Open Source Education and Loongson reduce the digital divide for migrant workers kids

After months of work from corporations, institutions, universities, Open Source communities and NGOs the first fully Open Source based lab is launched in Beijing. The purpose of organizing this Opening ceremony on November 12th is to raise concerns of Migrant Schools education from different organizations!

Everyday hundreds of thousands of children from migrant workers families who are building modern China fail to receive proper education and can’t get basic computer teaching, leaving them even more behind and increasing the digital divide. The complexity of addressing education needs for the part of the Chinese population requires a lot of problems to be solved and computer access is only one of the problems. However computers coupled with the possibilities of accessing the Internet will give them the chance to discover and access invaluable content which can secure their future and give them access to job they didn’t even know existed!

Delivering proper computer based education to poor schools issues range from electricity consumption from a full classroom (one normal PC can easily consume 60 to 200W, multiplied by 20 or 50…), teacher knowledge about IT and integration of the digital tool into their curriculum, content cost and licensing, and of course computers cost.

Today in Wende we have managed to address all the problems above thanks to technology, vision, and collaboration from various parties. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has built a general purpose low powered CPU that runs free software and which enables to consume as low as 15-17W per machine at a very competitive price, enabling manufacturers such as Lemote and Dexxon to build some of the cheapest netbooks on the market.

Thanks to Dexxon for its contributions and sponsorship of the classroom, WenDe today has a fully equipped 20 Gdiums Loongson based set up. Dexxon has sponsored Mandriva, a French Linux software company to bring the latest technology on the Loongson architecture and customized a Linux distribution for education.

Furthermore non-profit organizations such as Greenboard and LEAD have been building the education material together with teachers and released them under an Open Source license so any school can use them for free, modify and improve as they wish.

The last part has been completed by Greenboard and CSIP who are also graciously training the group of selected teachers by WenDe’s headmaster in order to get them ready to deliver the initial curriculum. LEAD is currently training some of their members to get ready to deliver the same kind of training to other migrants schools.

A special thank you goes to COPU for their support throughout the project and helping Greenboard and Dexxon to connect the dots.

So from now on the children of Wende school will be able to access the latest software and technology to become computer literate but also to improve their knowledge in general topics such as maths, English, geography, arts, problem solving, programming and much more.

The organizations involved will continue to build new curriculum, more exercise and will also get more teachers involved in the near future. One of the advantages of using a free software licensing model is that all the cost of such a solution only goes to the hardware and any school can just download, use and adapt the content to their needs. Hopefully we will soon see a strong teacher community improving this initial work and working together to create better free educational content for our children.

The inauguration was organized by Greenboard core members
As a core member of Greenboard, we hosted an inauguration on 12th November at Wende School
Celebrated our success with Chairman Lu and Kewei from Chinese OSS Promotion Union, Dr. Qiu from CSIP, Liwen and Garfield from LEAD, Laurette from the French Embassy, Professor Zhuang from Beijing Normal University, YunYun from Friends of New Citizens, Wende headmaster / teachers / students and many more
We had people from Dexxon, Greenboard, Chinese OSS Promotion Union, LEAD, CSIP French Embassy, Beijing Normal University, Friends of New Citizens, Beijing LUG, Lemote, Wende School and other Migrant Schools!
Professor Zhuang, at School of Educational Technology of Beijing Normal University will definitely join the Greenboard project helping to improve the teaching skills of Wende and other Migrant Schools teachers!
Zhuang Xiuli, Professor at School of Educational Technology of Beijing Normal University will definitely bring a lot to the Greenboard education project helping to improve the teaching skills of Wende and other Migrant Schools teachers!
Class demonstration given by Wende teacher, students were very concentrated to learn how to paint with computer
Class demonstration given by Wende teacher, students were very concentrated to learn how to paint with computer (even the room was full of visitors)
After 3 classes, students could paint something really amazing with Koularpaint, isn't it coo?
After 3 classes, primary students could paint something really amazing with Kolourpaint!

Wende School Project – Part 3

Teacher Training - Week 4
Teacher Training – Week 4

In Wende School Trial Part 1 and Part 2, I mainly introduced how we identified the school, our preparation work and part of the training. In this post, I will cover the demonstration class that teachers give us and how efficient our training has been so far.

With the target of having the children use the Gdiums by November, we have been raising our teacher on-site training session to twice a week. Another part of the training should be done by the teachers themselves and we insisted that they take the Gdiums at home in order to get familiar with the machine and the system when they have free time.

Migrant Schools always run on very low budgets, making them nearly impossible to attract qualified teachers, buying updated textbooks and avoiding high turn-over in both teachers and learning population.  Talking to the English is was a great example of this, and bringing her the few educational applications we had (dictionary, text-to-speech, vocabulary learning exercises, with native speaker voices, etc) definitely made a great upgrade to her existing teaching arsenal. She is now hoping to use the Gdium classroom daily or as much as possible based on other teacher schedule. She gave us a copy of the textbooks she uses so we can incorporate the vocabulary and the prerecorded words into the software we’re using (LLN (Linux Letters and Numbers). And we’re glad to see her joining the teacher training classes once the (children) mid term examination is over (in 2 weeks).

Class Demonstration from Wende teacher
Class Demonstration from Wende teacher

So 4 sessions into the teacher training it was now time to give them a little exam and see how they would be doing using the system with their students. We started off with 4 children, then 10 and then a full 20 children classroom. It was really exciting to see the classroom being used for its intended purpose: getting the children to learn maths, English and art without even noticing it! For most of them it was there first encounter with a computer, but this didn’t seem to slow them down at all. The teachers did really well as well and we should be starting teaching them content development to build upon and enhance the existing Open Educational Resources we have provided to start using the Gdiums in the classroom. In order to make the project more scalable, we are cooperating with organizations like LEAD and CSIP to have more trainers. If you are interested in this project, feel free to jump in!

Wende School Project – Part 2

Wende School Computer Room - Before decoration
Computer Room at Wende School – Before decoration

Welcome to part 2 of my early post written in October 2009 which is mainly about the school selection, the preparation work and training.

During the school summer holiday, we went back to Wende School a few times and discussed with the headmaster about the computer room decoration and set up. We look at things like:

  • Class orientation (make it easy for teachers to monitor & manage)
  • Server / computer for teacher
  • Internet and Wifi network
  • Electricity and cabling
  • Hardware protection (avoid dust and direct sunlight to computers)
  • Safety management (prevent kids from accessing the electricity sockets)
  • Security and thief proofing (install bars on windows and locks on doors)

By mid August, we visited again to check on the decoration status. What impressed me is that the headmaster actually was renovating the school with his wife by themselves, I saw them sweating while painting the walls and building the fences of the kindergarten. We were however a bit disappointed on the computer lab renovation progress: nothing had started yes and it was still the same storage room that you can see on the photo above. So we could only review the room requirements, discussed about who would be receiving  the training and whether they had a candidate to become part time system admin to manage the lab. Headmaster Cui had already thought about it and suggested to select a few teachers who have been working by his side for a while with some computer knowledge. We didn’t want to train someone to see leaving the school within months (which is currently a generic problem of such schools for migrant workers kids). He of course included himself in the group so they can also manage knowledge transfer by themselves.

Delivered 20 Gdiums to Wende School
Donated 20 Gdiums to Wende School

Early September 2009, Dexxon / the Gdium Foundation donated 20 Gdiums to Wende School as initially agreed. We were very excited about the start! The room was almost ready. It was decorated with nice white paint (it’s a bit plain but we can always add some colorful drawing later), carpets, bars, locks and clean tables and chairs. Not enough electricity sockets were installed, so we had to add a few wire extensions and plugs. Of course there were still some sundries here and there but we were ready to start teachers training sessions. The same day, headmaster Cui provided a server and Wifi router for us to prepare and use in the newly installed lab.

Gdiums in Wende School
Testing 20 Gdiums at Wende School Computer Lab

One week later the whole set up was ready and we could start training the four selected teachers.  In my opinion Mr. Cui did an excellent job by choosing people with a very diverse background: we have a young teacher who is very open to new things; the administration manager, a 40+ years old lady who is only familiar with Windows; a college student who was just hired as part-time system admin to manage the computer room, and himself.

After discussion with the headmaster and the teachers, we agreed to give 4 to 6 days of training depending on the progress. 4 hours per day with a break every hour. 1 training day per week so they have enough time to digest and practice what they have learned. We printed and binded 5 Greenboard Open Textbooks covering all the initial deployment courses, 1 for trainer and 4 for teachers. Seeing the 5 textbooks print out, I got the feeling that a milestone of the project had been reached. Of course this is only version 1.0 (beta) and we already have a roadmap for future versions to come. Besides since the courses are released under a Creative Commons license, anybody can just jump in, give their feedback and actively contribute.

Training Wende School teachers
Giving training to Wende School teachers

On the first day of training, Jason was the key trainer while I was the assistant trainer. Julien and Liantao were testing the server performance with 20 Gdiums. It was exciting to see the reaction and get feedback from the teachers! The student sys-admin and headmaster seems quite familiar with Gdium and its operating system already. I guess they took a bit of advance by taking them home and exploring all the options.

The young teacher (Miss Liu) was very eager to learn and excited to discover new things. the only slight resistance came from the administration manager who had to learn a different system, which is not what she has been using for the past years. At the beginning, she showed her frustration and asked a lot of questions about what’s the hardware performance and if Linux could do the same things as Windows. During each break, we spent some time to explain the benefits of Open Source in general and in education in particular. The last training session covering Gcompris education suite nailed it: we saw her trying out all the educational activities supplied by the suite, with a big smile and satisfaction on her face and she said:  “These games are good for children to learn Maths and English!”  Say no more! What’s better than experiencing it by herself?

As mentioned earlier, making schools understand the benefits of Open Source can be challenging, “Free” as Free beer doesn’t work as almost every software is free in China, we focus on “Free” as “Freedom” but how many people care about it? Most people have habits and are addicted to Microsoft software. It will definitely take some time to change. The good thing is that Open Source and Linux are not companies, we don’t have quarterly financial report to fulfill, that means we have time. By providing a total solution with education oriented customized Operating System for students / teachers / Server computers, a complete training courses / curriculum and constant maintenance support, it will definitely fasten the process. I look forward to seeing more school benefiting from it!

As this is an ongoing project, do expect to read more about our progress, experiences, and maybe difficulties right here!

Wende School Project – Part 1

Wende School Part 1

Introduced by the LEAD organization in early 2009, we have been going to numerous Migrant Workers’ Children Schools especially in ChaoYang district to give training to teachers and headmasters about computers, Open Source and Open Education in schools. For most of them, it’s the first time for them to hear about Open Source and Open Education.

A few months ago, we had a chance to go to Wende School and met the headmaster and all the teachers over there on a Saturday morning. After the training, they asked a lot of questions and I got a very good impression about the school as they are very interested by the concepts we promoted.

Schoolwise, it is similar to a lot of other Migrant schools here in China. Many of the schools exist in conditions of absolute poverty and lack qualified teachers or administrators. They have very scarce equipment as well. Wende school has about 250 students (aged 6 to 12), 15 teachers and 10 classrooms without any laboratory, computer classroom or library. Wherever this is true, it remains unlikely that migrant children will receive an adequate education.

Wende School Headmaster
A picture with the headmaster of Wende Migrant School, Mr. Cui

Unlike other headmasters I have met so far in other Migrant schools, most of them are
migrant workers themselves, they are usually some individuals taking opportunity to profit from a huge potential market due to the increased demand from migrant workers for education. Hence they would only see computers as tools to recruit more students for their schools without caring so much about the education side of the whole thing.  They tend to have some second hand unusable computers to put in a room as display. However, Mr. Cui, Headmaster of Wende, previously worked as System Administrator taking care of computers and networks in companies. He is very open minded and understands that the benefits of introducing computers to kids not only for the sake of just learning how to use computers, but to use them as tools to solve problems and widen the scope to other educational domains as well.

Since then, we went back to Wende School a few times to discuss about their needs, sponsoring some Gdiums and developing a computer lab. Of course by doing so, it would involve a lot of preparation like:

  • Decoration and set up of the room with computers
  • Completion of the Operating System for computers and server
  • Training materials for teachers
  • Training schedule for the teachers and system admin
  • Who would be receiving the training
  • Who would be the system administrator
  • Maintenance and support, etc.

Ones of the weaknesses of Open Source in Education is lack of knowledge of Open Source from teachers and lack of documentation (especially in Chinese). Microsoft is perceived as “free” software here and all the public exams are based on Microsoft software in China while  their strategy is to give away textbooks to poor schools to make sure their market domination remains.

In order to have schools understand Open Source, we spent about 6 months to talk with schools and teachers to deliver a solution that covers their IT teaching needs but also Maths, Geography, English, Chinese, Art, Music, Typing, Office Suite, Internet and so on. Based on those requirements, we customized G-Linux and built a classroom server using applications like Gcompris, Rur-pleK-Geography, Stardict,, etc.. We also built  the training materials (in Chinese) and finally published our first release of Greenboard Open Textbook. All the contents is freely available on the Greenboard wiki pages and licensed under Creative Commons. Here I would like to thank the whole team including Julien Forgeat, Jason Wu, Frederic Muller, Helen Wang, SunLianTao and SunLiWen who have been constantly contributing to this meaningful project!

This article is getting too long to read so I will stop it here for now! In part two, I will talk about the installation / set up of the computer lab and training. In this trial, I hope that we can all learn together whether they are problems or useful tricks. Looking forward to the success in bringing computers with Linux and Open Source Software to Migrant schools in China.