OLPC Sur: Grassroots in Action


A central premise to Web 2.0 and to OLPC is communication. Lots of it, vertical, horizontal, zigzag, you name it. A lot of the Sugar Constructionist approach has communication between peers as a main principle. While the software meant for children mostly works, we still are into finding our way when it comes to get teachers and the grown-up OLPCrs at large to collaborate effectively.

Everyone has the potential for being both a learner and a teacher ... exchange of ideas amongst peers can both make the learning process more engaging and stimulate critical thinking skills ... Where possible, all activities should ... place strong focus on facilitating such collaborative processes.
from OLPC "Principles"
We are trying to build such a collaborative community of Spanish-speakers around the "Sur" mailing list. The intention is not just to achieve emailing with and among our folk, but actual communication and sharing. The tool is a Mailman server that lives in laptop.org.
OLPC Sur: OLPC DIY en Espanol


In principle we get people in (we're up to 106 now), we share and discuss, and the world's ills are fixed. Well, not quite. First, the interface needed a bit of tweaking to get it to work in Spanish. I tried to re-invent the wheel (it turned out that there are already plenty localized Mailman UIs), but by now it's there, mostly in Spanish, still outputting messages in English now and then. Next, people participate, yes? Well, sort of. Pretty early on we had a request on why the mesh isn't working as advertised, and what to do about it, coming from several teachers. And then we hit our first snag. The OLPC corporate people mostly can't answer in Spanish, but after some prodding and translating we got our answer, which is that yes, the mesh is not working as expected.

Now, something like this is not earth-shattering, and apparently for some who have used the mesh, not much news. Yet for the teacher in the field, frustrated because something s/he feels has been promised is not quite there, it can be comforting to find there is some respect and care, different from the usual weasel-speak they might have to hear. While at times it felt we were sort of not getting quite the straight answer, one savvy participant ended up phrasing all the technicalese into a neat statement.

Lessons learned and challenges

What we do and learn with Sur can be of use to other deployments and locales, especially when people share a common language among several countries. It might not be so much about what is said, but how it is said (wish I learn that well myself, for all purposes).

  • Certain policies might need rethinking. Teachers working off their XOs depend on Gmail, they tend to prefer fewer emails. The list has ground to a halt since I put all the Gmail users into digest mode, which was requested by several list members, since the first week meant over 80 emails. Digest kills quick answers, and thus slows down an active list.
  • Another one is that Mailman highly recommends the list not be the default reply-to. I chose the alternate to-the-list setting, to encourage group participation rather than side dialog or requiring people to remember to hit reply-all. The famous Web 1.0 line as to not placing hurdles in the way to the cash register still makes sense.
  • While setting up the Mailman server for a localized project is not downright difficult, it is not very evident either. Toying with this sort of nuances, that can make or break how active a list is, requires some dancing beyond the default settings.
  • Be aware that most of the expected grassroots users have never participated in an email list, have no idea what it is for, and sometimes might either clam-up or be too loud.
  • People collaborating with folks of a different language often need a localized keyboard. Either you get one, with your brain confused as to where to find things now, or you don't, which forces you to try to figure out how to deal with accents, Ñ, Ç, etc. on the keypad. Eventually I gave up on the later, and now I use the Spanish setting by default, off a USB .sp keyboard for the XO, or with a .us one with "annotated" keys on my Ubuntu box. I need to get used to this anyway for when we go to Bolivia for good. My Dad has been dreaming for the longest time for a keyboard that will let the keys display what they represent according to what language you are using. The XO-2 with touch-screen might be this dream come true!
Localized Keyboard
Where are we going now

There is much work to do regarding finding out what are the felt needs, what are the real needs, and how to serve them. I wish Sur will mostly connect the ones with the questions to the ones with the answers, instead of a forum for ideology or deep technical details. Teachers figuring out how to use something. Developers figuring out if their brainchild actually walks when in foster hands. In some ways, this is very much an example of what Bryan calls "Educator-Driven Development."

I feel honored by several of the high profile names that are part of our list, and extremely encouraged by names I am not yet as familiar with, but I do know belong to people down there where OLPC is no longer a wish or a theory, but a daily action showing us all doing better, that this community, of which you, reader, are a part, can bring on a better future for children and communities.

The OLPC-Sur list

Suscribase a la lista Sur, de OLPC en castellano para usuarios, docentes, voluntarios y administradores, sin límites de frontera.

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1 Comment

Regarding your desire that Sur "connect the ones with the questions to the ones with the answers".

I can see people wanting to participate but not doing so, because of a perceived language barrier. In an effort to lower that barrier, perhaps a trial section of the forum where people can interact through the additional use of a text translator like Babel http://babelfish.yahoo.com/

This could take the form of a double or triple posting. The poster would write out the text and/or try to write it out in the needed language and also include a Babel labeled generated text. This will make posting longer but for those wanting to learn or help length is not really an issue.

This might also become a place to practice either Spanish or English for those wanting to either improve or learn a new language.