# Sharing knowledge and learning collaboratively at schools

(This article was written for a college magazine.)

We have a vision for a better society in which the values of sharing and collaborating knowledge and technical know-how form an integral part. There are two aspects to this issue. One is why it should be done, and given the current social structure how it can be done. Though the why question is as important as the how one in this article we will try to focus more on how it can be done with aid of proper technology and what are the possible implications of this intervention to the citizens of the future.

The current education system does little to promote and impart the ideas of sharing knowledge with peers to the students who will be the future citizens. In our educational system it is more like each-one-for-oneself; if you help your peers you will be at a loss in the future. Another aspect is that the educational system by its nature is consumerist. By consumerist we mean that the schools system treat the students more like consumers, who are then passively fed in what has already been produced by others. There is no or little scope left for students to produce or construct anything meaningful. So the platform/technology which will address these issues should have the following qualities:

• It should be based on principles of Free Software (see http://gnu.org/education).
• It should allow for collaboration / sharing of knowledge.
• It should allow for active, meaningful and collaborative production / construction contexts, through which students will learn.
• It should give immediate feedback to the student, not the delayed one (year end) which the current school system has. This is essential as it makes children reflective about the work that they are doing.

Learning in the context of constructing some tangible thing is a philosophy of education proposed by Seymour Papert, called constructionism. Constructionist learning is inspired by the constructivist theory that individual learners construct mental models to understand the world around them. However, constructionism holds that learning can happen most effectively when people are also active in making tangible objects in the real world. A closely related term that you might have heard is that of constructivism, but there are differences though.

The potential for transforming classrooms in a revolutionary way is present in the constructionist way of learning, which the existing CBTs (computer based tutorials) do not challenge but reinforce. The advances in technology have made it possible now to implement constructionist ways of learning to masses. So where are the examples of this?

The Sugar learning platform  is just one such example which is specifically developed keeping in mind the above considerations. But the idea of constructionist learning is not limited only to using computers. displayed. The very idea of the platform is centered around the idea of constructionism. Though initially developed for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project, now it can run on almost all computers. Learning in an environment where sharing knowledge is an inherent principle rather than an added externality provides the students with a whole new way of learning. Each activity on Sugar is designed keeping in mind the collaborative, construction context and immediate feedback principles.

The Sugar platform provides construction contexts from different areas to learn collaboratively like language, mathematics, science, drawing, music, games, programming, photography, audio and video recording among other things. For each of this activity can be done collaboratively by the students and can be shared with others. This also provides students to make meaningful connections between different concepts. In this context we have seen a strong urge in the children to share the knowledge and activities that they have with others, but in the current school system there is no or little provision for this. Sharing of activities provides context for feedback from peers, which in turn is fruitful in improving learning. Thus we see that the tools and time is ripe for changing our perspective towards education for a more inclusive and better society, whose core values are sharing of knowledge and collaboration.

There are pilot projects of Sugar running at many places across India, one is the Khairat Project which is running successfully for past 4 years at a primary tribal school of first generation learners near Mumbai, another one is at Merces School near Panaji in state of Goa.

# Turtle Art Galore…

Here is one for the Turtle Art!

The idea that the child should program the computer and not the other way round was initiated by Seymour Papert in his book Mindstorms. Papert calls the field constructionism instead of Piaget’s constructvism. Will elaborate the detailed differnces in some other post. But we at gnowledge.org lab  are tryingto bring that in India using Sugar as a learning platform and we are not exclusively using OLPCs for that. We conduct regular teacher training workshops throughour India. One of our basic guidelies in all this is the use of Free and Open Source Software in education.
One of the first things that we introduce to newcomes in Sugar is the Turtle Blocks.

How to define Turtle Art? Well it is a studio! It has components of mathematics. logic, and art embedded in it. Artemis Papert [related to Seymour Papert?] has a website on the art that can be created using Turtle Art here www.turtleart.org

Have a look at the amazing gallery with the source code also available in case you want to have a peek at how such lovely pictures can be made using Turtle Blocks!!

Here is mine, adopted from the cover of the Turtle Art Book 3 by Artemis Papert.

And this is how I did it.

# A Mass charger for OLPC!

1
~~
I am currently working on deploying OLPCs [One Laptop Per Child] a.k.a.
the \$ 100 laptop a.k.a. XO in India. The Green colored laptop looks
pretty with children being very happy to have one, and what is best
is that the children or their parents do not pay for it, but the
child gets to keep it, take it home and play with it!

More information at laptop.org, sugarlabs.org

2 Khairat
~~~~~~~~~

The first pilot was started in Khairat, sleepy tribal village about
60 kms from Mumbai. This will be the third year in Khairat. So a
generation of children are present who have been using the XO
consistently. Though we got on to this project last year, the Sugar
platform I already knew about. The parents tell us that the children
have developed special affinity with their laptops, at times even
not allowing their elder siblings to even touch it. Pedagogically
the support at Khairat has not been so good. The teacher their
Mr. Surve learned most of the activities with the Sugar on his
own. Along with the new and some upgraded activities, but thats
another story.

3 Charging Problems
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

One of the consistent problems that was faced in Khairat is how do
you charge the laptops. Though these laptops consume quite a less
amount of power as compared to normal ones, the fact remains that
they run on the battery and batteries tend to dicharged when
used. There was some solution provided in terms of a rotating wheel,
wherein a dynamo is used to charge the XOs. But this did not work
out well. The Khairat school is not very large about 23 students
across all the 4 grades of the primary. So to charge all the laptops
at the school, we needed to have 23 plug points, to put the cute
little green chargers in! If you scale it up, if you have to have lets say 100
deployments then, 100 plug points! The OLPC design team came up with
a charger which can charge upto 5 laptops, but then we need to
import that too, with the XOs. What we wanted is to charge a large
number of XO’s at one go. The desiderata was that technology should
be indegenious, cheap, and should be open’. Open is used here in
the sense of being transparent to anyone who wants to repair or know
its workings. Also the problems of the charging at Khairat were
compounded by the fact that many of the chargers had gone bad. The
things were so bad that for the entire class of 23 students they had
only 5 working  chargers, so that the students could not charge the
laptops, the scheme that was implemented in this case is that the
children would bring the laptops to the school, charge it there turn
by turn. All this was further complicated the load-shedding’ of the
Electricity Board. The schedule of the electricity board is such
that it does not allow for continuous charging.

The first option that we tried was to get a similar charger from
Lamington Road. When we enquired we got one for about 200
rupees. But even if we get 20 of those, we did not have enough plug
points in the school. And even if they were there, the lenght of the
wire on the chargers isn’t much, so the students have to sit close
to the extensions. This isn’t by all means a very good idea, AC 230
V all near kids, in primary. Many of the chargers had bare wires,
and accidents can always happen. But this still doesn’t solve our
problem of mass charging. We needed a charging station. Since we did
not have one, we had to design one.

3.1 So what was to be done?
===========================

We tried to take a supply from a
We found that the rating on the chargers required them to charged
with above 6 V. What could give us a continuous supply of regulated
power and was cheap?

4 The Solution
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jude had an excellent idea. We use the standard SMPS [Switched Mode
Power Supply] which powers the regular desktops to charge the XOs. The
main purpose of the SMPS is to provide a regulated DC supply from the
AC mains, to which it is connected. The standard SMPS comes with two
levels of DC voltage as the output; one is 5 V and the other is 12
V. To operate a computer and its various parts both are needed. The 12
V supply is given to parts like the motors which operate inside the
HDDs. Whereas the 5 V supply acts like the logic 1, 0 V being
logic 0 for the binary operations to be performed on the digital
devices, that is the transistors. The current capacity of the SMPS is
about Amps. This is more than sufficient to safely charge about 10
XOs. So from one SMPS we can safely charge 10 XOs.

4.1 Now, how exactly it was to be done?
========================================

So what we did was to get the SMPS about Rs. 440 at Lamington
Road. Derive a power cable from one of the many outputs given
there. Then from that one output we would need to draw 10 outlets for
charging the XOs. The number 10 seemed to be reasonable to be drawn
from a 400 W SMPS.

Anyways so the steps for the construction went as follows:

Draw the 12 V supply from the SMPS, that is, the yellow wire and the
ground, the black.

The first thing that we did was to cut the first main wire for about a
metre. This wire was of 25 guage, the gauge has to be high for the
main cable as it has to draw power for all the 10 XOs.

Now for connecting the main power cable to the SMPS, we needed the
female connectors and join this to the output of power supply. This is
the same thing which goes inside your IDE drives. But in this case we
wil be deriving the 12 V supply and not touching the 6 V
supply. Making this connection requires a bit of skill, as we
discovered later, the joints were shaky, even after all the crimping
that we did. They had to redone at Jude’s office.

Now after the first metre of the main power cable, we attached 4 more
wires, 2 black and 2 red. One each black and red wires were braided
and ended in the DC jack for the XOs. So at the first T’ joint we had
two outputs for the XOs. For the joint itself, we had 8 wires coming
there. So we soldered the wires. Jude suggested that we could get what
are known as shorting caps’ for making the final product.

Now this step was repeated for the remaining 4 `T’s. So at the end
voila we had a mass charger for the OLPC.

5 The Short
~~~~~~~~~~~

So we tested our creation with 10 XOs, being charged simultaneously by
the charger. But there was a problem, the joints started to heat
up. There was a short some where in the circuit. We did not test for
continuity. So we had to redo the entire thing again. 🙁

The short was finally found in one of the DC jacks, which when twisted
and pressed, had a protrusion which actually punctured the other wire
and thus shorted the entire circuit. Finally after almost re-doing the
entire circuit, we were on our way to test our charger.

With all the XOs attached. The light on the battery indicator of the
XOs was red and amber. Then slowly after almost an hour, slowly one by
one, the XOs were being charged, indicated by the indicator becoming
green. 🙂