Journal of an OLPC Australia Deployment in Warralong


Western Australia gives a first impression of a land dominated by miners. Fluro and silver strips appear on clothing everywhere it seems as the south (settled in the 1800's by white traders and farmers) becomes the hub for a younger north west that is facilitating extraction of the millenia old gas & mineral fruits of the deep earth & ocean.

Sometime after such fuels were first laid down, the original inhabitants, oldest of the Earth's Indigenous peoples, became resident. From the Tullawong mob on the east coast I travelled as a One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Australia worker to meet some of the youngest & most remote of these people out here in the west - land of the Nyangumarta language group.

Day 1: Getting There.

Having flown in barely the night before, I saw Perth truly for the first time as I left by air for Port Hedland. Glances past my fellow in row 19 showed me a semi-arid golf course, a meandering river, CBD, and wide harbour. Do the people below believe in one laptop per child? Can a gregarious, generous, hopeful movement find a home here?

And what was I doing out this way? No construction work with FMG for me. I was there as a teacher taking laptops into 40 degree heat; green learning machines to red outback country. The people may have been here 40,000 years, but the children are the equal future for all, for all of us who see that being on the right side of 200 years old means Australia should be Australia whether it's Sydney Cove or Warralong community.

Soon I would meet up with the deployment team of Kevin and Elisha. Soon we'd proceed by road. Soon we'd be plugging in 70 XO learning devices for their first taste of electric life, waking up to 'a beautiful day' as the personal property of Eugene or Darryl or Marney who would use them document bush Tucker, or host chats for testing spelling...

Some hours later - we glimpsed tall black plumes to the north, and dusty wirly wirly's to the south. Hot, red, and flat, except for anthills wearing miners hats, and small oblong hills. Through the semi-arid savannah we listened to the 'Brand Nue Dae' soundtrack on the stereo, having picked up food supplies including salads, nine loaves of bread and 110 sausages for a community BBQ. We counted how many trailers the truck are pulling (some three, some four), and the animal carcasses. A low line of hills emerged in the distance, but we turned off before them. The hills have yellow-green bush growing on them that contrasts with the red, almost purple soil, the intense colour creating an azure blue line between the ridges and sky.

A red angry wirly wirly waved us on from close range while cow patties pocked the sandy road we'd been on for some time. At some point we missed the first Warralong turnoff, then took the second, only to drive around, decide we'd not gone 50kms yet (won't trust that plumber in Port Hedland again) and drove on. We crossed the DeGray river flat and some 30Kms further on met some locals who put us straight, 'Johnny' even jumping on board to give directions. He told us there are bull sharks in the river.

So we arrived (again), found the school, and late as it was in the day, got to meet some of the staff. The Kiwi (!) cook first, and then the friendly (and hopefully not too wary of another fly in, fly out mob) teachers showed us around. We got XO's plugged in and food unpacked for the community BBQ tomorrow. It was hot, still around 40 degrees outside. There was a sorry time ongoing at Warralong, but for us this meant most kids would be around to get their green machines. The key though would be communicating enough of the advantages of the XO's to the staff in only three short days. We knew the kids would love them, but... we worried about facilitating an ongoing impact...

The drive to our accommodation at Marble Bar (Australia's hottest town) took an hour through low garbled hills covered in deep-red boulders. Mary the Irish (of course) Hotel owner was amazingly welcoming, and some pool and a steak burger accompanied chats and planning for day two. Good fare.

Day 2: Setting up and beginning

At 6AM the temperature was a mild 26 degrees, but by 8:30AM when the servo opened and we could fuel up, it was climbing fast past 30. Definitely felt like the hottest town in Australia. Last night I'd even purchased a souvenir stubby holder (drink cooler) to prove it.

The morning at Warralong was about setting up of the XS server, double checking the XOs, and buttering the nine loaves of bread ready for the BBQ. During the recess break we got to hang out with the kids for the first time (beautifully friendly), and then by 12:30 thanks to Ryan and the teachers we had the BBQ setup. Around 50 students and 20 community members were present and we were privileged to be able to meet them and to ceremonially hand over the first XO to Warralong Elder Clarrie.

It pays to remember that the Strelly Community School of which Warralong is the administrative centre is really a very historic organisation, being the oldest continually operational Independent Aboriginal Community School in Australia having commenced operation in 1976. We quickly realised that we were there to learn as much as to bring in a new program to them.
After the BBQ, the four teachers, along with five Aboriginal teacher aides and seven high school students gave up their afternoon to see what this green machine was really all about. It was not long before they were more than competent, zooming through the interface and testing out the activities and capabilities of the XO on their own - a good start, and we were excited by their willingness.

Was time then to head off before dark (policy is to drive only at day to avoid the wild horses!) to eat, chill out at the hotel, and reflect on what we had already learnt.

Day 3: In the kid's hands.

Another bumper day of attendance at Warralong encouraged us as we arrived and setup for the official handover of XOs into student hands. At the morning assembly the class teachers took it in turns to hand each student their very own XO, and while Kevin helped sort out any technical problems, Elisha and I visited each classroom in turn throughout the day to lead hands-on setup sessions where the students were given the responsibility to configure their own machine.

To help with identifying their own XO among other reasons, we gave each student a pen to write their name on the laptop - something that would be a big no-no with any other laptop - but the XO is different. Many chose to decorate theirs a little, aiding in the personalising experience. From here the students typed in their names, chose the XO system colours, and even connected to the server and registered their machines. Many had already started exploring the activities and this informal play period was a fantastic time for them to learn the XO themselves by doing.

The afternoon saw us able to once again spend invaluable time with the staff and chosen helper students, this time going a bit beyond the basics to challenge them with some classroom integration training - in other words, how to use the XO not just to replace pen and paper, but to start doing new things not possible before. We also had time in this session for the staff to have their informal play time where Kevin, Elisha and I could help out and brainstorm classroom applications on the spot. Things were looking good for day four and many possibilities...

Day 4: Out and about

Action day! Having been introduced fully to their XO's on day 3, today was the day the kids could begin to branch out beyond the classroom. Courtney, MF and some of the other high schoolers came over and setup the littlies XO's (time, connect to XS server, etc) and then we showed them how to make the XO into a camera - swivel screen around and close, then use the 'o' circle button to point and shoot - which they did, at trees and leaves to capture what the wind does.

Earlier we had bid farewell to Marble Bar and the ever-present digital temperature gauge in the park. Funny how four days out here was enough to make it seem somehow familiar.

Over to the early years class we went next, showing the kids how to 'make' the camera. These kids actually chose mostly to take shots of the artwork (Goannas, snake, the red, black, and gold flag) painted around the school. We then showed them how to insert images into 'Write' and begin to make a sequence to add captions too - giving them the power to so easily create & share their world.

The middle and upper years followed after recess in the same pattern as day three. These students teachers had already prepared them, so taking pictures moved onto finding a sequence of shots to fit with a narrative writing task they had already begun. More than just going through the mechanics of these tasks though, the animation and bright eyes of students and teachers alike really affected us. Here we are, three 'whities' coming in to their lives with yet another 'program?', and the school community as a whole embraced it. It's what we'd hoped and planned for, and it's what saturation and 1:1 personalised learning is about - one learning appliance per child.

To our great privilege again we were able to spend the closing 2 hours of our Warralong time with the four teachers. They work all day from 7:30 - 3:00pm+ with hardly a break, combing out lice, wiping noses, teaching, dispensing food etc. but still gave out immensely valuable feedback and insights into what they had learned and what else we could learn. Future deployments will thank them.

Two hours and a very quiet, reflective drive later, we were back in a more bitumuned and peopled world. Soon after saying farewell to what had been a truly professional but also go the extra mile team, I crossed the tarmac to board the first of my flights home. Under a reddening sky that my jet rose to meet, I waved goodbye and thought of 70 bright new green dots winking on down there amongst the vast Pilbara..

Jonathan Nalder is the Principal Project Officer for Transformational Learning: One Laptop Per Child Australia

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