Thursday, January 04, 2007

Google and the Imara Project

Post by Jonathan Proulx, MIT CSAIL

Thanks to a generous grant from Google's Open Source Program Office, the Imara Project at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) was able to provide computers based on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) for each elementary school in Fiji's rural Taveuni school district. (note that this project is separate from OLPC)

We chose laptops for the project, both for shipping concerns (shipping PCs to developing nations tends to be prohibitively expensive) and because electrical power isn't available at all the school locations. We used Lenovo Thinkpad R52s due to their large screens, low cost, and Linux-friendly components. Three members of the CSAIL community took the 10 laptops as carry-on luggage, and held training sessions for the teachers once they arrived in Fiji.

The FOSS component is central to the sustainability and adaptability of the project. Since it's free, there's no additional software cost when the project expands, or if community groups wish to further leverage the technology. Since it is Open Source, once the userbase becomes sophisticated enough it will be simpler to adapt the software to meet local needs, such as adding Fijian language support.

Edubuntu (a Debian GNU/Linux-derived operating system specifically tailored for educational environments) was chosen as the laptops' operating system. Edubuntu provides virtually all the packages required for a good K-12 classroom environment, with minimal configuration. The only program we added outside Edubuntu was GeoGebra, a dynamic interactive mathematics application for exploring geometry, algebra, and calculus.

Configuration included creating a privileged "teacher" account as part of the basic install process, and adding an unprivileged and password-less "student" account. We configured the desktop environments with icons for the most relevant applications (office/productivity applications for teachers, and educational programs for students), and set the window system to automatically log in the "student" account on startup, and that was that!

Here are the applications we selected for the student desktops:Imara volunteers provided initial training in two day-long sessions, graciously hosted by Maravu Plantation on Taveuni Island, Fiji.

Follow-up activities are also in the planning stages, including a 20-seat Edubuntu installation at one of the larger schools, and further developing local expertise by sponsoring a Fijian teacher's travel to spend time at CSAIL with members of Project Imara.

1 comment:

  1. A waste of money at this point I would say. The area is very technologically challenged and economy at a very low state relatively. I wouldn't be surprised if the laptops end up lying in a storeroom after 'going bad' within a month or something because one of the younger kids shoved a piece of cassava (their staple food - an underground stem rich in carbohydrates) up the laptop's RJ-45 port. Trust me on this one.

    Yes, they might have some people around with experience in computers, but XP fanatics is the best you'll get. They'll be lost with GNOME, not to mention the terminal as well. The lack of internet connectivity will also add on this already huge problem.