OLPC Paraguay/Daniel Drake report 2009
In January 2009, I travelled to Paraguay to volunteer on the OLPC project being implemented there by a non-government organisation called ParaguayEduca. I was there for 4 and a half months.
The Paraguayan project started when a group ran a pilot deployment as part of a university. This was a success and spurred interest from others. Soon after graduating, the key interested people joined up and formed ParaguayEduca in 2008.
The young organisation (young both in terms of it's recent formation, and the fact that it is almost completely composed of energetic young people) has achieved an incredible amount in a short time. They incorporated as an official Paraguayan non-government organisation, received a donation of 4000 laptops from SWIFT, received monetary support from the IADB for the implementation of the project, and obtained permission from the government to enter government schools to implement the project. Effective media outreach has resulted in the project typically being mentioned in the major national newspapers several times a week, including frequent front-page stories and editorial publications (I was fortunate enough to receive a full-page personal interview in the biggest national newspaper). They have gained sponsors, supporters and volunteers through this publicity. It is fascinating to see how the project is built from interest from the public sector, the private sector, the government, and the people.
The ParaguayEduca team has everything covered; a management structure, an oversight board, an education group, a technical team, and others working on publicity, logistics, administration, etc. It comes as no surprise that their offices are also donated by a local sponsor. The core staff are all permanent, all of them are native Paraguayans or have lived there long enough to feel a part of the country and genuinely care about improving it.
During my visit, the 4000 laptops were deployed in the city of Caacupé. This saturates 10 schools, or approximately 50% of the city's children aged 6-12. Before the handout, teachers gave up 4 weeks of their vacations for training; their support and enthusiasm is another significant strength of the project. The training featured a lot of internet-based activities. Caacupé is an interesting city in that a high percentage of parents live and work overseas; it is hoped that this project can help overcome some of the long-distance communication barriers within the families.
In terms of infrastructure, the government installed electricity in all the classrooms in preparation for the project, as well as ethernet cables for setting up the wireless networks. Personal, one of the biggest telcos in Paraguay, provide invaluable sponsorship by donating internet internet access to all the schools at no cost. We installed a XS-v0.5 school server at every school, and had approximately one wireless access point for every 30 children. For security, the access points and servers are installed inside cages.
Most of my work was with the technical team. First, I helped OLPC finish and publish the v8.2.1 software release, then I helped the team customise it for Paraguay with some extra bug fixes and improvements. I selected and tested activities and content for the laptops. We built upon OLPC's anti-theft technologies and the brand new deployment key support to implement a fully automated and OLPC-independent theft deterrence system, integrated with ParaguayEduca's own inventory system. We also implemented an automated network-based OS update system based on olpc-update and tested this at one school before I left. I believe we were the first country to use the NANDBlaster to install our customised software on the laptops. We also automated setup of the school servers using puppet. All in all, I helped the team utilise the latest and greatest deployment technologies, which scaled very nicely.
I also had the pleasure of being involved in the laptop handouts, which were mostly stress-free thanks to ParaguayEduca's labelling system, and I had a small involvement in some followup work in schools. The laptop handouts were hosted at many ceremonies at the school (see my writeups: part 1, part 2, part 3).
Knowing the success of OLPC in other countries in raising school attendance, I once asked if there was a school attendance problem in Caacupé. "Not really." Perhaps I should have been clearer about what I would view as an attendance problem, because after the laptops were handed out, we received emails from teachers reporting their happiness because children were attending school even though it was raining! It seems that they had come to accept that it was reasonable for children to not attend school when the weather was bad, but the joy of having internet access at school was changing that.
We also received some grateful emails from children who had either been instructed or had figured out how to register for GMail, and were using it to communicate with their parents in other countries. Teachers indicated a higher level of child attention in class as children would take notes or transcribe things in Write, and we heard some nice stories such as how a child, unsure how to read out large numbers such as 2005, had the ingenuity to use the Speak activity to determine the spoken form "dos mil cinco" ("two thousand and five").
ParaguayEduca now needs to focus on further demonstrating the strength of the project through more classroom integration. With this goal, the education team within the organisation has significantly increased in number and in scope, however their efforts have been somewhat disrupted by a number of teacher strikes since the laptops handouts happened (these nationwide strikes are unrelated to this project, of course). Another up-and-coming task is to deploy approximately 4000 more laptops in Caacupé to complete saturation of the city; locally-sourced funding is available for the laptops, but funding remains to be found for the implementation of the project. Caacupé will then be in a position to demonstrate to the country what this project can achieve, which will provide a model to scale up to a nationwide deployment over the next few years.
Even if draining at times, the experience in being involved with the project was very rewarding. I owe a lot to the team for making everything a lot of fun. Paraguay is a fascinating country and the team enthusiastically taught me about their culture, took me places and helped me organise trips all over the country, helped me learn Spanish, and much more. I made good friends and have strong desires to return and see more of that part of the world. I look forward to following the progress of their project!
--DanielDrake 21:59, 21 June 2009 (UTC)