Teachermate Adoption in Chicago: A Guide for OLPC


The Chicago school district purchased and is implementing the Teachermate, a new low-cost supplemental aid developed by non-profit Innovations for Learning for students in 500 schools in grades K-2. You can read more about it on the article by Engadget as well as on their website. Some of the really cool features and forward thinking of the Teachermate are:

  • Ease of use
  • Attractive to young students (it looks like a Nintendo DS)
  • Syncs to an easy LMS by plugging it into the charging case in the classroom
  • Low price point (makes it affordable, even for struggling school districts)
  • Durable enough for a 5 year old
  • It is a low powered computer and not a console so it should be easy to develop for.
I am Christopher Segot. I have been in the eLearning field for just over a year and have been following and working with innovative platforms like the OLPC XO, most notably I developed and implemented an eLearning supplemental tutoring service using the Asus EEE PC with strong success.

I recently took a new position with another eLearning company who develops custom eLearning software based on the client's needs (we are already offering solutions for wireless phones, DS, and the Wii). What I find so interesting about the Teachermate is that it looks like it will be very easy for the students to use and for the teachers/administers to implement (both very key features) and while it does not have all the really cool features that the XO does I am most impressed with the fact that they have actual sales. To be fair the XO is very well designed for its originally intended audience, but my concern with the entire program is that there seems to be no curriculum or programs to help these remote schools use them. Just giving the students the computers is not enough.

One of my favorite quotes from Wayan's 60 Minutes interview is:

"If you hand a child a violin or a piano they can make noise with it, right? But will they be able to make music? And if you give a child a computer, they'll be able to operate the computer but will they really be able to learn without having a teacher, whether it's formal or informal to help them along that learning path?"
This is so true and one of the reasons I believe the Teachermate was adopted was the fact that there was a complete solution offered. For the OLPC XO to be successful I feel there are a few things that they really need to consider:
  1. Subsidizing their philanthropic goals by selling to US schools / teaching companies that have budgets and/or grant money (we can't expect the price to go to $50 but as a company $250-$300 per unit falls into just cost effective enough, if they are able to add a tax break for the increase I feel that many education companies would be even more interested).
  2. Collaborating with curriculum firms to develop content that will work on the XO (many schools do not have the resources to put it all together, so providing a more complete solution would be attractive to the education administration).
  3. The success of an easy to implement server project combined with an easy to use/maintain LMS to make sure there is content for the students to work on and track their progress.
  4. Ease of use is key for somebody not familiar with computers they can be easily frustrated and give up unless it's very easy for them.
  5. Alternate OS/GUI offered based on the needs of the intended target but still follows the basic collaboration of Sugar. While Sugar was developed for people who have never used a computer, some clients may be interested in something that follows the basic principles but looks/feels like a modern computer as the user may have worked with a computer at a library or used one their distant friend may have had.
  6. It also needs to be fast, at a minimum it needs to have a progress bar. Since the core audience isn't familiar with the specifics of the technology they get frustrated and impatient easily, usually hitting other buttons thinking that something is not working. More so in the USA where my 10 year old gets impatient if it takes her more than 45 seconds to download a complete game on her DS when sharing with somebody else (where I would've been excited if it took only 45 minutes when I was her age downloading much simpler games off the local bbs).
  7. The toy look may be good for the primary schools, but once the students are in middle and high school it really needs to look a little more modern for it to be taken seriously.
  8. Educational content!
I am very curious on how the Teachermate will perform and what academic achievements it will generate, but I feel that the OLPC XO is a very strong product that could take some lessons from products like this and use them to grow the XO into a more accepted education tool.

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Original poster wrote:

"...my concern with the entire (OLPC) program is that there seems to be no curriculum or programs to help these remote schools use them. Just giving the students the computers is not enough."

Big problem, and the reason virtually nobody in the world buys into Prof. Negroponte's ideas.

@Christopher Segot:
"One of my favorite quotes from Wayan's 60 Minutes interview is:

"If you hand a child a violin or a piano they can make noise with it, right? But will they be able to make music? And if you give a child a computer, they'll be able to operate the computer but will they really be able to learn without having a teacher, whether it's formal or informal to help them along that learning path?""

It is fairly easy to dismiss any new idea as unproven as the first commenter always does (at least when the OLPC is involved).

Fortunately, in this case OLPCnews has some informative posts on this.

A discussion on exactly this quote:

Music eduaction in Thailand using the XO:

Extensive coverage of the Arahuayan deployment in Peru:

Obviously, for this to work some thought must have gone into user interface, communication, and teaching modes. Eg, without good collaboration and communication software, children might not be able to work together or with the teacher.

Anyhow, children in the USA will have completely different requirements than children in northern Thailand or an Andean village. For one thing, they do have plenty of teachers and books, as well as acces to TV, radio, telephones, and libraries.


"Collaborating with curriculum firms to develop content that will work on the XO (many schools do not have the resources to put it all together, so providing a more complete solution would be attractive to the education administration)."

There is also the option of collaborating with the online community of teachers and other content providers producing free and open educational resources. This is not either, or issue, but to contextualize learning materials, and to active teachers to take more responsibility of their work we should give *them* tools to make *their* content.

The Lemill.net http://lemill.net is one place to start this. I just wonder how is the framework of the Teachermate for content / program development?

Pupils should be free to build content of the Teachermate, as well. They could work on it with a “real computers” and then distribute them for their mates (and teachers) with the Teachermate.

About kids learning to use a computer on their own...

First of all, of course a teacher is a good thing. A teacher and 10 laptops (for example is even better). There are also other kids. Ever heard of kids learning things from other kids? Have you ever learnt anything from anyone who isn't a teacher? Ever heard of anyone teaching themselves to use a computer? Ever figured anything out by yourself?

About Irvins comment, "virtually nobody in the world buys into Prof. Negroponte's ideas"... I don't know exactly which ideas you mean or where you got that statistic (virtually nobody), but I believe kids can learn a lot using a computer, even if it wasn't tailored to be used by kids and even if they had no teacher. Even better if they have a computer like the XO and also have a teacher.

About the teachermate: Does it run linux?

Not every student sees value in education right away, many children would rather be out playing than try to learn something of value. While I agree some students will try to learn on their own the real value of any eLearning platform is being able to bridge the digital divide of conventional and proven education methods with the obstacles of no/poor physical classrooms, locally available teachers, transportation to school, etc.
To make a real impact any eLearning program needs to be able to reach a very wide audience and be easily accessible for the users and administrators. If it targets a niche or is difficult to use them it will not be used and fail.

I have been trying to reach the organization that makes the teachermate without luck so I do not know what OS it is running. My guess would be linux. I am hoping to get my hands on a few so my company can see about being able to add it as a platform that we will support.

It's pragmatic but also kinda depressing to see discussion of the intrinsic educational merits of the XO/OLPC entangled thoroughly with the sales merits.

It's easy to read too much into a brand name, but it's so easy I can't help myself. Notice that this is called the TEACHERmate. And that how it comes across to me--it's another tool a teacher can use for their teaching. More tools for teachers is a good thing, but it's wholly different than giving a kid their own computer.

I think this write-up and Yama Ploskonka's http://www.olpcnews.com/use_cases/education/when_constructivism_hits_the_road.html
show that there's going to be inherent philosophical differences in marketing the XO.

Hmm, I guess what's up that there are two markets which are well-identified, and for which the XO seems to almost fit but be not-quite-ready. One such market is the low-cost computer market. The other market is teaching aids, for which it seems overflexible and under-developed.

In fact, I think it's aimed at a different niche, which is clear from OLPC discussion, but others might not see or believe in.

Fortunately, a full-fledged computer is a general-purpose device, so it can in principle be developed to better fit the teaching aid niche, and slip the constructionist learning in the back door.


well it is an interesting form factor and bit of hardware, but it isn't running Free and Open Source Software. It would appear to be a locked down closed platform, without a keyboard, rather a long way from what the OLPC XO laptop is.

It appears that anything could be a learning tool, given the right curriculum to support it. You could hand out Nintendo DS to school kids if you have the educational support. The only issue would be abuse of the system if they could run non-curriculum games.

I could see the old GameBoy supporting early learning with the right cartridge inserted. Certainly they would be available for under $100.

gameboy programming - http://www.loirak.com/gameboy/gbprog.php

ps. I guess anything qualifies as a 'computer'

First off, on the Teachermate itself, I've been reading up on it, and I haven't seen it making any actual sales. It's being put in 500 schools technically, but only in one classroom in each school, and that's through the Teachermate foundation itself: the schools aren't paying for those single classes. The hope is that the schools will find them useful enough to order them for additional classrooms, but that hasn't happened yet.

In addition, I'm not sure how much weight I'd put into the name. It was likely given that name because both "Classmate" and "Studentmate" were already taken.

Also, the Teachermate itself may be $50, but the two programs for it, one for reading, one for math, are $20 each. The charging/sync unit is $300 and handles 30 Teachermates, for a cost of $10 for each Teachermate. Adding that all up makes it more $100 per unit in actual cost. Add in that it can ONLY run those two programs, and nothing else that the students, teachers, or school comes up with, and it starts looking less and less appealing.

In regards to the 60 minutes quote, I find it frustrating people keep bringing out the "an XO without a teacher is useless" argument, especially since every XO so far, with the exception of ones to developers and half of the G1G1 ones, has gone to schools. What do schools have? Oh yeah, TEACHERS.

Even if there weren't teachers though, it's kind of insulting to children to imply that they wouldn't be able to produce music if given no formal education on it. Jimi Hendrix was self-taught, and he seemed to play the guitar just fine. Granted, formal education can usually work better in some ways than self-education, but self-education isn't completely worthless. At the worst, kids with an XO will be able to teach themselves how to use a PC, and possibly even program one, which is an invaluable asset in furthering one's education in this day and age.

I remember when our family first got a PC (Apple IIGS), I would constantly mess around with BASIC. I would copy BASIC programs found in PC magazines and play them, as well as looking at the code for BASIC programs I got on disks. It eventually culminating in me, when having problems beating a simple text adventure game, looking at the code and discovering that, as written, the game was unbeatable due to a flaw in the coding. I was able to fix the flaw, as well as programed in my own cheat code that allowed me to instantly move around the game and grab any item I wanted. So with no formal education I learned how to debug and hack a game in BASIC, at around age 8 or 9.

I also wonder just how important it is for OLPC itself to have a full curriculum and educational materials for the XO. I highly doubt Apple handed my grade school a full curriculum when they sold the school a full room of Apple IIe computers. I don't hear anything about Intel offering a curriculum to go with their Classmates. The teachers in the pilot program in Peru seemed able to create a curriculum that involved the XO just fine by themselves, without any formal template given to them from above.

As for the points about OLPC:

1) There are already programs like this: OLPC America and the Give Many program.

2) What's a "curriculum firm"? The only ones I can find are for home-school.

3) OLPC is already currently working on a school server.

4) The Sugar interface was designed for simplicity and ease of use.

5) Microsoft is developing a version of XP for the XO for those that want that, and nothing is stopping other developers from creating or porting their own OS for the XO. I really don't want OLPC itself splitting focus on another OS until they fix Sugar.

6) This sounds more like a problem with teaching your 10 year old patience. Neither Windows nor Macs have ever had progress bars for running apps, they only ever had a "busy" mouse icon.

7) If the XO lasts them through all 6 years of grade school, that'd be an unqualified success. The XO may not look "cool" enough for our high-schoolers, but the appeal of a tiny laptop usually makes it cool enough for most people to get past its looks.

8) I've already covered this partially above, but the fact that the XO comes with ANY included educational software for no additional charge puts it ahead of the Teachermate and other competitors.

I would like to clarify that I do not feel that there is no value from just having the XO or any other learning device. How many of your other classmates were that involved in learning BASIC on their own? and keep in mind that at least you possessed basic computer skills (no pun intended) and were literate enough to read already, something that many of the intended users will not have.

The point I am making is that the combination of educational content/curriculum with these new technologies will be the much more effective and be able to reach educational goals to a much wider audience.

The school administrators and government departments of education will need to justify spending millions of dollars on a laptop program and if there is no significant measurable improvement in academic skills then they will not invest any more funding into projects like this and other potential programs will just see that the project failed for the initial program and not be very interested in pursuing their own.

I am also not implying that the OLPC foundation needs to create curriculum, nor do I feel they should as this varies too much. But for any school/organization/country to implement the XO or any other technology they need to have a plan of use and will need to incorporate everyday learning into the use of the technology so it re-enforces their learning and keeps the students engaged.

There is value in technology and there is great value in self-learning.. I do not dispute this and in fact I encourage this. However I believe the goal is to reach as many disadvantaged students as possible and to do this eLearning technologies need to be able to reach as many as possible.


I can't say how many of my classmates did what I did; probably those that had an Apple at home, like I did. The ones who only had access to one at school were pretty limited in the time they had access to one, and that time was largely spent on pre-defined activities. I do remember we spent time learning Logo though, and programming simple tasks. Also, I think everyone knew at least the simple "10 PRINT “HELLO WORLD”; 20 GOTO 10" BASIC program, with variations on the outputted text.

I would say that like anything unguided, you're not going to get unequivocal success, or evenly distributed learning. A lot of the learning would be dependent on the desire to learn, as well as ability to find information and learning materials outside of the learning institutions. Hendrix self-taught himself guitar, but he also seaked out pointers from other players. Obviously if you gave every child a guitar, only a handful of them would have the desire and drive to truly learn how to play once the initial novelty wore off and frustration kicked in. Of those, the learning would be uneven, and none of them are guaranteed to reach Jimi Hendrix levels of skill. Of course, a good amount of those limitations apply to formal music instruction as well.

The point though, along with most of your other points, are largely moot though, since they are pointing out things OLPC already does. They already work with schools, and teachers and educational facilities. are already involved in creating their curriculum around the XO. I haven't heard of ANY deployment of the XO that hasn't included an educational plan, or at least the plan to create one.

I hate to sidetrack this from discussing the Teachermate, but here is an article from March 27, 2008, regarding the training of teachers in the use and maintenance of the XO, AND the development of a curriculum that includes the XO.


Salient points include:
[[This week, teachers from remote rural villages in Peru are gathering in several regional cities to learn how to do their jobs via One Laptop per Child (OLPC) machines distributed to their pupils. Peru is now engaging in the world's most ambitious OLPC deployment: some 400,000 machines are headed to the Andean nation's poorest and remotest schools--about 6,000 schools in all.]]

[[In the training now under way, teachers must become versed not only in how to operate and maintain the laptops, but also in how to do their jobs within a newly laptop-centric educational model. The laptops will contain some 115 books, including textbooks, novels, and poetry, as well as art and music programs, cameras, and other goodies.]]

So here is "the world's most ambitious OLPC deployment", and it's engaging in exactly the sort of teacher training and curriculum design whose very existence has been doubted in numerous discussions attached to countless OLPCNews articles.

One hopes we'll see similar descriptions of teacher training and curriculum design in other countries' deployments of OLPCs, because it's true that *just* distributing computers, or even textbooks, for that matter, is not enough. Without a curriculum to go with the computers (or books), only the students with a knack for, and interest in, independent study will use them to learn. Peru appears to be incorporating the XOs the way they're supposed to be used: accompanied by teacher training and curriculum content.


I looked at the Teachermate website and it looked very thorough to me. I like the idea of flash cards as a method of teaching and Teachermate not only does it, but allows customization and recording of the student's skills and progress.

I would like to see the English version made available for Spanish locations.

Of course, the OLPC XO might be made to run the same software, but allowing a student to operate many other tasks while doing assigned work leads me to believe the multitasking would give the required tasks a lower priority.