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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 November 2007, 08:45 GMT
Glimpsing Nigeria's digital lifeline
By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Children walking with XO laptop

Until recently there was nothing that marked out Galadima primary school as anything out of the ordinary.

The government-run school, flanked by a red dust road on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria, taught about 300 pupils who congregated from the surrounding rural area.

But in March this year, the scruffy primary became part of a remarkable experiment. It was the first in Africa to get its hands on the so-called $100 laptop, a rugged device aimed at helping children in the developing world get the most from their education.

The tough machines, conceived by the US-based One Laptop per Child (OLPC) group, were designed to replace dog-eared text books and traditional teaching.

The school was given around 300 of the low-cost laptops along with a satellite internet link known as VSAT, a power generator and solar panels. The idea was to see if the machines would survive the ultimate test: children.

Laptop pupils give their views

"We wanted to bring the laptops to an environment where the kids would drop it, put it in water and do everything you wouldn't want to do to a normal laptop," explained Ayo Kusamotu, a lawyer and volunteer with OLPC Nigeria, an independent group set-up to support OLPC in Nigeria.

The hardware trial ran for five months.

"We've actually learned a lot from that trial - really simple things that are almost mundane but important," explained Walter Bender of OLPC.

"For example, some of the desks in Galadima are at an angle and we learned that you've got to put rubber feet on the laptop otherwise it will slide off. So now production laptops have rubber feet."

Although, the trial has now ended OLPC Nigeria has continued to fund and support the school's use of the computers. It remains one of just a handful of places in the world where the OLPC vision can be seen "in the wild" and visiting it is an uplifting experience.

Village pride

The children - most of whom had never seen a computer before March - have clearly embraced the green and white machines.

It is one of the happiest things that has happened to the school
Miss Manzo

Even before entering the school grounds, visitors are accosted by hordes of animated children waving their laptops, eager to show what they can do with them.

Children stream from doorways and alleys wanting to take a "snap" with the laptop's onboard camera whilst others shoot video files and then excitedly show each other the results.

The more studious show off the graphs and pictures they have drawn and the notes they have typed in class.

There is a clear sense of enjoyment and pride in both ownership and use of the machines.

One girl was even wearing the power cord as a necklace.

And that pride continues through to the packed classrooms - where up to 90 or 100 pupils are squeezed into one room - and is evident in both children and teacher.

"It is one of the happiest things that has happened to the school," Miss Manzo, one of the teachers at the school confided.

l$100 Laptop's yo-yo prototype power chord

"Before, we felt that we were not very important but now we have the laptop we feel that we have moved ahead."

Not only has it raised the status of the school, she said, but it has also improved learning at school and the surrounding community.

"The laptop has brought a great impact to our children," she said. "It is easier to give notes and assignments and they [the children] learn faster."

She added: "But it is not only in the school they make use of the laptop. They use it at home and even help to teach their parents."

Miss Manzo said that both the children and the teachers had easily learnt how to use the XO laptops, as they are known.

At the moment the laptops are used to augment the text books and black boards rather than replace them.

"One of the biggest uses of the laptop is for note-taking in class," said Mr Kusamotu.

XO laptop

In addition, he said, teachers use the preloaded encyclopaedia to teach classes.

During our visit we saw a lesson on the mammalian eye based on the preloaded content along with maths lessons that used the calculator.

Although there are no numbers that show what effect, if any, the laptops have had, the teachers remain convinced of their worth.

"I pray that the government will try and help every child in Nigeria get access to this," said the headmistress of Galadima, Mrs Juliana Okowkno.

Digital distraction

However, aspects of digital life at Galadima are not perfect. What are small problems at one school could become serious issues if, and when, millions of the laptops are rolled out across the country.

Girl walking with XO laptop
The children are allowed to take the laptops home with them

For example, more than 40 of the prototype machines have either been lost, stolen or broken since March. This has knock-on consequences, meaning that that not every child has a laptop on which to follow lessons.

In addition, the laptops can be a distraction - often pupils play games on their computer rather than follow the class.

It is also apparent from visiting Galadima the level of support a large-scale roll out of the programme would require.

Teachers would need to be trained, technicians would need to be on hand to troubleshoot problems and the laptops and its peripherals would also need maintenance.

Some of the children have learnt how to fix broken keyboards and remove the screens and batteries. They act as engineers for the whole of the school - fixing friends laptops as and when needs arise. But software and infrastructure problems may be more tricky.

For example, the solar chargers strapped to the roof of Galadima school had been not set up correctly - we were told they were "misaligned" - and are useless.

Net worth

However, perhaps the greatest difficulty that will face schools that follow Galadima is the internet.

Earlier this year, some of the pupils were found to be accessing pornography through the laptops.

Vsat dish
The internet connection is powered by a diesel generator

Although filters can be added relatively easily, there is a bigger problem and one that is typical of many developing economies: cost.

"VSAT is still very expensive," said Mr Olanrewaju Oke of internet service provider Accelon.

"For a 1.2m dish and a one watt radio it comes in at about $2,500."

In addition, a 128Kbps connection - around a quarter of the speed of a typical broadband connection - is around $350 per month, or $4,200 per year. That is on top of the cost of the laptops - currently $188 apiece.

During the trial, Accelon provided the connection for free but now the school is on its own and as a result, the link has been cut - although OLPC Nigeria had asked for the internet to be restored during our visit.

Mr Oke believes that cost will come down in the same way as it did in the mobile phone sector. He has put forward a long term plan in the event the Nigeria government buys into OLPC that would see schools sharing a connection.

"We're looking for a situation where we can provide good clean access to these schools for anything from $100 to $150 a month," he said.

"It's a starting point and eventually we would like to get close to where Europe is at 50, 60 or 70 dollars a month."

Without government intervention it is difficult to see how many schools in Nigeria - and elsewhere - could afford to get online.

But Mr Kusamotu does not believe it is a problem.

"It is not a stumbling block," he said. "Having the XO, even without the internet, is an extension of the classroom."

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