Category Archives: education


The little kid that could

This is Sumit, a little kid who lives next door from us in Bhagmalpur. I took this picture casually, as I walked the streets of the village back in 2003. I was amused by the tripod of a walker. It’s locally made, probably bought at the local faire, and it works well for what it’s supposed to do. It’s not something you’d find at your local Toys R Us, but then again, if you did, it would be in the retro throwback section, and would cost you a fortune!

Sumit and his tripod

Sumit and his tripod, circa 2003

Coming back to Sumit, I saw him again in January 2013. I didn’t know his name was Sumit, or he was the same kid in the picture! He showed a lot of interest in the XOs, the repair sessions, the reflashing, and installing new software. I asked him to help me with some minor tasks, like running a command, but he wanted to know the “why and how” of it. So, I explained to him how the datastore backup happens, and why it takes a random window of 30 minutes to backup (those who know ds-backup would know!). He was curious. He wanted to learn. This was surely not in his curriculum! Nor in a lesson plan! He had gotten the bug of curiosity, and that’s something I can relate to.

Eventually, Sumit helped me with installation, backup, running Python scripts, bash commands, rsync and such. He did a site survey of the village and helped us with installing the Wi-Fi access points. He took apart his XO laptop, repaired a WiFi antenna cable that had popped out, and put things back together. He learned how to access the server, install new Sugar activities, install the Hindi Wikipedia bundle, browse for a ton of offline TED talks, books and music, all  locally hosted on the server. In fact, given that I had a very short window to get a lot done, he became my point of distribution of information to the rest of the kids – a student assistant of sorts, and a fine one at that 🙂 Then, one day, he told me that the photo of the kid with a tripod was really him! How cool is that?!

Sumit helping with a Wi-Fi site survey

Sumit helping with a Wi-Fi site survey

Sumit repairing by flashlight

Sumit repairing by flashlight – we had no electricity.

Could any of this be possible, if we didn’t have OLPC laptops there? Probably not. The local private and parochial schools have “computer classes” where the computer is always broken, and the teacher never shows up, and the parents still pay for all that’s not delivered. A little green laptop is making a difference where it matters…and Sumit is the little kid that could.


Sumit repairing a broken screen, circa 2013

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The constraints of time and temperature

I had a short visit to Bhagmalpur a few weeks ago. I got to the village on January 7, 2013 in the evening, and left on the morning of Jan 13, 2013. Much had to be done in this duration.

I had to unlock the XOs so I could use a Dextrose image from Activity Central. The main reason for choosing this image was the Hindi language support. After getting the keys through the collection stick process, and many thanks to guys at OLPC, I got the machine unlocked. Next, I had to flash all the 26 XO-1 laptops there. NANDBlaster gave me all sorts of errors, so I had to do it by hand.

I had to reconfigure the XS school server to use an Access Point instead of a Mesh antenna (Bhagmalpur might have been the only OLPC deployment that still used a mesh antenna…but no more!). The network interfaces had to be fudged with. Thankfully xs-swapnics worked nicely. I had to show them how to use the Wireless Graph activity to do a site survey and determine the bounds of their Wi-Fi bubble. I had to do the wiring for the XS so it could run off a 12V battery. I had to install the APs in a high location and load balance with a repeater in WDS mode, at someone else’s house, so we could extend the Wi-Fi bubble.

I had to add oodles of content – 1,368 TED videos, music, books, activities, and build a simple HTML page for navigation. I had to show the kids a few neat tricks with the Tuk lens kit. I had to show the kids how to repair XOs.  I had to repair damaged screens, keyboards, chargers (a mouse chewed through one), backup all the journals to the XS and then make a copy.

Oh, and this being my family’s house, I had to also be social, chat with visitors, eat the good stuff, walk the cane fields and take loads of photos.

To add to all this, I had to contend with two constraints. The state of Uttar Pradesh is terrible at several things. One of those is electricity. The AC grid comes alive at 11AM, and goes away at 1PM. Then maybe another hour or so in the evening, and then it’s back at 1AM for a couple more hours. Bulk of the work had to be done when the electrical juice went live. The timings are approximate, with no guarantees. So, I found myself sitting up at midnight, reflashing a stack of laptops.

The other constraint (and the UP government has no control over this one) was that the temperatures dropped to -1 C. With no electrical heat, and uninsulated walls, I had to sit by the fire, warm my bones, and then run off to work the laptops for 10 minutes or so, until I started to shake, and then it was back to bone-warming 🙂

Of course, my family was not quite sure why I’d give up the warmth of the fire and run off to the cold to work on laptops. To them, it didn’t seem like such a big deal if the work didn’t get done. To me, the show had to go on, no matter what.

Thankfully, I got it all done 🙂 I’ll post some details soon, but in the mean time, here are the pics.

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Filed under books, children, education, hardware, music, network, outreach, software, tech, video

Why are Australians dark brown?

I’m recovering from a horrible/wonderful trip to India. Bhagmalpur, Goa, Khairat and other places were great. Mumbai, not so much. Horrible to see the filth and corruption in places like Mumbai. Wonderful to see the children are doing well and there indeed is some hope.

I’ll start off by recounting a brief query by one of the children in Bhagmalpur. They were flipping through a couple of OLPC newsletters when one of them spotted the article on Australia and asked “If he is Australian, why is he dark brown?”

OLPC Australia

Two things struck me:

1) They were not simply flipping pages. They were paying attention. They were perhaps looking at others like them, elsewhere in the world.

2) How did they know Australians were anything other than dark brown? This time I wasn’t paying attention. Cricket of course! They had seen Australians on TV umpteen times, and none looked like this dark-brown kid in the picture above.

So, I sat down with them, pulled up a world map on the XO and walked them through the story of the human migration and how the indigenous Australians came to live on a continent of their own. We also talked about how the modern, fair-skinned Australians came to be, starting with the discovery of the continent and settled through penal transportation to the colony of New South Wales.

Have I planted a bug that all peoples of the world are essentially the same, and look different because of evolution over the generations? I think so. I had no choice but to let them in on the secret of Melanin.

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The importance of UI

One of the most interesting things we found in Bhagmalpur was that a couple of children had accidentally switched over their XOs to Spanish. They didn’t bother to switch back! So, in a small village in Uttar Pradesh, India, there are these two kids who have been using their XOs in Spanish. Go figure 🙂

They simply look at other kids’ XOs in English and follow along the icons. This observation raises the question about the importance of localization in a UI, especially if it is icon-driven like Sugar. Are the icons enough by themselves?

Other interesting observations:

The voltage of grid electricity is so low, that the soldering iron wouldn’t heat up! Anish had to twist wires by hand for sensor exercises using Turtle Art.

We connected to the XS school server via a crossover cable to a Fedora laptop to a cellphone to a GPRS connection, which then established a OpenVPN connection to San Francisco. At 2.4kBps it was painfully slow, but it worked! Sameer managed to edit Apache config files to serve static content. It is evident that the offline School Server plays a major role, but its current software stack is still complicated. At 2.4kBps one cannot hope for a live Internet experience, but there is a good possibility to perhaps do SMTP and POP/IMAP once or twice a day.

We plan on sending updates and content via USB sticks. That seems to be more reliable than the Internet connection.

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More photos from Bhagmalpur are up at

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Networking, books and more

It’s been a while since I updated the blog with the activities in Bhagmalpur (no pun intended). The children continue to find good use for the XO, in spite of the difficulty of using the XO in English. The parents continue to ask for school-related materials such as textbooks. We are now at 18 XO-1s in the village. The network connection has been a major letdown. The advertised “3G” network run by the local telcos is not really 3G. Its still GPRS. Some say it’s EDGE, but I think its all marketing lies, and heavily oversubscribed. The XOs still register and sync with the XS School Server, but getting direct access to the XS from the outside has been difficult at best. Ping times sit at 1200+ milliseconds from San Francisco. Not much can be done via the network.

I may have some local help soon. Anish and Arjun may travel soon and help out with some basic maintenance and teach the kids some new things to do. In the mean time, there is a small stack of XO-1 laptops in my living room, waiting to be muled carried over into the country one at a time. I am looking forward to hitting the 50% saturation point in Bhagmalpur!

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So, what’s working?

We went through an interview marathon with the children in Bhagmalpur yesterday. The interviews were done over the phone with plenty of help from my mother who translated and asked questions in Hindi. At this point, the children have had their OLPC XO-1 laptop for six-to-eight weeks. While we are still busy documenting all that was gleaned from these calls, here are some interesting observations:

  • Of all the children who have registered for a “computer” course at school, none have actually ever used a computer because they have been told that the computer is broken, and so the teacher cannot teach anything. Reminds me of the “Computer Club” at August Town Primary School in Jamaica.
  • Many children like to learn about elements such as Hydrogen and Nitrogen because they have started to learn about elements in their school. Note that nobody has ever told them about chemistry or elements on the XO. None whatsoever. They have discovered these on their own.
  • Many children like to use the calculator. They use it to get assistance in their math lessons. They use the Calculate activity to check their answers.
  • TamTamMini seems to be another favorite.
  • Most have asked about Internet or Browse Activity (they all call it “activity”, again something they have gleaned on their own) but none of them have ever used the Internet or even know what Browse is. We still don’t have good connectivity in Bhagmalpur.
  • We are using a “One Laptop per Child per Family” model, and in all cases, a sibling (older or younger) uses the XO laptop as well. However, in none of the cases do any of the parents use the XO. In some cases the parents actually think their child “wastes time” on the XO. They don’t see a reason why the kid should do anything but “study for school” on the computer. The parents want digital copies of textbooks on the XO. Interestingly, none of the children asked for textbooks on the XO.

While we’ll get more results in the next few months, these are some anecdotal observations that stand out. More to come soon.

Offline Wikipedia page on Hydrogen

Offline Wikipedia page on Hydrogen prepackaged on OLPC XO laptops. No Internet access required.

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A peer-to-peer learning model

Back in 2002, I had grand plans to bring the Internet to Bhagmalpur. Along the way, I learned about all the problems with power, connectivity, content and learning. Then OLPC came along in 2007 and I jumped on that train. There were so many possibilities! In 2008, I was in India, visiting several places including Khairat (India’s first OLPC pilot) and Bhagmalpur. At the local school in Bhagmalpur, I realized that equipping the school with computers to serve the 1100+ children wasn’t going to be trivial. So, I switched my approach to a “One Laptop per Child per Home” model. I had some very interesting conversations with Mary Lou Jepsen and Barbara Barry at OLPC SF Community Summit 2010. In fact, Mary Lou pointed out that my approach was similar to Grameen Bank‘s except I was using a laptop and the ownership was with a child as opposed to using a mobile phone sold to the woman of the household (Grameen’s model).

Then came the issue of teaching the kids. Who was going to be the trainer and who was going to be the trainee? So, we went through some basic training on the phone (its tough to train on the phone!). I also printed a copy of the Sugar manual and send a paper copy to the village. All that was helpful to get the process going.They understood the Zoom metaphor, the Journal, the Control Panel and such.

Next came the interesting part. Interesting because we’ve seen this in other projects such as OLPC Jamaica as well. After giving the children a starting point, they quickly took over. In fact, they took over so rapidly, that the people who were trained fell behind quickly. Now, we simply use the meeting time so that the children can work with each other and teach each other how to work the Sugar interface. The birds have flown the coop!

So, pay attention when I say to those who think that this project can only be successful via structured teacher training: “Ha!”

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