How a company with a big heart chose to help One Laptop per Child with their mission.
Cambridge, Massachusetts — June 2010
The mission of One Laptop per Child (OLPC) is “to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.” How is that mission being accomplished? So far over a million laptops have been delivered to children in 30+ countries including Haiti, Afghanistan, Brazil, Uruguay and Sri Lanka. In December the president of Sri Lanka officially launched the OLPC project throughout the country. Right now there are about 1,300 laptops in Sri Lanka for 13 rural schools. The name OLPC has chosen for their laptop is, simple, “XO”.
Chamindra De Silva is Head of Strategic Initiatives at Virtusa Corporation. They are a global information technology company headquartered in Massachusetts, with an important office in Sri Lanka. They decided to donate their time and services to OLPC. Chamindra put together a team of employees to provide quality assurance testing.
“We call it the Virtusa Tech Reach Initiative. We support our employees volunteering to apply their skills in a project of social benefit and education” says De Silva.
Adam Holt is the Community Support Manager at OLPC. He invited me to their office in Cambridge to write about what Virtusa is doing. I arrived at 7:30 in the morning. With the time difference it was 5:00 in the evening in Sri Lanka. It was the end of the business day there and the Virtusa employees stayed to talk with Adam and I. We met online in an OLPC chat room. I was eager to hear about the challenges Virtusa had met and overcome. For two months Chamindra’s team tested the XO. We discussed obstacles, benefits and how Sri Lankan universities are helping OLPC too.
The team at Virtusa used their time to discover improvements that can be made. The XO can use languages besides English, but not yet sufficiently Sinhala or Tamil, which are the languages spoken by the people of Sri Lanka. There is currently no manual yet in either of these languages. Thankfully however, the Sri Lanka team reads English, allowing them to take advantage of online suggestions at support.laptop.org. In addition, XO software (known as Sugar) is specifically intended for children to use in a learn-by-doing “DIY” way. Help also came from people around the world involved with the OLPC project’s extensive online community. There is already a project translating the XO into Sinhala and Tamil by a group of engineers who use the open source software Linux. The two projects fit together because Linux is the software that makes the XO tick. The Sri Lankan government and Colombo University (based in Sri Lanka) are also contributing to this translation project.
Even with some bumps along the road, the Virtusa team described some key progress to Adam and I. They see how the XO can improve how a child learns. It removes limits to their access of knowledge. It helps to make learning more enjoyable. It can motivate children to learn and study by themselves. It becomes a way to have a “mobile classroom” that can be used not only at school but at home as well. The children discover that education doesn’t have to be limited to only when you’re in school. Dhanushka Nainanayake explained that the basics of computer programming are included with the XO. Children can use these basics to learn how to program a computer to do almost anything. This is a valuable skill children can use when they get older. This hands-on approach to learning is inspiring in the difference it is making.
Along with Colombo University, Moratuwa University in Sri Lanka is pitching in. Students there are interested in contributing to the open nature of the XO. For university students, the XO can be a torch, showing them how locally developed open source software can make an immediate impact in their community. There is a great continuing opportunity to nurture engineering students and professionals, of which there are a large number in Sri Lanka.
Chamindra tells us that his team will grow and continue to work with OLPC. He and his group are excited to be working on this worldwide effort. This excitement is channeled into the patient dedication and very high energy level, resulting in a great start. They are already seeing how the XO is proving to be a valuable educational tool that can spark and empower Sri Lanka’s children. A door they can open for their own potential, enriching both themselves and the world around them. Children who are growing up today have something to say — the XO can give them that voice.
Sean Laurence, seanlaurence.com
Adam Holt, One Laptop per Child