The XO has landed

When he left UTS just four years ago with a double-degree in business and computing and took a graduate role with Deloitte, Rangan Srikhanta's career path seemed mapped out in front of him: chief information officer of a leading corporation was the goal.

Instead, Srikhanta, recipient of the Elizabeth Hastings Memorial Award for Community Service, made it all the way to CEO – and much faster than most.

His targets are as ambitious as the most veteran of CEOs, and he is as determined to reach them. The difference is Srikhanta, 26, didn't stay in the corporate sector. He surrendered his healthy salary to establish the Australian branch of One Laptop per Child (OLPC). His mission: to arm every one of Australia's 400,000 children aged four to 15, who live in remote communities, with an XO Laptop by 2014.

Srikhanta sees the XO – a pint-sized computer built especially for children – as a tool to unlock their potential. Learning, teacher and student engagement and, ultimately, broader community development are just a few of its purposes. Computer literacy is a by-product.

"Children do not lack capability, but there is a lack of equality in our developed nation," says Srikhanta, who fled worn-torn Sri Lanka with his family as a child. He became interested in community development after volunteering with the United Nations Association of Australia during his time at UTS.

When former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and technology pioneer Nicholas Negroponte launched OLPC, with the support of News Corporation and Google, at the World Economic Forum in 2005, Srikhanta set his sights on establishing an Australian chapter.

He quietly toiled and learned lessons as he went, finally leaving his job after one-and-a-half years to work fulltime on OLPC Australia – in the midst of the global financial crisis.

"I couldn’t stomach becoming a banker or a consultant and earning a lot of money when I knew that money wouldn’t necessarily lead to me being happier."

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In December 2008 Srikhanta received an email from the office of Commonwealth Bank Chief Information Officer Michael Harte asking how they could get involved. OLPC Australia was born.

"How do you respond to something like that?" gushes Srikhanta, who once aspired to emulate Harte's success as CIO. The bank donated $150,000, enabling the first deployment of 400 laptops to three remote communities.

By May 2009, OLPC Australia had been launched officially, and the number of employees was growing. UTS alumni Kelly McJannett and Penelope Bowden (both BA in Communication, 2009) now respectively manage communications and marketing. The one-year anniversary of OLPC Australia was marked with a gala dinner at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, attended by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who granted Deductible Gift Recipient status to the organisation.

By September this year, $4 million had been raised and 4000 laptops distributed.

"It isn't enough," says a more sombre Srikhanta, who aims to have 15,000 in use by next June. "Hopefully we will blow that out of the water."

Globally, more than one billion children in developing communities do not have access to adequate education. This includes Australian children. According to the National Assessment Program: Literature & Numeracy (NAPLAN, 2008), whereas almost 80 per cent of Year 9 metropolitan students are above the national reading standard, only 33 per cent of their peers in 'very remote communities' are at the same level.

OLPC Australia's philosophy is that the more remote children are, the more their performance in standardised exams drops. They do not lack ability: the current system of teaching does not engage children or their teachers the same way as in metropolitan areas.

While the 100 'apps' for the XO do tackle literacy and numeracy, the laptop also aims to contribute to student and teacher engagement, and community development.

"Children who are involved in the program are more engaged, but in many of these remote communities, teachers last about eight or nine months. The children just don't have the assumed level of knowledge teachers are taught at university, and this makes it difficult. But think of the implications on a child's learning path when teachers are constantly leaving."

OLPC Australia brings teachers in remote communities together for the XO Experts Program to show them how the laptop works and how to use it to engage and educate children.

"More than 90 per cent of the teachers who attended in Alice Springs said they strongly believed the laptop would help increase attendance," says Srikhanta. "We want to see the teachers using this laptop as often as possible. You hear stories of some children coming in early because they want to use the laptop.

"But what about the future of a community whose children are now able to use the internet to create solutions for their community?"

While they may not have the social support structures, many remote schools do have the resources to support the use of the laptops: power and internet; some classes are even linked fibre optically. But for the very remote schools, Srikhanta hopes the XOs will create a demand for better resources.

He refers to a community in East Arnhem Land. The closest shop is 200km away, but during the wet season it is inaccessible. "They do have a way of sustaining themselves – they pull roots out of the ground and eat them as they have done for thousands of years. So what happens if one of the kids says 'we can't go on like this; let's set up a little shop'? The teacher is working on that now. But if they leverage the internet and technology, they might be able to create a local economy. With the XOs in the community, there will become a demand for resources including the internet.

"Ten years ago, how much did we know about other societies and cultures? We were barely embracing the internet. Now everyone is connected. If we can combine education and connectivity, we’ve got the making of an environment that could have a major impact on how these communities sustain themselves in 10 or 20 years.

"With education comes opportunity to make a difference. With knowledge comes power to make change – not just for people close to you, but for the broader community."

Indigenous Land Councils and community elders have played an important role in OLPC Australia's success to date, ensuring that culture and values don't take a back seat to technology.

A series of e-books and literacy exercises are currently being developed for the XO – it is here the Yolgnu language from East Arnhem Land will make its online debut.

"This is not just empowering children for the future, it is also helping to retain their culture."

The laptop comes with a screen that is readable in direct sunlight, and is built to be fixed by the people who use it: children. It costs $300, and is now used by 1.5 million children in 12 countries. In Uruguay, every primary school-age child – almost 400,000 – was equipped with an XO within three years.

Each laptop has individual colours on the lid and is programmed to speak directly to its 'owner'.

"From the moment children receive the laptop, there’s a sense of personal ownership," says Srikhanta. "They become the custodian of the machine."

The XO, he says, is "their window into the fun process of learning". It will also help close the "gap".

"Why don’t we get to the children before the gap opens? The younger you start, the more positive the impact on a child’s development. We have to do this in such a way that is also innovative and cutting edge – we need to leapfrog the divide."

Visit the One Laptop per Child website.

Words: Caroline Jenkins
Image: © Fiora Sacco