Announcement: A new Monthly Houston OLPC club for kids

by Robert Nagle on 11/12/2007

in Texas/Regional,xo laptop

Update Jan 3: First Meeting will be Saturday Jan 19 at Montrose Library 3:00 PM.  (Read more details and RSVP here)

Update December 19: See the http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Houston-laptops-for-children/ mailing list and the Houston OLPC user forum

Update: I wrote an article for OLPCNews about my user group for XO laptop owners.

Big news: I have bought a XO/OLPC laptop this morning. I’ll be giving it to my nephew this Christmas. The Teleread ebook technology site I write for will provide extensive coverage of XO (though it will have to be from an adult’s perspective until Christmas day). Here’s an article I posted yesterday covering the current features and its potential as an ebook reading device for children.

Although the number of OLPC owners in Houston will probably be small, I’m guessing there will be enough to support a monthly club (and they’d definitely want to get together). Also, I think that declining prices and Intel’s plan to support the OLPC platform in their upcoming children’s device will probably mean the number of children on OLPC platform locally will increase over time.

I was wondering:

  1. Is anyone in the Houston area already planning a pilot program or bulk-purchase of some kind?
  2. Are any teachers (and/or graduate students) in this area planning to become involved with preparing OLPC activities/lessons in any way?
  3. Are any organizations interested in providing any kind of support or this activity (in terms of facilities, supplies, people)?

Also, I am looking for geeks/parents who are willing to help run/organize meetings. Preferably someone with a background in programming or education or creative thinking. As passionate as I am about this project, I probably wouldn’t have the ability or time to run anything larger than a monthly Saturday club (with guests, activities, etc). If someone else is running something similar (but in a more structured way or within a school environment), can you please let me know? Perhaps there are ways in which our efforts can compliment one another.

The website I help run is interested in OLPC specifically for ebooks/textbooks. To that end, we will try to assemble a kid-friendly catalog of ebooks/e-textbooks for free download. Depending on the level of interest, we may also try to assemble lesson plans/learning activities and teacher’s guides.

I bought the www.laptopsarefun.com domain yesterday and eventually that will be the place to go for information about Houston activities.

Some other thoughts:

  1. Can kids who don’t have OLPC laptops or any laptops come to these meetings? Honestly, I haven’t thought that far in advance. I would love to keep the meetings as open as possible, and perhaps a student could share laptops with one or two guests. But if we have too many guests and not enough laptops, it could be a frustrating experience for everyone. Ideally, we’d love to have an organization provide extra laptops as a pilot/testing program. Organizations could buy laptops for discounted rates ($299 in amounts of 100 or more), but on the other hand, it’s easier to deal with kids who own their own laptops.
  2. Can parents/visitors/teachers attend these meetings? That really depends on the venue we have, the level of participation and the number of OLPC laptops. One idea is to have two separate meetings: one entirely for children, and another for adults/parents/teachers with a few children. We can work that out once we get closer to the meeting date.
  3. When and where will the first meeting be? Have you noticed that all of the FAQ answers so far are “I don’t know” :). My expectation is that the first meeting will be in the 2nd or 3rd week of January. I will try to find a convenient location. Interestingly, it may not be as vital to have Wifi because the devices are designed to facilitate ad hoc networking and collaboration.
  4. I (or my child) have a Linux or Apple or Windows Laptop. Is it possible for me to participate? It depends. It is possible to emulate a OLPC/XO laptop on both Windows and Linux (see the instructions here for how to emulate a OLPC laptop). The short answer is to download an image and use a program called qemu to create a successful emulator environment. I haven’t tried it yet, although I did try testing the Live CD. From what I’ve read, the emulators don’t have working sound, and they tend to respond more slowly than a normal OLPC, but they seem to work ok. I will have better information later.
  5. $400 is too expensive. Should I buy now or wait? Here’s a few things to keep in mind. I’m guessing the OLPC/XO machine will go down in price in the US to about $200 by summer (probably helped by people selling it on ebay). Also, next year Intel’s Classmate PC will be probably available at schools and/or sale to individuals in 2008. It has better hardware specs and will support Windows installations as well as linux/OLPC installations. I would expect their price to be in the $200-250 range when they appear. Also, don’t forget two other alternatives. Now you can buy a supercheap Asus EEE 701 laptop or better yet, buy a used laptop (which you could easily find for below $300). According to CNN, 40,000 units will be produced in November, 80,000 in December and 120,000 in January.
  6. Why is OLPC better than normal laptops? First, it’s hardware is designed specifically for a young person’s lifestyle, and the display is cutting edge. It’s easy to forget that this laptop is the ideal form factor for casual reading of downloadable ebooks(especially with the long battery life). Also, the software is chosen to support exploratory learning according to the constructivist teaching methods. It will be invaluable to teach people to program using kid-friendly programming methods (like etoys and python) and weave narratives using technology. Although open source development can be chaotic, in fact the final laptop version will have tight integration of features such as webcam, microphones, wifi. Using a OLPC will let you participate in a world community and take advantage of the incredible new software that is being produced in an open environment. Windows and even Apple laptops are designed for all kinds of uses and mainly for adults. This device’s sole purpose is educating children. In that respect the hardware is slightly different and the interface designed to facilitate play.
  7. What are the disadvantages of OLPC? First, hardware performance may not compare favorably to general use laptops, especially if the child intends to install a lot of new things. Although the device has lots of cool extras, printing might be an issue. The core features work, but some of the newer games and educational activities will be buggy. It might help if the parent has a background in Unix. If the device has problems, the parent will inevitably need to be the one to fix it. (By the way, the warranty on OLPC is only 30 days). Second, because OLPC is geared towards deployment in developing countries, we’re not likely to have a great number of children in your neighborhood using this device (especially at current price levels). So for the next few months in Houston kids will likely be on their own and limited on their ability to use the collaboration tools. As a standalone device, it works well. But to benefit from OLPC, a parent will need to take an active part in facilitating a child’s exploration with the device.
  8. Why do you want to start a Saturday club? Children with access to this device will benefit from hooking up with other kids who use this device. I can’t predict how popular this club will be or whether anyone will actually show up. But I am committed to running it at least for a few months.
  9. Can I see a video demo of the device? See David Pogue’s video demo. See also the screencaptures of an earlier version. See also the excellent simplified XO user guide prepared by Anne Gentle and others.
  10. How can I find more information/sign up for the meeting? This will take a while to get organized. The easiest way is to send me a note. Idiotprogrammer @ fastmailbox.net . Or leave a comment here. Or check www.laptopsarefun.com which will contain information about group meetings.
  11. Who are you anyway? Here’s my bio. I’m a former Peace Corps volunteer with a background in writing and instructional technology. And a love for linux.

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