The value of culture

XVI.4 July + August 2009
Page: 52
Digital Citation

UNDER DEVELOPMENTOne year of experiences with XO laptops in Uruguay


Authors:
Pablo Flores, Juan Hourcade

Nicholas Negroponte launched the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation in 2005 with the goal of providing poor children with low-cost laptops designed to enhance the learning process. While much of the press about OLPC has focused on the cost of the laptops, their design incorporates many novel elements in both hardware and software [1]. In some ways OLPC may be the largest experiment in the history of human-computer interaction. Yet apart from minor exceptions [2], little is known about the project and its progress aside from press releases and reports from OLPC. Here, we describe how Uruguay, one of the first countries to follow the OLPC vision, has been using the XO laptops.

The OLPC initiative set out to design a laptop that could provide functionality similar to that of a mainstream laptop in areas such as processing power, connectivity, and multimedia capabilities while making it rugged, low-cost, highly mobile, and energy efficient. The resulting XO laptops weigh 1.45 kg and measure 24.2×22.8×3.2 cm. Their rugged features include the use of flash memory instead of a hard disk, and a keyboard made of rubber to protect against spills and dust. The laptop incorporates a video camera, supports WiFi connectivity, and can be used in handheld mode by rotating the screen and folding it atop the keyboard.

The laptop’s Sugar environment (XO’s Linux-based OS) aims to support educational activities and provides a very different user experience from that of current mainstream operating systems. For starters, there are no windows. Instead, all applications run in full-screen mode. And there are not really applications; instead, there are activities. The laptop disregards the “office” metaphor, favoring concepts more familiar to children, such as friends, neighborhood, and journal.

Uruguay As An OLPC Candidate

In many ways, Uruguay seems like the ideal candidate for OLPC’s ideas: high-speed Internet connections are accessible throughout the country; there are no major problems with civil unrest or crime that could threaten implementation; and Uruguay has had free, compulsory elementary school education for more than a century, leading to high literacy rates (near 98 percent, as of 2007) [3]. Because Uruguay is a Spanish-speaking country, the children have access to large amounts of content they can read on the Web, and interface elements in English can still be vocalized.

The Uruguayan government implemented the Ceibal project to provide every child in public elementary schools (grades 1–6) with a laptop by 2009. As of August 2008, approximately 120,000 XO laptops had been distributed, with an estimated total of 350,000 by the end of 2009. The children own the laptops; they take them home from school each day and get to keep them upon graduation.

We started by teaching children and instructors the basics of using the XO laptops, focusing primarily on emailing and blogging. Villa Cardal, a small dairy-farm town of about 1,200 inhabitants, was one of the first areas in Uruguay to receive the XOs. During the first four months of Ceibal in 2007, we visited the school 11 times. Since then, we have conducted five workshops with parents of children who received laptops at various localities, and spoken with eight groups of teachers from several schools as they received training before and after receiving the laptops.


Children and adults have responded to Sugar very differently. While adults find it difficult to adapt their WIMP (window, icon, menu, pointing device) approach to Sugar’s interface, most children find Sugar intuitive and feel free to explore the environment.

 


Use of the Hardware

The children have great affinity for the XOs; some even prefer them over existing computers at home. This is partly due to their sense of ownership, but it’s also a result of the laptops’ toy-like aesthetic. The same is not true for adults who are often frustrated at trying to open the laptop, using the touchpad, and trying to type on the small keyboard.

The characteristics that have proved most advantageous are the XO’s mobility, camera, screen, and handheld mode. By being light, small, rugged, and energy efficient, the laptops are very mobile, making it easy to conduct collaborative classroom activities. Mobility also makes it possible for children to carry their laptops during field trips. Moreover, the laptops have an impact in the home, as parents and siblings can also use them. It is not unusual to see children with their families browsing the Web right outside the school after school hours. The children are very motivated to use the camera, which, in turn, has been useful for teachers in assigning activities to gather information outside the classroom. The screen has proven effective, with children able to use it outdoors on sunny days without problems. It took time for the children to become comfortable using the handheld mode, but after a few weeks they preferred it for reading, taking pictures, and playing games.

The characteristics that have caused the most problems are the heavy-use input devices: the touchpad and the keyboard. The touchpad was supposed to have dual modes, so it could also be used as a stylus area for drawing. This feature was tested in Villa Cardal but later disabled because it was rarely used, probably because most of the available software did not take advantage of it. Furthermore, using the sketch mode caused additional problems, as children sometimes pushed stylus-type items too hard against the touchpad and ended up breaking it. Aside from this problem, the touchpads have been very unstable, frequently losing calibration. While undamaged keyboards work well in terms of preventing liquids or dust from entering the computer, children often make holes in them with their fingernails, pencils, compasses, and other school supplies. The most unusual case involved a parrot who picked out several keys in a child’s home. It is also easy for children to get ink on the keyboards, which can be very difficult to remove. In addition, there have been several cases in which the keyboards stopped working without any visible physical damage.

Use of the Software

Children and adults have responded to Sugar very differently. While adults find it difficult to adapt their WIMP (window, icon, menu, pointing device) approach to Sugar’s interface, most children find Sugar intuitive and feel free to explore the environment (see Figure 1). However, some problems remain with the software. These include problems with the critical feature of mesh networking (it fails often, especially in classrooms with many children), copy-paste (you cannot copy text from the Web browser into the text editor), and Web browsing (you cannot load Flash movies). Beyond these problems, the stability of the system is similar to that of popular platforms such as recent versions of Microsoft Windows.

The most common activity is the use of the Web. According to teachers, it has motivated children to read more, as they can find previously inaccessible content of interest. Worth noting is that the highest bandwidth usage per child has been registered in rural areas and poor urban areas. Google is the most popular destination for children and teachers searching for information. When training teachers, we emphasized how to deal with large amounts of information and how to distinguish valuable information from untrustworthy sources. Blogs have been a great motivator for children, who are always excited about sharing content they create for everyone to see. Children have also uploaded videos to the Web, with one showing a cow giving birth surpassing 100,000 hits on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOzBTGGVWNg). Email has rarely been used, likely due to the fact that only a poorly designed Web-based email client was made available to the children. One of the problems with this and other Web applications is the difficulty children have using anything that requires usernames and passwords.

Aside from Web access, common activities include the use of the text editor, the drawing program, and the camera. Another popular activity is TurtleArt, a visual take on the Logo language that teachers use for math and geometry lessons. Even though many of the activities included a blend of English and Spanish in the user interface, this did not seem to deter the children (see Figure 2).

While it is too early to draw conclusions on the long-term impact of the XO laptops, thus far the experiences have been mostly positive. In particular, the laptops’ mobility and connectivity have encouraged collaboration in the classroom, extended the impact of the laptops beyond the classroom, and motivated children to read and write. The problems we discussed, while currently posing some barriers, should be easy to fix in future versions of the hardware and software. The early success of XO laptops in Uruguay suggests that devices with similar mobility and connectivity, such as netbooks, may provide advantages for children over traditional school computer laboratories and even larger laptops. This is because XO laptops and netbooks are more mobile than larger laptops and desktop computers, yet still provide full keyboards and a large enough display to support a wide set of activities.

References

1. One Laptop Per Child. <http://laptop.org>

2. Hourcade, J.P., D. Beitler, F. Cormenzana, and P. Flores. “Early OLPC Experiences in a Rural Uruguayan School.” Extended Abstracts of CHI 2008 Conference (alt.chi). New York: ACM Press, 2503–2512.

3. Republica Orienal del Uruguay, Instituto Nacional de Estadística. <http://www.ine.gub.uy>

Authors

Pablo Flores is a computer engineer, adjunct professor, and research scientist at the Universidad de la República in Uruguay. He specializes in project management for computer networking and telecommunication projects. He helped coordinate technological and educational aspects of the introduction of XO laptops in Uruguayan schools during the first year of deployment. Flores is currently part of Flor de Ceibo, an outreach project of Universidad de la República to support Plan Ceibal. He also participates in research about 1:1 projects in Latin America and is a founding member of Ceibal Jam, a civil association for software development for Plan Ceibal.

Juan Pablo Hourcade grew up in Uruguay and is now an assistant professor at the University of Iowa’s Department of Computer Science. His main area of research is human-computer interaction, with a concentration on technologies that support creativity, collaboration, and information access for a variety of users, including children and older adults.

Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1551986.1551997

Figures

UF1Figure. The XO laptops distributed by the Uruguayan government have benefited local children at school and at home. The Ceibal project is one of the more successful implementations of the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

F1Figure 1. Home screen in Sugar.

F2Figure 2. A screenshot of TurtleArt.


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