One laptop. One child. All San Francisco State.
August 25, 2008 5:06 PM
A green machine that looks very much like a toy is educating children all over the globe – with a little help from an SF State professor.
Sameer Verma, an assistant professor of information systems at SF State’s College of Business, has played a role in promoting a project called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) locally, an endeavor that seeks to educate children, particularly in underdeveloped areas of the world, through little green computers infused with educational software.
Verma is a believer in the “close relationship” between education and technology. “Education has become quite interleaved in technology,” he wrote in his blog. “It exponentializes the access to information.”
The project was first launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, former director of the MIT Media Laboratory. The Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization has used laptops to educate tens of thousands of children in underdeveloped countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Peru and Pakistan, and released its 100,000th computer in Uruguay last Tuesday, according to the OLPC website.
Verma first got involved in OLPC through his research with open-source software, which uses programs that are readily available to the public. Here computer programmers can copy the software and “do their own things with it” without having to deal with royalties, Verma said. OLPC released this kind of software, allowing people outside the organization to start playing a role by contributing ideas and making improvements to their technology.
This instantly caught the professor’s attention.
“I started by providing feedback,” he said. “Then I wanted to be able to do other things.”
The Information Management Systems Association (IMSA), a campus organization for which Verma is the faculty adviser, is working on getting a translation lab where they and other students from outside the group can translate English words into different languages and record these on software that the children can use.
“They don’t need to be computer programmers,” Verma said. “They just need to know another language.” Verma himself has done translation from English into his native Hindi.
Friends and colleagues of the professor know him as an innovator. Senjit Sengupta, a professor at the Marketing Department, said Verma “picks good topics for research.” Sengupta recalls his first encounter with his colleague five years ago.
“He was on the rooftop of the Cesar Chavez Student Center, using Pringles cans to transmit Wi-Fi signals,” Sengupta said. Since then, the two professors were bound by a common interest in technology and worked together on OLPC projects.
When OLPC began loaning out laptops to computer programmers who contributed designs and ideas, Verma received his first green computer. Later on, OLPC came up with a donation program: for every $400 dollars donated to OLPC, a green laptop would be given to an underprivileged child, and the donor would also receive a laptop.
A light bulb went on in Verma’s head when he noticed students and faculty members sporting the green laptops.
He thought of starting a group through which non-computer programmers could contribute to the project, and so OLPC-San Francisco was born. The citywide organization meets on campus once a month and is open to students and anyone in the city who wants to help a child learn through technology. The group discusses ideas and programs for the laptops, and works at gathering more support and spreading awareness for OLPC.
Verma’s colleagues say they are supportive of his work.
“I believe the value that will arise from his work is multi-fold,” said Paul Beckman, associate professor at the Department of Information Systems. “It will show that our department, college, and university are involved in applying the latest technology tools in ways that can help the disadvantaged or those on the ‘have-not’ side of the digital divide.”
Verma, who was born and raised in India, began his teaching career as a graduate teaching assistant at Georgia State University in 1995. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Osmania University in India and later earned a master’s degree in decision science and a Ph.D. in business administration. He started teaching at SF State in 2000.
Not only are the laptops durable — they can withstand a drop from up to five feet — but Verma also noted that they have some unique features.
For example, the computer encourages collaborative work by enabling the sharing of documents between two laptops without an Internet connection. “Two children in a classroom can work on a paper together,” Verma said. “And it’s so simple that even a 5-year-old can figure it out. That in itself for me is mind-blowing.”
Beckman believes that Verma can contribute even more to improving the laptops. “I’m sure he [Verma] will be able to combine his interest and knowledge about other advanced information processing technologies to do very interesting things with the device,” he said.
But what Verma finds most rewarding about his work with OLPC is seeing another aspect of his work that he doesn’t get to see in the classroom on a regular basis.
“I’m able to see that the work that we do will eventually end up in the hands of a 5-year-old child,” he said “Each of us can contribute a little bit--that in itself is very encouraging.”
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