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One Volunteer Per Child - GNU/Linux and the Community

By René Pfeiffer

The gory details of code and hardware often hide the details of the "wetware", the human beings using technology. GNU/Linux software is driven by hundreds and thousands of people who in turn make the experience of using a computer a pleasant task for many more. There are many projects out there that want to reach the non-technical groups of our society. One of these projects is the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) organisation.

Technology and Teaching

Technology as seen in software and hardware doesn't fall from the sky. There have to be skilled designers and developers at work who think, code, build, test, and produce. These people don't fall from the sky, either. They have to learn their skills at school or at university. Learning to write a computer program is a lot easier when you have access to computers and tools that enable you to get your code to run. This sounds a bit like a vicious circle. Indeed, this is true, and can be readily experienced by teaching, let's say, Perl programming without a Perl interpreter. This is how bleak it looks in many schools around the world. It is especially true in developing countries and rural areas; in short, anywhere where there is not much budget for equipment.

This is where the One Laptop per Child project comes into play. It tries to address two issues. First, it supplies a tool that can be used for teaching. The XO-1, formerly known as the $100 laptop, is a laptop that can be used inside and outside school. It can be used for reading, for writing, for playing, for collaborating and lots of other activities. In fact, activities is the rather fitting name for applications on the XO-1. The XO-1 is networked by using wireless technology, thus finessing any need to integrate the One Crossover Cable per Child project (or worse) into the OLPC initiative. The second issue is giving access to technology for children in a playful way. If your only association with computers is a big black mainframe sitting in a air-conditioned dungeon, being ready to devour you alive, then you won't have much fun working with computers, and probably are not very keen on learning any technological skills. Managing a first contact situation without traumata is one of the primary goals of teachers.

So, all in all, the XO-1 is a wonderful thing - and it runs Linux! Which is all the better.

First Contact with the XO-1

My first contact with a XO-1 machine went without shock, but with even more curiosity. It happened during the Linuxwochen in Vienna, an annual event presenting talks, workshops, and companies working with Free Software at locations throughout Austria. Aaron Kaplan held a talk about the OLPC project, and managed to bring two XO-1s for anyone to try. The laptops fell prey to the visitors, so you had to be quick to get a glance at the system. However it was easy to hear them, for many played with the musical sequencer software called TamTam. The XO-1s desktop is tailored for children. This means that you navigate by using symbols. The desktop also tries to express its messages by means of graphics and icons.

The hardware is tuned for low power consumption, in order to make deployment in areas with an unstable electrical power grid easier. Recharging can be done via solar panels or mechanical generators, such as a spindle that can be operated by pulling a rope. The display is either backlit or operates in a contrast mode; the latter allows for reading text on the screen in broad sunlight. The CPU of the newer models is capable of displaying video clips on-screen. Networking is done by using wireless network cards. The laptops autoextend the range of the network by using mesh technology; this means that every XO-1 acts as a wireless client and as a mesh router. Mesh routing is also done while the system is not being used - i.e., in sleep mode.

There is a lot of design in this laptop. Which brings me to the people who thought of all this.

Getting Involved and Being Part of the Community

So, how did the two XO-1s end up at the Linuxwochen, and how did Aaron get involved in all of this? Since curiosity is part of my job description, I asked Aaron a couple of questions.

Our Turn

I deliberately wrote "our turn": Teaching children the ways of the world can be done (and should be done) by any of us. Teaching children what Free Software can do may be something to start with. You don't need programming skills to do that. All you need is to write, to read, and to talk, as Aaron said. And the OLPC project is not the only one of its kind. There are lots of efforts in progress to achieve similar goals, and most of them go nowhere without a community.

Useful Links

I picked some links to the OLPC project, volunteer Web sites, and things I mentioned in the article. I don't wish to rate any efforts by omission; I just mention a few, and probably missed many.

Talkback: Discuss this article with The Answer Gang

Bio picture

René was born in the year of Atari's founding and the release of the game Pong. Since his early youth he started taking things apart to see how they work. He couldn't even pass construction sites without looking for electrical wires that might seem interesting. The interest in computing began when his grandfather bought him a 4-bit microcontroller with 256 byte RAM and a 4096 byte operating system, forcing him to learn assembler before any other language.

After finishing school he went to university in order to study physics. He then collected experiences with a C64, a C128, two Amigas, DEC's Ultrix, OpenVMS and finally GNU/Linux on a PC in 1997. He is using Linux since this day and still likes to take things apart und put them together again. Freedom of tinkering brought him close to the Free Software movement, where he puts some effort into the right to understand how things work. He is also involved with civil liberty groups focusing on digital rights.

Since 1999 he is offering his skills as a freelancer. His main activities include system/network administration, scripting and consulting. In 2001 he started to give lectures on computer security at the Technikum Wien. Apart from staring into computer monitors, inspecting hardware and talking to network equipment he is fond of scuba diving, writing, or photographing with his digital camera. He would like to have a go at storytelling and roleplaying again as soon as he finds some more spare time on his backup devices.

Copyright © 2007, René Pfeiffer. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 141 of Linux Gazette, August 2007