XO Laptops Inspire Learning In OLPC Birmingham


Students in Birmingham City Schools, Ala., are building their technological skills and interests while engaging in collaborative learning thanks to XO laptop computers. XO computers are rugged, low-cost, low-power laptops that have become familiar to people around the world through the One Laptop Per Child project. In Birmingham, the laptops were distributed by the local government to help reduce a "digital divide" separating Birmingham students from those in more affluent areas in terms of available technology and the opportunity to become proficient in its use.

In a study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through a Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER) grant, Shelia Cotten, associate professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and her team are examining the educational and social impact of using XO laptops in Birmingham public schools, and the effects on student outcomes.

The XO laptop is unique because the design caters to children. According to Cotten, the design of the laptop "is more intuitive for children and how they learn. They are also sturdier, more durable, and more interactive than many other existing laptops."

These laptops use a Linux operating system and a Sugar user interface, which together allow users to identify other groups and users of XOs in geographic proximity. Cotten explained that this encourages learning and collaboration because users can collaborate and work in groups easily.

Birmingham was introduced to the XO laptops in early 2008, when the city government purchased 15,000 XO laptops for the students in Birmingham City schools. Each student in grades first through fifth received a XO laptop to keep as his or her own. Cotten explained that the goal was "to decrease the digital divide in Birmingham and to provide students with the technological skills to make them effective participants in our information and technologically driven society."

According to Cotten, the majority of the children receiving the laptops come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. "Free and reduced price lunch rates are greater than 70 percent in the majority of the schools," said Cotten. "For [the children], there was minimal hope that their families would be able to purchase computers for them. The giving of the XOs to these children gave them hope for a brighter future and a chance to become a cyber-participant in our society."

Both the students and their families were touched by this opportunity. "I can tell you that the students were incredibly moved by receiving these laptops," said Cotten. "The joy was evident on their faces, and tears were flowing among many of the children. From what I have observed, family members were excited that their children were receiving the XO laptops. This represented an opportunity for their children and their families that they most likely would not have had otherwise."

While teachers "appeared to be excited about having the opportunity for their students and themselves to become more involved in the cyber world ... I think there was also some apprehension on their part as the XOs used a different operating system than what they are accustomed to using," said Cotten.

Prior to distribution of the laptops in Birmingham, some members of the Birmingham City School System received training. However, during the 2008-2009 academic year, there was limited money for training and more effort was spent preparing the XO laptops to be distributed to schools. More extensive training was scheduled for this school year, since the Birmingham City Council approved giving the school system close to $1,000,000 to buy new XO laptops.

Further training can help explore the diverse XO applications and the possibilities in developing effective and creative lesson plans to motivate additional technological interest. "Many students don't become aware of programming until taking a computer science course later in their educational training and by this point it is often too late to garner their interest in learning about programming," explained Cotten. "By having them work with applications in elementary school, they may see the work they do as fun and exciting and they may not fear computer programming when they have other opportunities later in their educational career."

The range of applications includes Internet browsers, a word processing program, an instant messaging program, a program to record audio, pictures and video, a paint program, an audio mixing and editing program, a calculator, a measure/graphing frequency program, a memorizing game, an acoustic tape measure and various programming languages tailored to children.

Lesson plans could include various creative projects, explained Cotten. Examples of activities made possible through the laptops include using the Acoustic Tape Measure to measure the distance between XO laptops in math and science classes, or using the Memorize application to create memory games to help students learn vocabulary, math concepts and other subject matter.

Preliminary results of Cotten's study reveal the effects of technology use on students. Technology in this case includes the XO laptop and additional non-XO computer use, plus other types of technologies and communication channels the students use to communicate with friends. Findings include:

  • More frequent use of computers for research was associated with gains in personal expression, freedom and accomplishment.
  • Higher grades on projects was associated with students perceiving that the XO laptops helped them communicate and work with other students in their classes.
  • Entertainment use of computers was associated with lower grades when students were tested after adoption of the laptops.
  • An increase in using computers for research was associated with greater odds of students reporting that they would like to take more computer classes and would like to learn more about computers.
  • Students who had more favorable perceptions regarding the XO (e.g., they enjoy doing homework more when using the XO; they report that the XO helps them learn) were more likely to want to take more computer classes and learn more about computers than were students who had less favorable perceptions.
  • Preliminary findings indicate that there is significant variation in the impact of teachers on XO laptop usage in the classroom. Having teachers who use the XOs more frequently and who are more skilled in this use is associated with greater use, diversity of use, and more positive attitudes of XO laptops by students.

Additional analysis is underway. "Over the next few months, we will begin to examine in-depth the relationships to be investigated per the NSF SGER grant," said Cotten. "In particular, we plan to further examine the importance of teacher and school level factors, as we suspect there will be important differences across teachers and classes in the outcomes to be examined."

Cotten received another NSF grant that further examines curriculum usage with the XO laptops.

"As in the NSF SGER grant, we focus on fourth and fifth grades," Cotten explained. "During Year 1, we have already done in-depth observations in two pilot schools to see how teachers are using and/or not using XO laptops, interviewed school administrators at the two pilot schools regarding barriers and facilitators to integrating XOs into the curriculum in their schools. We've also begun developing lesson plans that utilize XO laptops and link to the Alabama Course of Study objectives, which Birmingham City School (BCS) teachers use."

Future plans in this study include conducting nominal group technique sessions with teachers from two pilot schools to get feedback on the lesson plans, which will be revised and utilized in a series of workshops for students and teachers from six additional schools in summer 2010. Workshops and professional development activities will also continue in Years 2-5. By completion of the project, approximately 200 teachers and 8,000 students in the Birmingham City School System will have been directly impacted.

Written by Ellen Ferrante for National Science Foundation

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On the one hand, it's good to see Sheila Cotten's important research highlighted. On the other hand, this is a puff piece that doesn't do justice to her findings or to the results to date of the OLPC project in Birmingham. I won't say more about Dr. C's full survey findings--those will be published in time--but in the meantime, here are a couple of more forthright appraisals about what's going on in Birmingham.



Now I'm confused.
A piece for/from the funding agency is termed "puffy".
The actual research is hinted as if it is know, and two newspaper/blog entries are cited as more "forthright".
There is also an innuendo about publishing "in time" (by a potential reviewer?)

Are actually Sheila Cotten's data known to MW? Are they pointing to the direction of the blog entries? Are they under review?
I am not sure, but I think I remember MW saying that is applying/funded for a similar project in Alabama? Is this the case?

Is there anything more that we may need to know?

In general, the commenter is right--peer-reviewed research is preferable to journalism. (The lengthy piece in Black and White on "costly lesson" is not a blog posting, it is an in-depth journalistic report). However, what we see in this press release is not peer-reviewed research, and does not get to the important questions about the xo program.

Just look at the findings that are reported in the piece (those are the ones in the bullet points). None of the six refer to how often the xo's are used, for what purposes, or with what results. Let's look at the first finding, for example:

"More frequent use of computers for research was associated with gains in personal expression, freedom and accomplishment."

The natural question to ask is, do students with XOs use computers more for research? Well, actually, in Birmingham, they don't. In fact, according to a presentation by Dr. Cotten at the Department of Education of the University of California on February 22, 2010, which used a pre-post survey design, students use a computer for research less frequently after getting an XO than before having one.

So the bullet point is technically accurate, but the actual impact of having an XO on student research (and the benefits associated with computer use for research) is actually opposite of that which is suggested by the bullet point.

I have seen two presentations given by Dr. Cotten, one at UCI and one at the Digital Media and Learning conference at UC San Diego on February 20, 2010. She has also shared her data with me. I have no doubt that her data support the six points in the bullet points of this press release. However, as illustrated by the one example above, the bullet points are pretty meaningless. I could give other examples as well, but Dr. Cotten made clear, in sharing her data and the PowerPoints from the presentations, that it should not be cited or quoted without her permission, so, other than the one indulgence about the research issue, I will not do so.

In response to Mavrothal, I should share some disclosures, about my relationship with the funder, the project, and the researcher.

I have previously received funding from National Science Foundation for an unrelated project, but I have not applied for or received funding from NSF or any other federal agency for research related to OLPC.

I have been carrying out a research study this year on educational laptop programs using netbooks and open source software in three school districts, with funding from Google Research (for the general project) and the Haynes Foundation (to fund research in one district in the Los Angeles area). As part of this research project, I did a small case study in Birmingham, including a couple of days of classrooms observations and interviews with teachers, students, and others related to the OLPC program there. I have not yet published on this research project, though have begun to present findings at conferences.

As for Dr. Cotten, I have met with her a few times, seen two of her presentations, and reviewed two slideshows and one poster of her findings from this project. (To clarify an earlier comment, I have not seen her entire data set, but rather I have seen her surveys and seen the findings that she has reported on in three of her presentations.) We have discussed the possibility of collaborating on an article about OLPC Birmingham, and are trying to find the time to do so. I have not reviewed any manuscripts that she has prepared for publication.

I hope this answers Mavrothal's questions.


Some of the commenters on OLPC News can be oddballs you have to wonder about (Irv/Me is a great example).

But Mark Warschauer is well above board. In fact, he's one of the key 1:1 computing thought leaders. I am humbled and honored that he comments on OLPC News.

I do not know if it is still fashionable, but back then was a big sign in my colege with "question the authorities" (and several smaller ones :-).
And exactly because MW is one, we should do even more so! Ready to accept any good answer of course.

I think your questions are excellent which is why I try to answer them. By all means, let's keep questioning authority and please keep challenging and questioning me. Thanks.

puff piece or not, it's serious money south of the Rio Grande. Maybe all you can get here for that amount is very limited validity research based on perceptions, which I have pointed out before is, at least to me, rather useless. Or maybe they will actually have some objective hard data - though I haven't heard of any yet.

$1,147,163 heads of lettuce given by the NSF for this... (besides City of Birmingham funds specifically for XOs and hardware)

http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=0918216&version=noscript seems to be for training teachers and kids.

http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=0819063&version=noscript appears to be related to finding out "In addition to paper and pencil survey data from the full sample of approximately 2500 students, twenty students are interviewed in-depth at two time points to probe in detail how the access and increased computer skills influence educational and psycho-social outcomes. The changes in classroom culture, pedagogical changes due to the use of technology are studied, using teacher data and classroom data."

This latest article utterly insults the readers' intelligence. c'mon: the "reasercher" behaves like a "salesman", often repeating all the vague "advantages" listed by Prof Nicholies Negroponzi throughout the years, without providing an iota of hard evidence that the children are doing better in school because of their work with the XO.

In fact, ccareful reading of this article reveals a press release, not a scientific finding.

How come the benefit of owning this device is NEVER measurable in any clear manner?


From the link below we can see a few points that OLPC missed in its implementation.

Birmingham did not budget for wiring, parts, and training. Sometimes a few items might slip by, but these 3 items are fundamental so there is no excuse!

Getting online costs money, but the budget never planned for it. The computers truly are not kid proof and so it needs a budget to repair them. You can't just give computers to kids and expect their teachers to create appropriate curriculum for it.