Wednesday, January 27, 2010

OLPC/Sugar in New York

We had the lucky chance to meet with some OLPC/Sugar people in New York last week. (It was cheapest for us to fly first from Finland to New York and then from New York to Peru.) After packing our home into storage boxes a few days before our departure, the worst anxiety vanished, we realised we are *really* going, and started to plan the two days we'd have in New York between the flights. Even on such a short notice, the people that Walter Bender of Sugar Labs suggested we should contact were able to invite us to visit them.

Thus on Thursday, we headed from our hostel Jazz on the Park to the Grand Central Terminal and boarded a Metro North train towards Westchester County, which lies on the map right above New York City. The middle school in the town of Croton on Hudson is running a pilot deployment of the OLPC XO-1 laptops on their fifth grade classes, one for each of the about 150 pupils as it is meant to be.

We were warmly welcomed by Gerald Ardito, who is a science teacher, a graduate student and the father of this pilot. The teachers were mostly busy running the classes, but we still had the opportunity to have good chats with Gerald, some pupils, the vice principal, and the teacher who uses the laptops most, as well as follow a geography class with some Memorize and Browse in use. Everyone we met was open to discussions, and at the end of the day we got several offers from the parents and the personnel for a lift back to the train station. (The traffic sign announcing the one-way street wasn't there when I took the photo - honestly!)

Teaching Matters

The next day, we walked a few blocks uptown from the hostel and towards the river to meet Jane Condliffe and John Clemente of Teaching Matters. The NGO works with many of the schools in the city, and has participated in the implementation of multiple OLPC pilot programs. However, the city School Board is not able to start any new pilots in the current situation. Teaching Matters has the experience though and has been helping another deployment elsewhere meanwhile. Currently, they are running other projects such as advancing the use of web-based material in the classroom. Regarding the OLPCs, we discussed basically the same hardware and teacher training issues as in Croton, as well as some ideas for developing new software.

Jane and John had a good point in having to pick one's battles: you might be eager to concentrate your efforts on convincing the less interested teachers of the virtues of OLPC and Sugar. Meanwhile, the individually interested teachers need support too, and their success or failure will set a precedent in the eyes of all teachers. While this doesn't directly translate to the situation in Peru, where most schools have a single teacher, I think it generalises to the efforts on the national and global scale: OLPC and Sugar need well-studied and widely published success stories. Even if a teacher has prejudice against technology in education, showing a video of eager XO pupils and their satisfied teachers can turn the tide.

Jane and John were very helpful and promised to send us some of their written material and try to answer any questions that might arise during our stay in Peru.

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