Providing Lesotho's Children with Keys to the World

This is the story of our efforts to end the vicious cycle of poverty, disease, inadequate education, and early death
in a remote rural community in Lesotho, Africa, by providing quality education and life skills
to the young children there. Join us on our journey ...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Report on 2012 OLPC San Francisco Summit

Last month, I attended the 2012 OLPC-San Francisco Summit (October 19-21) and Sugar Camp (October 22-23). I met lots of wonderful, talented people who are deeply dedicated to helping children in the developing world. But, as someone looking for ways to make our ongoing deployment more effective, I found the conference sessions a bit disappointing.
There wasn't much concrete information available in the sessions I attended at the Summit, and I came away without the working network servers or educational materials I had hoped to acquire there. However, I was able to arrange for a volunteer willing to travel to Lesotho to provide technical assistance, hopefully setting up the servers for us. I also met people who have since provided some excellent educational materials for use with the XO laptop.  And, I made contact with someone with connections that might lead to future funding for L2L. So, while the sessions were not as helpful as I had hoped, attending the conference definitely provided benefits to L2L.
The following are summaries of sessions I attended at the conference.
Server Based Learning Systems
Part 1: Tony Anderson is working on a very promising system to provide a wealth of educational materials to teachers and students at schools without internet access, called the Karma Learning System ( The interface is simple to use, which will make it very useful for the Lesotho teachers. Hopefully, Tony will have this completed soon.  (Caryl Bigenho and others are helping him with this as part of an online class project.)
Part 2: Sameer Verma discussed the Moodle Learning System, which is used by many high schools and universities. This is an excellent learning system, but the interface is complex, which would discourage the primary school teachers in Lesotho from using it, especially the newest computer learners. Currently, it requires internet access, which greatly restricts its usefulness for projects like ours without internet. There was talk of modifying this for use by deployments without internet access, but I don't know how far along this is.
International Curriculum and Teacher Training: Caryl Bigenho led a discussion about why teachers aren't using XO laptops in many of the OLPC deployments. One conclusion was that there is not enough curriculum-based materials readily available for them to use. Actually, there is a lot of material "out there," but it is not "readily available" because it is widely scattered and hard to find. Currently, it requires good internet access and a lot of time to find and download. There was discussion about the need for a curator to compile all this material in one place and make it easily available, possible on a flash drive or disk for sites without internet. However, as far as I'm aware, this was not addressed further during the Summit, and no action was taken.
Etoys:  Mike Lee discussed some excellent work he’s been doing using the Etoys activity with street children in Zambia.  My major take-away, though, was it took a lot of hard work by a large, dedicated group of volunteers and $30,000 to organize and translate the materials.  That’s a lot of money and obviously not something we could currently afford to replicate in Lesotho.  The Zambian group has received $300,000 to do more of this work.    My hope is that they will eventually produce materials that can be used outside of Zambia.
Community XS – an update on the School Server: Tony Anderson planned to show how to build a server but was unable to because he had the wrong type of memory. Tony also talked a bit about his Karma Learning System and about network servers.  George Hunt gave a presentation of the XS server software he and others are developing, which has a simplified interface, but it is not yet complete.  Daniel Drake presented a wonderful system called Puppet for keeping servers at multiple deployments up-to-date.
Challenges in Difficult Deployments:  I missed the first part of this session, but what I did attend was a litany of failures at the Birmingham, Alabama, USA, deployment.  Unfortunately, there were no insights, suggestions, or discussion of how future deployments could avoid these problems.
I gave a short presentation about Laptops to Lesotho, and a lot of people at the conference were impressed with the work we are doing. I made contact with several people who want to help us.

Tony Anderson  has experience with OLPC deployments in Nepal and Rwanda and is an expert at setting up school network servers for XO laptops.  Tony has offered to come to Lesotho after Christmas and stay into February. He will install network servers at Nohana and Kokobe and hopefully copy lots of appropriate educational software onto the servers, install his learning management system (if it's done) and help us teach the teachers and students how to use the server and learning systems.   I am very excited about this development and see it as an opportunity to vastly improve the educational value of the laptops already in Lesotho.
I got a chance to spend a lot of time talking to Rod Weiss, a man who acquires funding for very large projects. He shared some of my concerns about the OLPC organization and was impressed by our alternative approach in Lesotho. We discussed ways to make the work OLPC does more efficient, including coordinating their efforts with other organizations that have more experience delivering aid in developing nations. He’s interested in getting funding to hire people to do this, including someone to organize and curate all the free educational materials already available online. He’s also interested in things like making internet available country-wide rather than doing it piecemeal at individual sites.
Rod’s got a financial backer who may fund some or all of this if he likes what Rod proposes. While this wouldn’t immediately help us, we might eventually see some benefit. Of more immediate interest to L2L is that Rod has connections with the southern California Rotary Clubs. If he will put in a good word for us, we might be able to get funding from them. I will be contacting Rod soon to follow up on that.

- Janissa

p.s. L2L incurred virtually no expenses for this conference because I was able to stay with friends, cost of gas was minimal (thanks to my new Kia Rio!), and I paid for all my meals.