Saturday, December 22, 2012

One Laptop per Child and the Original XO Computer

Writing about our new Chrome laptop and the Raspberry Pi reminded me of another educational project I was involved in. That was the “One Laptop Per Child” organization or OLPC. I actually have one of the XO laptops. That is unusual because they were not for sale. They were primarily delivered to third world countries to try to improve their educational system, although there were a few US school boards that also purchased the low cost laptops (Birmingham, Alabama was an early adopter). I have one because I was a member of the OLPC organization and a donor.

The original idea came from Nicholas Negroponte. He is founder and chairman of the One Laptop Per Child non-profit. He is currently on leave from MIT, where he was co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory, and the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Technology. A graduate of MIT, Negroponte was a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design, and has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1966. He is also author of the 1995 best seller, “Being Digital,” which has been translated into more than 40 languages. In the private sector, Nicholas Negroponte serves on the board of directors for Motorola, Inc. and as general partner in a venture capital firm specializing in digital technologies for information and entertainment. He has provided start-up funds for more than 40 companies, including Wired magazine.

His and the organization’s aim was to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, they designed hardware, content, and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world, and to a brighter future.

The original goal was to build a $100 laptop. That was an ambitious undertaking in 2005 when first proposed. At that time laptops were rarely cheaper than $1,000. In addition, there was a very specific set of design goals. The original laptop called the XO was intended for children six to twelve, although use by younger children would be possible too.

XO is the computer name. It also makes this logo and is used throughout the interface.

The XO has been designed to provide an engaging wireless network. This evolved to what is termed a “mesh network.” What that means is that, if XO number 1 can connect to an Internet access point, then XO number 2 can connect to XO number 1, XO number 3 to XO number 2 or 1, and so-forth. This spread the network through the entire village or settlement and also allowed a great deal of collaboration as all the laptops would be connected automatically. The computer display and main interface is designed to assist this mesh connection and identify all the network nodes. Children in the neighborhood are permanently connected to chat, sharing information on the local network or web, making music together, editing texts, or using collaborative games.

A most basic principle of radio engineering is the antenna. To maximize radio performance requires a well-designed and located antenna. What the XO employed was a dual antenna system for maximum range of reception and transmission. The designers placed the antennas into the large latches on the sides of the display near the top. The latches served double duty securing the typical clamshell designed screen to the keyboard when the laptop was being carried. When open and in use, the latches served as vertically polarized antennas located near the top of the computer.

Latches are also the wireless network antennas.
The laptop can be charged by solar or mechanical power, or through special bulk-chargers at school. Some original plans even had a hand crank installed on the laptop, but the final solution was a computer with over 8 hours of battery life so a single charge would last all day. They could still be charged up from manual systems if there was no connection to main power. Even today a laptop battery life this great is almost unheard of. A lot of sophisticated power management and a special display screen went into the design to accomplish such longevity.

An important aspect of the low power use was the display. It used “e-paper.” That is a technology where power is only used when the screen changes. This is the same type of display in the Kindle Reader. Very power efficient for things that are static for periods of time while pages are being read.

Screen reversed for reading.

In addition, this unique XO display allows the use of the laptop under a bright sun. All of this makes it easy for children in a community to connect to one another almost anywhere. Remember, In Africa and other target locations, it is very possible that the classroom is out of doors. The screen supports black & white in the sunlight, but will display color when backlit. So the computer can be used outside during the day and also at night with no other light. The design is actually two screens sharing a Liquid Crystal display or LCD.
Journal files.

You can always at least see gray scale, even in direct sunlight. You get color from the backlight. Though as sunlight gets brighter, the colors wash out and it looks like gray. The backlight uses power. So you can turn it down or off to make the battery last longer. Turning off the backlight also tells the screen not to worry about color, so it can give a slightly higher resolution, which can make hours of reading more comfortable.

The computer lacks an accelerometer, but a button on the side of the screen allows the user to rotate the view to any 90-degree angle so the computer can be used sideways and up-side-down if you wish.

Membrane keyboard -- waterproof.

In many ways, the display was the key to getting the cost of the laptop down, as it was the single most expensive item in laptops – both then and now. There were many technical breakthroughs in the ultimate design and the design team was led to those advances by Mary Lou Jeppsen.

She studied Studio Art and Electrical Engineering at Brown, and received a Master of Science in Holography from the MIT Media Lab. She then returned to Brown to receive a Ph.D. in Optical Sciences. Her PhD work combined rigorous theoretical coupled-wave analysis with lab work, in which she created large-scale, embossed surface-relief diffraction gratings with liquid crystal-filled grooves with high diffraction efficiency in un-polarized illumination – a forerunner of the technology used in the XO.

Membrane keyboard -- water proof.

Jepsen helped pioneer single-panel field sequential projection display systems, co-founding Microdisplay, the first company whose sole effort was the development of tiny displays, in 1995. There she served as its chief technology officer through 2003. From 2003 until the end of the 2004, she was the chief technology officer of Intel’s Display Division. In January 2005, Jepsen joined Negroponte to lead the design, partnering, development and manufacture of the laptop, and for the entire first year of the effort was the only employee of One Laptop per Child.

By the end of 2005, she had completed the initial architecture, led the development of the first prototype, and signed up some of the world's largest manufacturers to produce the XO. By the end of 2007 she had led the laptop through development and into high volume mass production.

Controls next to screen.

At OLPC, notably, Jepsen invented the laptop's sunlight-readable display technology and co-invented its ultra-low power management system -- and -- has transformed these inventions into high volume mass production rapidly. The XO laptop is the lowest-power laptop ever made, and the most environmentally friendly laptop ever made.

After 3 years with OLPC, In early 2008 she left OLPC to start a for-profit company, Pixel Qi, to commercialize some of the technologies she invented at OLPC. Pixel Qi's business is based on the concept that the screen is the most critical component of any mobile device.

Controls next to screen.

Mary Lou Jepsen is one of the first contributors in Google's "Solve for X” projects with her idea of "Imaging the Mind's Eye". For her work in creating the laptop Time Magazine named her to its 2008 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, and she has won the Edwin Land Medal for 2011 from the Optical Society. She has been named to numerous "top" lists in computing by Fast Company and Laptop Magazine and IEEE Spectrum and others.

You can tell that the OLPC organization had top notch talent.

Another unique design feature was the ability to rotate the screen around and close over the keyboard like a tablet computer. It didn’t have a touch screen, but there were several controls on the side of the screen, so programs could be interacted with without using the keyboard.

Touchpad (areas to right and left were for precise positioning, but not implemented.

Even the color of the computer was well thought out. It was a bright green and white, intended to look like a child’s toy. That reduced the likelihood that the device would be stolen and resold in poor countries. The computer was designed with a built-in handle to facilitate carrying the computer to and from school on foot and the plastic case and internal components were designed to be very rugged, able to handle repeated dropping without breakage. The laptop can sustain 5 foot drops. And, Unlike most modern laptops, if the display was broken, it could be easily replaced with simple tools.

The XO also pioneered the used of solid state drives so there would be no moving parts and the computer could be repaired by low skill technicians with simple tools. All designed for the intended environment. 

XO Home Screen.

The computer also had a built-in video camera to encourage the use of video in school projects, presentations, and home movie production. The laptop was intended to be a complete learning laboratory. Some of the exciting software included used simple sensors to measure distance and the OLPC encouraged children to use this tool to explore their environment … for example, survey their village.

Other software supported art, graphics, and music. Programming environments included Python and Pippy (an activity for exploring Python), Forth, JavaScript, Csound (a music programming language, Etoys … an implementation of Squeak … a programming language designed for children that uses a Lego Block programming idiom), Turtle Art, and Adobe Flash. Also Gecko, GUI toolkit, Matchbox, Pango, Gnome, Cairo, X Windows, Freetype, Telepathy, Avahi, GStreamer, Bitfrost, Mesh, Pygame, and Gettext. (Do a little google search if these are not familiar.)

View of the mesh network neighborhood.

There are programs for interaction, journaling, video editing, security, mathematics and calculating, and the list goes on. Further, using open source technology, the OLPC expected the tool set to be expanded by users and educators all over the world. The XO included tools for exploring, tools for expressing, tools for communicating, on-line games and tools for networking and internet access. The operating system is a version of Linux based on the Fedora distribution. There were several emulator environments available to allow program development using other, more powerful computers.

The final result met almost all the design criteria with one glaring exception. The cost was not $100, but nearer to $200. Although that was an excellent price given the technology of the time, it was not as low as was hoped for. Otherwise, at least in my opinion, the laptop met all of its design criteria. Criticism came more from the grand scheme of how the XO would change the education system in poor countries.

In addition, one of the original partners, Intel, later produced their own low cost and low power laptop and partnered with Microsoft sell the machines with Windows installed. Part of their sales pitch was the importance of introducing Windows to these populations. There were other political issues with dealing with national and local governments, but perhaps the overall problem was just the grandness of the scheme.

To quote the OLPC organization:
We aim to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.
This connectivity will be as ubiquitous as a formal or informal learning environment permits. OLPC propose a new kind of school, an “expanded school” which grows beyond the walls of the classroom. Last but not least, this connectivity ensures a dialogue among generations, nations and cultures. The OLPC network will speak every language.

All children are learners and teachers, and free and open source tools amplify this spirit of collaboration.

Selecting a program

A child with an XO is not a passive consumer of knowledge, but an active participant in a learning community. As children and teachers grow and pursue new ideas, their software, content, resources, and tools should be able to grow with them. The global nature of OLPC requires locally driven growth, driven in part by the children themselves. Each child with an XO can leverage the learning of other children. They can teach each other, share ideas, and support each other's growth.

No mention of improving standardized test scores in the OLPC claims, you'll notice. No talk of "student achievement." "The best preparation for children," according to the OLPC website isn't test prep. It is "to develop the passion for learning and the ability to learn how to learn."

Multi-tasking control

Standardized test scores in math and in language do not reflect "the ability to learn how to learn" -- they don't even purport to. But we fixate on test scores nevertheless. It is worth noting here that the study that prompted headlines about OLPC's "disappointing" test results -- one conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank using data collected from some 300 primary schools in rural Peru -- did find some improvement in students' cognitive skills (as in, "the ability to learn how to learn").

That study links that boost in cognitive skills to "increased interaction with technology." Make of that what you will. The study also found that having access to computers increases your access to computers.

The study points out other things too, and it asks "Could stricter adherence to the OLPC principles have brought about better academic outcomes?" Many students were not allowed to take their laptops home. Internet access was "practically non-existent." Just 70% of teachers had 40-hours of professional development before their students were given the devices.

Programming Interface

That last (missing) piece -- training for teachers -- has long been something that gets overlooked when it comes to educational-technology initiatives no matter the location, Peru or the U.S. It is almost as if we believe we can simply parachute technology in to a classroom and expect everyone to just pick it up, understand it, use it, hack it, and prosper.

There is no inherent external dependency in being able to localize software into their language, fix the software to remove bugs, and repurpose the software to fit their needs. Nor is there any restriction in regard to redistribution; OLPC cannot know and should not control how the tools users create will be re-purposed in the future.

A music synthesizer.

OLPC's goals require a world of great software and content, both open and proprietary. Children and teachers need the chance to choose from all of it. In the context of learning, knowledge should be free. Further, every child has something to contribute; we need a free and open framework that supports the human need to express and share.

My early experience with military electronic hardware was that the federal government would specify and purchase very expensive devices designed to be rugged and able to operate in the field. However, the commercial market often produced better and much cheaper equipment, although it did lack the metal, hard-shell case and environmental protection. Perhaps the XO is not longer relevant as the marketplace has produced very inexpensive hardware. Still the unique design of the OLPC laptop did make it particularly useful in these primitive environments.

One of the music editing programs.

The OLPC continues to produce new designs with several machines following in the footsteps of the original design, but the excitement has worn off and I am no longer a member of the organization. My current work is more focused on my local communities needs, but I found my time with OLPC to be very rewarding and they did enjoy some success, although I am more focused on the design success rather than the program success.

It will be interesting to see if the Raspberry Pi (or even a Google Chromebook) will succeed where OLPC failed. The organization went on to develop follow-on products to the XO and still exists today, but it has not grown into the success originally imagined by the founder and staff. The largest area of success for the organization has been in South America with recent installations in Argentina, Peru, Paragay, and Columbia. There are a total of nearly 2 million machines out there now, and so it may be too soon to be so dismissive of the final success.

One Laptop Per Child … seems like a grand goal to me. Although I’m no longer involved with the organization, I am still supporting this goal.

1 comment:

  1. Wow!!! This is really impressive step toward computer education to educate child. I you want best Laptops in South Africa then visit given link.