Sindy Vaks, Program Coordinator, Ralph Brown Community Centre
Ralph Brown Community Centre serves the St John's neighbourhood in Winnipeg, a prairie city in the centre of Canada. About half of the residents in this inner-city community are considered 'low income' by Statistics Canada, and many households do not have computers.
In 2008 a local journalist donated some XO laptops to the Community Centre, which devotes much of its resources providing after-school programming for children. In August I made a visit to the Centre to find out what affect the laptops had on these children. Unfortunately, the laptops are no longer with the Centre, but I was able to talk with someone who saw them in action.
Sindy Vaks, an energetic and talkative woman, is the Program Coordinator for Ralph Brown. Although at first she had a difficult time remembering the laptops, I persisted in my questions, and slowly her eyes began to light up with enthusiasm as she recalled the children's 10-month experience with the XOs.
Sindy recalls what she did first after getting the laptops: "We gathered a bunch of children and said 'Okay, let's explore.'" The children were impressed. "It was cool [for the children]" Sindy explains, "because it was a laptop, and because they could take it around and not worry about dropping it." The XO was seen as specifically for children, or 'adult-proof' as Sindy calls it. Sindy admits that she was disappointed that no instruction manual was included. "Maybe that was intentional, so that people would explore it, but we didn't know where to look."
Record and TamTam Excite Children
Immediately, the children wanted to try recording video. They loved the ability to capture and then instantly replay videos for their friends. The pivoting screen on the laptop made this particularly easy, as they could record themselves and then turn the screen around to show their friends.
Children quickly adapted new techniques for recording videos. One group filmed a stop-frame animation called Ghost Shoes, in which an empty pair of shoes appeared to walk across the floor.
Another time, the children decided to make a fashion show. "We took out a bunch of cloth pieces and some kids made outfits," Sindy explains. Each child took a turn recording themselves in the outfit they had tailored. Later they displayed the video to their parents.
According to Sindy, children often have difficulty explaining to their parents what they do at school or at Ralph Brown. But with the laptops, "they were able to show people that moment we had." The children only wished that the software did not impose a limit on the length of their recording.
Kids often invented their own uses for the laptops. Sindy recalls a day when the children at Ralph Brown were making fake musical instruments out of tissue boxes, toilet paper rolls, icecream pails, and many other items. The instruments looked beautiful, but they did not actually make music.
Then, one child remembered that the XO could synthesize music! The kids decided that half of them would pretend to play the instruments, while the other half would provide the music by playing the laptops. Much of the children's activities came about in this way. "We usually try to feed off of their imagination," says Sindy.
The older children (aged 10-13) at the Centre found the enjoyed using the laptops to chat with each-other from afar. None of them had mobile phones for text messaging, so the XO provided a chance to converse "almost in privacy", as Sindy calls it. Kids would purposefully go as far apart as possible in order to conduct covert conversations.
XO Laptop Keyboard Destruction
Ralph Brown Community Centre no longer uses the XOs in their programming - not because they do not want to, but because the keyboards fell apart.
"If it's children using the laptop, and young children especially," Sindy says, "why did OLPC make such fragile keyboards?"
Still, for almost a year, the kids at Ralph Brown were able to use computers on their own terms.
Written by Gabriel Hurley who visited the Ralph Brown Community Centre to check on its XO laptop usage