Madison XO laptop project

Published August 27, 2008
Story idea was successfully pitched to the Wisconsin State Journal, which ran an article about this project August 20, 2008 before my piece went public.

Madison XO laptop project brings innovative tool to local children

In a snug two-bedroom apartment on Madison’s south side, University of Wisconsin-Madison industrial and systems engineering and education graduate student Silas Bernardoni plugs in green and white laptops, charging them for class.

The calm breaks when the doorbell rings and six children ranging from 6 to 10 years old tumble into the apartment, which has been converted into the Southdale Kids Club Day Camp. The students are here for a weekly session of the pilot program designed by UW-Madison volunteers to introduce underrepresented minority children to the world of computers.

The students settle around two long tables and open their XO laptops from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. Initiated by faculty from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, OLPC provides inexpensive laptops to third world countries. The rugged laptops, called XO because the logo is the outline of a child when rotated 90 degrees, are designed to help children learn computer programming and become familiar with technology.

In addition to teaching the students, the UW-Madison volunteers are compiling research data on XO usability to determine whether the laptops are viable education tools for Wisconsin schools. Sandra Courter, a UW-Madison Engineering Professional Development (EPD) assistant professor and director of the Engineering Learning Center, and EPD faculty associate George Johnson document each class session while Bernardoni teaches.

The Madison XO project began earlier this year when outgoing UW-Madison Chancellor John D. Wiley watched a 60 Minutes special about the XO laptops. “It struck me—if the program had such promise in the third world, it seemed a shame we couldn’t do something with it in the United States,” he says.

Wiley contacted OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte and, along with UW-Madison mathematics professor Terry Millar, met in New York to discuss how XO laptops could be used in U.S. school districts. Wiley returned to Wisconsin with 10 donated computers, and the project is currently in the process of obtaining 100 more.

While Wiley was negotiating with Negroponte, a few faculty and staff members around campus were exploring their personal XO computers purchased as part of MIT’s Get One Give One event. The November 2007 promotion allowed U.S. residents to buy an XO for a brief window of time for twice the price. For every XO purchased, MIT sent another one overseas.

Wiley brought together a group of the private XO enthusiasts from around campus. The group, which has representatives from the College of Engineering, the School of Education and the Division of Information Technology, serves as a technological resource and a pool of ideas for the day camp course, which is sponsored by Bethel Lutheran Church.

“I’m pleased to see the level of interest in this project,” Wiley says. “People have stepped up with great ideas.”

Graduate student Bernardoni is one of the dedicated project volunteers. Bernardoni develops the curriculum for each week’s course, which is then approved by the rest of the group. On Wednesdays, he leads the kids through a series of activities while Courter and Johnson assist and document the class.

Bernardoni estimates he spends 30 hours a week learning the XO and preparing the courses. Preparation takes so long because Bernardoni and the other group members have to learn everything themselves—there are no user manuals for the XO laptops, which are not like traditional PC or MacIntosh laptops.

Bernardoni doesn’t mind the time commitment, though. He’s passionate about the project because it’s an opportunity for individuals from all levels of the university to use an innovative educational tool that will help local disadvantaged children. He says the pilot program has potential for other summer and after-school programs throughout Wisconsin.

“The XO has the potential to open up new opportunities for children to explore, experiment and communicate with each other in ways unparalleled with today’s mainstream computers,” he says.

The laptops use a Linux-based operating system and open source software that enables students to view and manipulate programming code. The XOs also are well equipped for communal learning with mesh networking capabilities that allow students to play games or surf the Internet together.

“The students are learning computer logic that transfers to other computers,” says Johnson. “Starting on an XO helps you understand basic computer navigation.”

Courter agrees, adding the pilot program addresses even more foundational concepts. “We’re helping them learn how to learn,” she says. “The goal is to see how the use of XOs improves self-confidence and their ability to use technology.”

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