Saturday, August 15, 2009

Some Challenges

Before we left Freetown, Faaez had picked up a few phrases in Krio-the lingua franca of Sierra Leone-and he was quite sure he could understand almost anything someone says after spending six days in the crowded city. With Faaez convinced that he had the language under control, we decided it was time to head off to the village with our 100 XOs and our 8 other team members. The road was rough, and the journey was long. We knew ahead of time that we will face some challenges. However, we never anticipated the magnitude.

We had decided our project will be executed in Sahn Malen, a small village of about 1,500 inhabitants all fluent in Mende-the most popular parlance in the southern province of Sierra Leone. The locals in Sahn are at ease with 24 hours of no electricity-a phenomenon that will cause chaos in advanced countries. Before deciding to bring the XO project to Sahn, we knew that our site was off-grid. As a result, we decided on getting solar panels to power the XOs and thus make the project environmentally friendly.

With our panels in transit in Sao Tome, we decided to organize daily peer-tutor sessions to get our peer tutors some hands-on experience with all this new technology. Having the generator from the December distribution on full blast, we scooped up some fuel and got our session going. About a week into the program, our generator suffered from a host of complications including severe automatic shut-down syndrome (SASS) triggered by a nearly fatal spark-plug and carburetor retrovirus of the S1C1 strain (thanks to the expertise of our 21st century locally bred “technovirologist” for his near noble-prize-winning discovery). After several visits by the technical doctor (Alfred), we agreed on getting a brand new baby to get the program back on its legs. I together with Faaez left for Bo to check-out a decent Honda Stephill 2.7kVA generator. With the new generator in place for back-up, the arrival of our solar panels allowed us to initiate the registration process to get the learning underway.

Prior to our first arrival in Sahn, we knew that only a tiny percentage of the population was fluent in Krio or English. We had picked up what we considered the most important vocabulary for survival in any community i.e. general greetings, good bye and thank you (thanks to David S.). During the XO registration process, we had a series of questions we asked every child. They included, their name, resident village, parent/guardian name, whether or not somebody in their household had an XO, and lastly, which of the two primary schools they attend. Needless to say these questions were asked in Krio and English, however, most of the children managed to provide answers only after a Mende interpreter regurgitated the questions in the finest words of their dialect.

On the second day, I decided it was high time I stopped using an interpreter. The XOs are designed in English, and it will be great to continue the registration process in English or at the very least, Krio. After all, the whole program is about learning and getting the children to speak English will be great. As usual, a queue of excited children at my desk, a spreadsheet on my screen, Faaez with a digital camera at the other end and a stack of XOs beside me, I started soliciting answers to the questions in front of me. After an interpreter’s help with the first four children, the ever-extending file seemed ready for my questions in English. The next three children seemed to be at ease with the questions. I decided to change the sequence of the questions with the next kid, and I asked “what village are you coming from? Hawa Sheriff” he replied. This kid had just given me his mother’s name instead of his resident village. However, after a few tries, he was able to come up with the right answer. This shows that the children in Sahn Malen are ready to learn even after an initial attempt at answering my question failed. The learning continues.

Every training session is all chaos and anxiety. It seems as if every child in Sahn wants to own an XO. We only have 100 and an extra 30 from the previous distribution, all of which have been allocated. We decided that children in the 5th grade will be the sole beneficiaries of this summer’s project because the population matched the quantity of XOs we had, the age range and also the required reading skills. Even after a community meeting with parents, children and the elders in the village, a bunch of children who do not fit the grade criterion still show up on a daily basis for registration. Despite our efforts in communicating to these children that they will not be receiving XOs, their relentless zeal keeps them coming to our daily sessions. We now face a situation of inadequacy. It would be great to get more XOs to the all the kids who are willing to learn. We hope this project will be a success and that it can attract more support in the future. We pause for time’s decision.

Best of times,

Carlos Meheux

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mugshot montage

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Pictures from the distribution

Pictures and projects uploaded!

Hey everyone,

I've edited previous posts(and published some new ones) with pictures from the deployment and some projects that the children did.

I'm sure this will add some perspective. So, do indulge yourself,



Like all other teams, we did not want our project to fizzle away after we leave and so from the start, sustainability was an important consideration. Here are a few aspects of just that

1. Local Partnerships: Since Sahn Malen's affairs are overseen by a local chief, we met with him, introduced him to the project and elicited his help in things like security of the XOs(his office will have a detailed list of the children who have the XOs and their serial numbers in case of theft etc.).

The chief also held a village-wide meeting where we introduced ourselves and the project to the community and talked about aspects that we felt were important(child ownership of the laptops, security of the XOs and the children, importance of the local community's support to the project and the fact that this was the first village in Sierra Leone to have a deployment like this and hence its importance as a pilot project).

We also had a meeting with the parents of the children who received the XOs. This we conveniently did on the day when the parents were in town for collecting their childrens' report cards.

Furthermore, it was important to get the local school staff on board. We had frequent meetings with both the schools' principals and the class 5 teachers to update them on the project.

2. Hedging the bets: I've already described the structure of the program in a previous post, whereby we will have local adult leads who will be responsible for different aspects of the program. But to make sure that the program doesn't fall apart in case one member moves away or is unable to continue with the project for whatever reason, we worked with and trained three local volunteers as well who would take over in case of a contingency.

3. Finances: The only running costs we will incur after we have left will be the stipends for the local adult leads, scholarships for the peer tutors, internet connectivity charges and any spare parts that we send to Sahn Malen. We planned our current finances to provide for one year(until June 2010). For beyond this, we will fundraise once we get back to the US. The funds will be dispensed to the relevant individuals by our local partner, Mr. Paul Sengeh, Project Evaluation Officer at UNICEF, Sierra Leone.

4. Accountability: The peer tutors will keep receiving their scholarship and the adult leads their stipend only if they show continuous commitment to the project and deliver what is expected of them. To make this clear, the adult leads signed a Memorandum of Understanding with us, which explicitly listed their responsibilties and ours for the coming year.

5. Communication: To ensure accountability however, we need and plan to remain in constant touch with the adult leads, the peer tutors and our local partners in the village(Chief Kebbie and Elder Sengeh) to ensure that everything is running smoothly. In addition to the monthly telephonic conversations, we are also in touch with the adult leads over email.

Some suggestions for OLPC/ future deployments

There were a couple of observations we thought might be useful for future OLPC deployments:

1. The solar panels we received from GP Solar had very flimsy construction on the back. A number of them had the back panels(that cover the wire ganglion coming out of the panel) came off on the very first use. This was probably a problem specific to this consignment because none of the six panels we had from the December deployment had such issues. They work pretty well regardless and I doubt that it will have much of an effect on their performance, but nevertheless this is something that could maybe be taken up with the manufacturer.

2. The color palette in Paint is pretty counter-intuitive with its external dial for color and internal triangle for gradation. The kids(and teachers) had a hard time getting hang of it. Maybe a simpler palette like the one in Adobe applications in the next version of Sugar?

3. The scroll bar in Browse etc. should be more visible.

4. Menus should be navigable by keyboard arrow keys, given that the mouse pad goes awry so frequently/ a better mouse pad could be used.

5. Sometimes USB memory sticks would stop mounting inexplicably. The solution was to use a PC/Mac to open the USB and delete the five hidden folders in the drive that start with a dot(like and .TemporaryItems). This probably reset folder parsing information for Sugar, since it doesn't work with folders.

6. Double-click speed for apps that do use them(e.g. Firefox) is too fast. Is there a way to reduce that?

7. This might work differently for different deployments, but we found that the traditional classroom-like approach where we stood up front and tried to "teach" children how to do stuff, didn't work. I mentioned this in an earlier post, I think, but working with a few children and teaching them how to do things one-on-one would ensure that the knowledge spread like a virus. Or like NAND-blasting upgrades. Hm, maybe that last analogy was a bit overboard. In any case, you get my point.

8. Sierra Leoneans love their buzzwords. So did Rwandans. And it's important to get past them. In Rwanda, there was the ICT(Information and Communication Technologies) and in Sierra Leone, it is the haloed "Computer Literacy". I feel like it would be dangerous to let the OLPC delployment and the XOs be bundled under and restricted by those headlines. So for us, it was important to continuously emphasize that OLPC is more than just about computer literacyand that it is first and foremost an educational project.

Sample Student Projects

Hey all,

So we have wrapped up in Sahn Malen and I am home right now. It's been a great two months and I'm looking forward to going back some day already. Thanks to all of you who have been reading our blogs.

The project for us, however, is hardly over. We've merely moved into phase II of the project which will include continuous support, technical and otherwise, to the team in Sahn Malen, fundraising and scouting out opportunities for further expansion of the project.

As I said, the children were already making great progress with their XOs and I have some sample projects that I thought I would share. We will be using this blogspace to keep uploading projects from students in Sahn throughout the year.

1. 9 years old Eva and 12 years old Fanta recorded a local song in Mende using the Record activity. Eva and Fanta are in class 3 and 5 respectively and Eva is the girl in the foreground:

2. Francis Jibrilla, one of our younger peer tutors, uses paint for this masterpiece:

3. Abie Mustafa, house:

4. Mohammad Jalloh, another one of our peer tutors from JSS III, makes Jacob look prettier than he actually is(combination of Record and Paint):

5. Fatmata George, another one of our budding singers from class 3:

6. Now for my favorite project from the summer: One of the peer tutor groups decided to(admissibly with some egging from us) do a project related to malaria, since it was such a buzz in the village over the summer(because of our parallel malaria nets project; for more, check out the updates in the top-right corner of this page). In the beginning, the peer tutor, Mohammad Jalloh, explained to his children how malaria was transferred and where and how mosquitoes breed and then the children went out in small teams to photograph potentially good mosquito-breeding sites. They used Record to do this. Afterward, they got together and explained to their peers why they thought it was a good site and what could be done to repair it. Here are some photos that they took with their XOs:

6. Sallamatu Kandeh, House (Paint):

7. Sallamatu Kandeh is the youngest(and one of the brigthest) peer tutor from JSS II. She used the Memory program on her XO to make an activity that would help her "tutees" to get to know each other better. She took a picture of each one of them and paired them with their names to create her own Memory activity. Here are some pictures:

8. Thomas Gbonnie, one of the peer tutors is teaching Alpha Sengeh how to use Record to conduct an interview:

That's it for now. But do stay tuned, we will be updating the blog throughout the year with projects that the adult leads send us over email.