late 2005, and Nicholas Negroponte, then the director of the Media Lab at MIT, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had just announced the launch of the program. OLPC, as they described it, was a partnership among private companies, NGOs, and governments to produce the world’s least expensive laptop and to distribute that device to children all around the world. Srikhanta was intrigued by OLPC’s vision of bringing those sectors together to solve social problems. He was equally impressed by the low-cost laptop that OLPC proposed to create. The device, which came to be called the XO, would cost just $100 apiece to manufacture. “I was fascinated by the technology—the software, the low power usage, the sunlight-readable screen, being able to drop the machine [without breaking it],” he says. After reading about OLPC, Srikhanta couldn’t sleep. Keen to learn more about the initiative, he decided to call the OLPC office in the United States. “When you’re in Australia and up late at night, it’s a really good time to call Boston,” he says.
Srikhanta and his family arrived in the Sydney area in 1984, when he was just two months old, after fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka. He grew up west of the city, and he excelled at school. “My parents were busy putting food on the table and providing a stable family environment,” he recalls. But they also encouraged him to read newspapers, to think globally, and to give back to his community. After attending UTS, where he earned a combined degree in business and information technology, Srikhanta took a job as an auditor at a global accounting firm. But even as he launched a professional career, he found time to serve as volunteer treasurer of the UN Association in Australia. He never forgot a question that his parents had urged him to keep in mind: “What do you want to be remembered for?”
That phone call to Boston in 2005 was the first step in what became a long journey for Srikhanta. Grabbing the chance to join his interest in business and technology with his interest in social change, he began to work on various OLPC-sponsored projects. In January 2008, he and others founded OLPC Australia (OLPCA). Later that year, he left his job at the accounting firm. “If you ever want to find your passion, become an auditor,” he jokes.
Since then, OLPCA has come a long way. It now operates with the equivalent of 13 full-time staff members, and thus far it has distributed more than 7,000 XOs in more than 130 remote communities across Australia. In 2012, the organization received an $11.7 million grant from the Australian federal government to distribute 50,000 laptops by June 2014. (Unless otherwise indicated, all currency figures refer to Australian dollars.)
The contract is part of a nationwide effort to close the so-called digital divide within Australia. Although Australia is an advanced industrial nation, that divide—the one that separates people who can access digital technology from people who cannot—runs deep in certain regions of the country. Today, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, about 4.5 million Australians do not have home Internet access. The situation is worse among particular social groups. According to one study, indigenous households in central Australia are 76 percent less likely to have Internet access than non-indigenous metropolitan households.1 To address that problem, the Australian government has begun to roll out the National Broadband Network (NBN), a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure program to improve access to the Internet, particularly in rural communities. Yet, while the NBN may expand Internet access, many children in those communities still lack the ability to engage with the Internet in meaningful ways. OLPCA estimates that 40 percent of the 2.4 million children in Australia are at risk of falling into that category.
In their push to reach those children, Srikhanta and his team have built upon the OLPC vision that captured his imagination back in 2005. Yet OLPCA has also broken away from the standard approach of its parent organization. The One Laptop per Child model—as its name implies—aims to place a computing device in the hands of every child who wouldn’t otherwise have one. In short, it’s a saturation model, and its focus is on the free distribution of XO machines. And in several high-profile cases, it has met with failure. In May 2012, Srikhanta and his colleagues launched a new model that embeds XO technology into a school-based ecosystem. Signaling an awareness of the limits of the “one laptop” idea, they call this model One Education.
Success marked some of OLPC’s earliest efforts. Negroponte, the founding visionary of the One Laptop per Child movement, served as a high-profile evangelist who worked tirelessly to convince government officials that he could save the poor children of their countries by using XO technology to transform education. With access to XO devices, he argued, children would be able to educate themselves and one another. The first XOs rolled off a production line in 2007. In November of that year, OLPC established its Give One Get One campaign, in which US and Canadian consumers could buy an XO machine for $399 and OLPC would send another machine on their behalf to a child in a developing country. More than 83,000 people participated in the first Give One Get One campaign. “OLPC’s challenge in getting the XO into production was huge,” Srikhanta says. “We have to thank Negroponte for his brashness and his focus on bringing down the cost of the devices—for showing that there was a market for low-cost devices. That was a monumental task.”
But the task of putting XO laptops into the hands of poor kids, and then into productive use, was considerably more challenging. One of the earliest and largest OLPC deployments took place in Peru, where officials and volunteers distributed about 290,000 XO laptops between 2007 and 2009. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, a series of difficulties beset the program—including a lack of electricity, a lack of Internet access, and a limited supply of technical and pedagogical support. What’s more, the use of XO devices in Peruvian schools failed to result in significant improvements in national test scores.2 Five years after the start of the deployment, the Peruvian education official who now runs the program admitted that its approach had been seriously flawed. “In essence, what we did was deliver the computers without preparing the teachers,” he said.3
Another closely followed program occurred in Birmingham, Ala., a high-poverty community that became the site of the largest deployment of XO laptops in the United States. From 2008 to 2010, the Birmingham school district distributed 15,000 XO computers to students in grades 1 through 5. A review of that program indicated that it suffered from the same kinds of problems that have afflicted OLPC programs in Peru and elsewhere. Teachers received only two hours of training, they were unable to connect the XO devices to printers or projectors (which meant that they could not share students’ work), and neither they nor their students had the ability to repair the machines. As a result, many of the XOs lay broken and unused.4
In recent years, Negroponte has admitted that the original scope and ambition of the OLPC project were too far-reaching in some respects. “A great deal of OLPC was, especially at the beginning, naive and unrealistic,” he wrote in an online comment in late 2012. All the same, the poor track record of XO deployment has not undermined Negroponte’s commitment to the original OLPC ideal. His comment continued: “I look back at those [early stumbles] as features not bugs. 2.5 million laptops later we did learn some things, in parallel with many of those kids (not all) benefitting. One of those things was the degree of self-learning and child-to-child teaching, when allowed to happen.”5 Srikhanta, over in Australia, would derive a different set of lessons from the early history of OLPC.
Learning from Mistakes
In setting up OLPCA, Srikhanta drew on the support of influential figures within the OLPC movement. Charles Kane, then the CEO of OLPC, became a supportive member of the OLPCA board. Barry Vercoe, one of the founders of the MIT Media Lab (and, incidentally, a native of New Zealand), came out to Australia to serve as codirector of OLPCA. With help from Vercoe and others, Srikhanta was able to convince the parent organization that Australia was worth including in the OLPC initiative. After all, the main goal of OLPC was to assist developing countries. “Barry really became our broker in putting a case forward for seeding the project in Australia,” says Srikhanta.
For their initial deployment of XO laptops, Srikhanta and Vercoe selected target areas that would closely replicate Third World locations. One such area was Elcho Island, a remote town in the Northern Territory (NT). The NT, located in north-central Australia, is home to one of the largest populations of Aboriginal people in the country, and Elcho Island is more than 300 miles from Darwin, the territorial capital. “We caught a flight to Darwin, then a plane to Elcho Island,” Srikhanta recalls. “The school was very well resourced. But once you stepped out of that school, life got a lot tougher.” The challenges that OLPCA faced in a remote community like Elcho Island were significant: On average, teachers in such areas last nine months; principals last two years. Children in these communities rarely attend school more than three days a week. Aboriginal children, moreover, are 50 percent less likely than other Australian children to stay in school to the highest completion level. In many of these communities, English is rarely spoken, and often it’s spoken only at school.
Late adopters and non-adopters constitute a weakness in the OLPC model, since they don’t have an intrinsic motivation to use the technology in a meaningful way.
Srikhanta and his team saturated Elcho Island with 250 XOs during two visits in mid-2009. Although they provided basic training to help teachers understand how to use the devices in the classroom, they didn’t take into account another problem. “Even during this short period of a few months, teachers had moved, or they simply didn’t have enough time to comprehend how the technology could enhance their practice,” Srikhanta recalls. “When we went back in July, a lot of those teachers weren’t there. It was a bit of a shock for us. It was like [the movie] Groundhog Day. I began to wonder: Are we going to do this every year?”
The lesson, as he saw it, was clear: The practice of flying to remote villages and towns was not sustainable. It was expensive (the average cost of distributing a laptop rose to $695) and extremely time consuming. It was also not very effective. Srikhanta and his colleagues realized that the “saturation in one day” model lacked the kind of “stickiness” that would encourage meaningful engagement with the XO devices. “When you force the adoption of technology, when the technology is so easy to disseminate, you can forget about the human aspect. We forgot about the teacher turnover aspect,” Srikhanta says. Compounding that problem were technical challenges that he and his team couldn’t overcome at that point. “That’s when the program died,” he says. “That forced us to innovate and pushed us to expand the reach of the program to engage more stakeholders.”
After the second visit to Elcho Island, Srikhanta asked the school principal there to tell him what OLPCA should do differently. “You should charge people for what you do,” the principal said. That reply surprised Srikhanta, yet it also triggered an idea that fundamentally challenged the OLPC distribution model. “That’s when we started changing our approach,” Srikhanta says.
From 2009 to 2012, through a process of trial and error, OLPCA developed a new model that focuses on scarcity rather than saturation. Srikhanta began to think in terms of creating a “pull” model that would differ from the OLPC movement’s existing “push” model. He and his team decided that they had to introduce barriers to access—to create reasons for educators to invest time and money in XO technology. Instead of freely distributing XOs to schools identified as being at high risk, why not charge a small fee for each device? Taking that step would help identify settings where the devices would be welcome. In a related move, Srikhanta decided to shift the focus of distribution from the school to the classroom. OLPCA could more easily distribute XOs on a large scale, he theorized, if it gave up trying to secure adoption within an entire school and instead targeted individual teachers who were already receptive to the technology.
Today, rather than pushing the technology into the hands of uninterested teachers and students, OLPCA works to build a support system around early adopters. At the center of that system is One Education, a comprehensive training and reward program for educators and students. Under the program, teachers must become XO-certified before OLPCA will distribute XO laptops to their classrooms. Srikhanta and his team have come to realize that engaged teachers—teachers who have made an investment in learning XO technology—are crucial to the success of OLPCA.
Late adopters and non-adopters constitute a weakness in the OLPC model, since they don’t have an intrinsic motivation to use the technology in a meaningful way. “Some teachers are reluctant at first, because they are scared of it,” says Richard Barrie, a principal at a school in the Australian state of Queensland. “The older you get, the more you are afraid. It is the fear of failure: They don’t want to be seen as failing against this little machine.” By reaching out to teachers who embrace the XO device without fear, the OLPCA team aims to build a network of XO “champions.”
Barrie, who heads a school located in the remote town of Doomadgee, is an exemplary champion of the OLPCA cause. “The XO is taking away digital barriers. It’s leveling the playing field,” he says. Srikhanta met Barrie in 2010 at a gathering for educators in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. Barrie connected with Srikhanta right away. (“He has a good heart, he has a bloody good brain, and he has a good motivation for supporting kids in Australia and all over the world,” Barrie says of Srikhanta.) He also connected with the OLPCA model. As an educator who labors in the harsh Australian outback, he applauds the goal of “righting disadvantage and providing opportunities for kids to engage with the global economy,” he explains. Since that meeting with Srikhanta, Barrie has become chief learning officer of OLPCA, and his primary-level school (where he continues to serve as principal) has become an official One Education Lab—a place where the organization can test ideas and get rapid feedback on how well they work.
Providing an Education
Since 2012, OLPCA has moved from merely supplying XO laptops to embedding XO technology in the daily life of local schools. “What we have is a robust school professional development program in which every kid also gets a device,” Srikhanta explains. “And schools are getting this for as little as $100.”
The XO certification course is a 15-hour-long online program that teachers can take at a pace that suits them. Some teachers complete the course in two weeks; others need up to three months to finish it. Over time, the average completion period for the course has dropped; today, teachers generally take less than 30 days to finish it. OLPCA certification requires a considerable amount of coursework, especially in comparison with the standard OLPC program (which has no formal training component). Yet many teachers speak highly of the experience. One teacher, Lisa Foster from Dirranbandi State School, stated in an online comment: “I loved the course. 20hrs seemed like forever before we started—but time flew as we had fun exploring and learning!” One Education training not only enables teachers to learn how the device functions, but also provides them with ideas on how to integrate the technology into classroom learning. “Empowered teachers are more inclined to take full advantage of the XOs,” Srikhanta notes.
To maintain their professional qualifications, Australian teachers must take a certain number of hours of compulsory development training each year, and the XO course has become an attractive option for completing that requirement. The Queensland Department of Education, for example, has worked with OLPCA to build XO training into the curriculum for its Certificate in Information Communication Technology.
For users in remote communities, the training and support service that OLPCA provides and the do-it-yourself nature of the XO machines are crucial benefits.
Once teachers complete certification, they receive the full One Education package, which includes an XO, a charging rack, a repair kit, and access to an array of online programs. The cost of the program is $400 per device. Schools that fall into a lower category under the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (a national school benchmark classification) receive the program at a subsidized rate of $100 per child.
Another aspect of the OLPCA model is the certification of students as XO Champions and XO Mechanics. An XO Mechanic certificate indicates that a student can change batteries, run hardware tests, reinstall a laptop’s operating system, and replace a keyboard or a screen. But kids who go through certification training gain more than just a set of technical skills. Trish Noy, a teacher, noted on an OLPCA feedback form: “We are very excited about how our students have progressed through this course, and how confident they have become. The leadership qualities that have emerged has been very pleasing and all ‘experts’ will be helping to run our help desk next term during lunch.”
For educators who work in remote communities, the XO Mechanics program is an especially attractive feature of the OLPCA model. “If you buy another machine, you have no backup service. For us, being so remote, downtime is a real problem. You have to send the machine back to Cairns and then wait for it to be fixed and returned. That can take a while,” Barrie says. (The distance from Cairns to his school in Doomadgee is more than 600 miles.) “With the XOs, there is little downtime for us. If they break down, they can be fixed on the spot by the kids.”
Building an Ecosystem
At multiple levels, OLPCA has integrated itself into the Australian education system. It is working within and through communities to understand how XO technology can support improved educational outcomes. “We’re providing professional development for teachers, we’re turning students into repair technicians, and we’re working with and inside departments of education,” Srikhanta says. The connections that OLPCA has created between education officials, principals, teachers, and students have enabled the XO to become the preferred classroom technology in many parts of Australia.
Consider the results of an early study of XO deployment that covered nine schools where teachers regularly used XOs in classroom learning activities. According to the study, which was conducted in 2012, teachers in five of those schools reported having access to iPads as well—yet, unlike the XOs, none of those iPads were dedicated classroom equipment. In that study, researchers also found that more than half of the 20 teachers in their sample used classroom-based XOs more than once per day, and that students independently used the devices one to four times per week.6
In remote areas like Doomadgee, the OLPCA ecosystem extends beyond the individual classroom. Barrie tells the story of a teacher who was trained as an XO expert in Doomadgee and later moved to South West Cairns. But through the Internet, and the use of XO machines, she still provides support to kids in Doomadgee. In addition, those kids can now interact and exchange ideas with their counterparts in South West Cairns. “We are proposing a new kind of school, an expanded school that grows beyond the walls of the classroom, encompassing varying generations, languages, and cultures,” Srikhanta says. This community-based approach involves teachers, community elders, and others who contribute to the remote learning experience, and it enables OLPCA to engage Aboriginal communities in the NT and in Queensland.
In the Northern Territory, the use of XO technology has spread organically through libraries and local community centers. Jennifer McFarland runs CAYLUS (Central Australian Youth Link Up Service), a program that serves the Papanya community of NT. She and her colleagues have observed that people in Papanya often lack reliable access to the Internet in their homes. To fill that gap, CAYLUS set up two computer rooms at its facility (one for women and girls only, and one for both sexes) and stocked the rooms with a variety of devices, including XOs. McFarland notes that use of the XO machines has been especially high among younger primary-school children who come to the facility with their mothers. “Many of the children have two or three indigenous languages, with English as their third or fourth language,” McFarland says. “They pick up the XO, and they learn to recognize English words, because those words are connected to outcomes [on the device]. That increases their English literacy.”
OLPCA is a registered charity with Deductible Gift Recipient status in Australia. (In other words, donors can claim a tax deduction for gifts to the organization.) In its early years, the organization was able to obtain ample funding from high-profile corporations such as Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Telstra Corporation. Today, though, Srikhanta views OLPCA as a social enterprise, and his aim is to generate blended income streams. As a business proposition, the One Education model would seem to suffer from a critical weakness: OLPCA is essentially saying, “Before you can purchase our product, you must complete our training.” That barrier to purchase, however, ensures that buyers are self-selected, knowledgeable about the product, and highly motivated to use it in a way that embeds the product in their local education program.
In effect, OLPCA has redefined the entry requirements for established technology vendors that want to participate in the primary-school market. It can compete against for-profit providers such as Apple and Dell on several important dimensions: the price of the hardware, the speed of distribution, the provision of user training and professional development, and the cost of repairs and after-purchase support. For users in remote communities, the training and support service that OLPCA provides and the do-it-yourself nature of the XO machines are crucial benefits. “We have trumped our potential competitors,” says Srikhanta. “Apple and other providers may have strong procurement networks in the state education departments. But schools aren’t just buying devices from us; they’re buying the training, and the device then comes with it.”
Meanwhile, the success of the OLPCA model is starting to gain global attention, and people in other countries have expressed an interest in replicating it. “We have just started ‘lighting fires’ in Thailand and New Zealand,” says Srikhanta. “But at the moment, we are focused on bedding down our systems and processes to ensure the smooth diffusion of the model globally. The idea is that people can go to our website, pay a price, and begin to roll out the program locally.” As part of that effort, Srikhanta is building a global platform where teachers can share materials and resources across state and national borders.
Wherever it operates, OLPCA pursues a strategy that integrates several elements: XO distribution, teacher training, curriculum development, XO technician training, and the recruitment of student and teacher champions. It’s a grassroots strategy that enables users to incorporate the technology into the learning process. And that approach shapes how the organization is working to distribute 50,000 XOs under the government grant that it received in 2012. (As large as that project is for OLPCA, Srikhanta considers it to be only a pilot program. “Those 50,000 laptops are reaching only 5 percent of the children who are eligible for support from the government,” he says.)
The guiding principles of OLPCA are no different from those of the parent OLPC organization. Like Negroponte and others, Srikhanta supports a vision in which access to 21st-century educational technology becomes ubiquitous. Yet for Srikhanta, the best way to reach that goal is by creating a supportive ecosystem from the bottom up. It can’t be done from the top down by policy makers who decide which schools and which classrooms will get new laptops. “Technology take-up by children, teachers, principals, and the community needs to be organic and nonlinear to be successful,” he says. “This is an education project, not a laptop project.”