One Laptop per Child comes to Hong Kong

Laptop initiative hopes to inspire youngsters keen to make a difference in society, writesAlan Wong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 9:20am

Tin Shui Wai is an unlikely part of the city for two young Americans to visit on their first trip to Hong Kong. Nevertheless, Katelyn Foley and MacKenzie Sigalos found themselves dragging a couple of hefty suitcases to the distant community, where local contacts brought them to a nearby kindergarten.

Introduced to a group of about 20 youngsters, Foley greets the class: "Good morning. Is everybody ready?"

The children's bewildered expressions indicate they don't really understand much of what she said, but most can barely contain their excitement when they spot colourful, chunky laptops being pulled out from the suitcases. These are XOs, the cheap and rugged computers being distributed to underprivileged children around the world through One Laptop per Child (OLPC), the non-profit initiative founded by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte.

With help from kindergarten teachers who translate instructions, the children are soon able to perform a host of tasks on the the XO laptops.

"Look! I can make the turtle move," a chubby boy with short, spiky hair shouts as he drags the character to a designated area using an application called Turtle Art.

Foley and Sigalos are veterans in the student volunteer movement and, although brief, their visit has brought together young Hongkongers keen to help poor communities and make a difference in society.

Both were studying at Harvard University in 2008 when they started the Digital Literacy Project (DigiLit), a non-profit student group that aims to "address the digital divide by providing laptops and computer classes for schools around the world."

"We were interested in the One Laptop per Child project and quickly realised that education was the area in which we could have the greatest impact," Foley says. "At the time, the XO laptop was winning all kinds of design awards, but deployments really needed teacher training and curriculum resources to fully leverage the machine."

They launched pilot programmes in the United States, in low-income schools in the Boston area, and in a school for the deaf in Nicaragua, working with teachers to develop educational activities to integrate the XO into classrooms.

The pair continued to further the OLPC cause after completing university. "The experience of starting a non-profit was very valuable when looking for jobs after school. We had won Harvard's business plan competition, so having that credibility and entrepreneurial experience really added to our résumés," Foley says. A molecular biologist by training, she became an associate with consulting giant Bain & Company, while Figalos, who did visual and environmental studies, joined CNN.

The idea of bringing OLPC to Hong Kong began after they got in touch with clinical psychologist Kang Tsz-kit, an active OLPC evangelist, and Anthony Wong Sik-kei, a former commissioner for Innovation and Technology who is also president of OLPC Asia Pacific. After two weeks of Skype conferences, Kang connected the pair with two suitable kindergartens.

They spent two days briefing teachers on how to incorporate the XO laptops into the classroom before joining Kang to address a Polytechnic University seminar on how young people can make a difference in the world.

Publicity for the event featured an unusual credit: "Poster designed by Kelvin Yu Ka-wan ... I am 16 years old and an edu-volunteer!"

Yu, a Form Four student at Maryknoll Fathers' School in Tai Hang Tung, had been tagging along with the adult volunteers from the start. Besides creating the poster, he helped with the logistics and classroom activities. While Kang and the American visitors were busy with kindergarten children, Yu and two other young volunteers were occupied setting up a server at the back of the classroom to link the XO laptops.

He learned about OLPC through an unusual route: at a supplementary class for students who failed to hand in their homework on time. A teacher discovered his enthusiasm for information technology and introduced him to Kang. Helping with the OLPC activities, he says, has benefited him as much as it has underprivileged children. "From this project, I learned how to work in a team, how to communicate with children and the more technical side of OLPC [such as writing apps]."

Hong Kong University student Helen Leung Wai-sze, who attended the OLPC seminar, is impressed by its work. At the age of 18, Leung is already a veteran social entrepreneur. She has co-founded several student organisations and initiated social projects on the mainland and abroad, including in Ghana.

"There are a lot of social service-oriented projects and societies in HKU, such as volunteering in local communities, overseas volunteer trips and teaching in university societies. But a lot of them are not sustainable or don't meet the real needs of the community, while some are quite short-term and detached. They often come up with a solution before trying to understand the real needs of the community," she says.

"OLPC is an example of people-centred thinking where the product is created or invented by first understanding the needs of the children, and then trying to come up with a solution that fits their needs in a low-cost but effective manner. So I was interested in understanding how the OLPC programme works in Hong Kong, and to learn more about the product and the rationale behind it."

Her biggest challenge, she says, is to strike a balance between her university studies and social projects. A high achiever in school (she received a perfect score of 45 in the International Baccalaureate exam) Leung sees her university studies and voluntary work as parts of a learning process that complement each other.

"One of my favourite quotes is from Mark Twain: 'Never let schooling get in the way of your education'."