A Costly Lesson
A closer look at Birmingham's curious commitment to the XO laptop.
November 26, 2009
Birmingham isn't known for being first in many things. And thanks to the initiative of recently convicted Mayor Larry Langford, we are the first major city in the United States (or in any developed nation) to hand out massive numbers of XO laptops to our schoolchildren on a one-to-one basis. It has been a little more than a year since 15,000 Birmingham students in kindergarten through the fifth grade were each given a computer, at a cost of $200 apiece. (The units are the personal property of each student—not the school district—but are, according to project organizers, intended to be used in the schools, as part of the curriculum.) It did not take long, however, for several major flaws in this plan to become evident.
Langford and John Katopodis (a former city council president and Jefferson County commissioner) negotiated the city's purchase of the computers for $3 million, and that was apparently as far as their thought process went. Their plan did not include sufficient time, money, or resources to train teachers how to use the laptops or how to incorporate them into the curriculum. Langford and friends sold the Birmingham Board of Education on the project in part by claiming, falsely, that the computers would not require additional wiring in the schools. Once the computers were distributed, it became apparent that they break more easily than was originally advertised and that parents have very limited options for getting them repaired.
One year into our local "one laptop per child"
program, many argue that the laptops are merely a distraction and a waste of money. There are those, however, who claim that the students are better off than they would be without them.
|The City of Birmingham purchased 15,000 XO laptops for $200 each and gave one to every public school student in first through fifth grades. (click for larger version)|
A Vision of Corruption
We may never know where Langford dreamed up many of his visions for Birmingham. In the case of the XO laptops, though, a good start would be a November 12, 2007, issue of People magazine, which featured a profile on Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the nonprofit that manufactures the XOs with the goal of providing every child in the world access to technology. (The small, sturdy computers were originally designed for children in developing countries.) Three weeks later, on December 3, 2007, Langford signed a tentative agreement with OLPC for 15,000 of the laptops for Birmingham elementary students. He planned to have the computers distributed to students in the first through eighth grades on April 15, 2008, calling the plan one of several initiatives designed to "bring the magic back" to Birmingham.
Langford's motivation for purchasing the computers may have been as simple as his insatiable need for attention and praise. According to the Birmingham News, Langford "was asked to be the national spokesman for the program as other U.S. cities began taking advantage of One Laptop Per Child."
|"It seems no one had a plan for how these laptops were to be used, or what teachers or students were supposed to be getting out of the experience."|
But it soon became clear, as Langford assigned his friends to the project, that he may have had other designs. Shortly after Langford took office, in November of 2007, Robert McKenna could be seen haunting the corridors of City Hall, donning the official "City of Birmingham" badge that all city staff wear. McKenna, whose official title is "liaison to the City Council," announced that he was in charge of "getting the contracts purchased and getting the money to do the training" for the XO program.
McKenna had previously handled finances for Computer Help for Kids (CHFK), a nonprofit formed in 2000 by Langford (when he was mayor of Fairfield), former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, and John Katopodis. CHFK was advertised as being a means to distribute refurbished computers to school students and community groups. Together, the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County gave the group nearly $1 million. But the nonprofit was a corrupt enterprise; on July 1 of this year, Katopodis was convicted on 97 counts of fraud for deals involving misuse of nearly $250,000 given to CHFK by the City of Birmingham. He awaits sentencing. Katopodis, who attended graduate school in Boston, where OLPC is based, had helped secure the deal with OLPC.
Langford, Katopodis, and McKenna also created the nonprofit Birmingham Education Initiative to administer the XO laptop program. It was short-lived, dissolved soon after the city council got word of Katopodis' mismanagement of CHFK funds (which included allegedly putting a gay porn actor on the group's payroll). Katopodis denied wrongdoing but withdrew from involvement in the XO program, saying he had completed his work. He was arrested shortly thereafter in Boston.
Perhaps those distractions delayed the rollout of the XOs. Glen Iris Elementary School received the computers first, in the spring of 2008, as part of a pilot program. That program "worked so well," according to several sources involved with it, that the city finalized Langford's original commitment to buy 14,000 more XOs. The bulk of the laptops weren't delivered to Birmingham until August of 2008. Most were still sitting in a warehouse by that November.
History of a Huge Investment
Langford's agreement with OLPC depended on the City Council to provide the $3 million for the computers as well as an additional $500,000 to implement the program. Despite having no clear plan from Langford for the XOs' implementation, on February 12, 2008, the council agreed.
The Board of Education (BoE) also had to agree to accept the computers. After all, their students would be using them. Several board members were hesitant to accept this "gift" for a variety of reasons. One was the stigma attached to the computers, which had been advertised as being for children in Third World countries. "I'm not sure we want to stigmatize our children as being poor," said board member Dannetta Thornton Owens.
Others expressed concern that if the board was going to give each student a laptop, the XO might not be the preferred choice. "With another $100, buying that many in bulk, surely someone would've given us a great deal in a computer that's on a system we're set up on," said board member Virginia Volker. Volker's comment touches on another major—and expensive—problem with the XOs: they were not going to function without upgrading Birmingham schools' technology systems. Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to accept the XOs. When asked why she voted yes despite her opposition, Volker sidestepped the issue. "At one point there was some consideration whether to accept them, and we really had to think long and hard how we were going to do this," she says.
After attending an XO seminar in Boston—after the units had already been purchased—McKenna reported to the board that "you need to add a router to every school." McKenna also said they would have to install filters on the routers to prevent kids from having full access to everything on the internet.
Yet only one school in each of the nine school districts received WiFi accessibility. There is insufficient funding to wire each of the 37 elementary schools in the system, which were, according to some teachers and administrators, supposed to have been wired, independent of the purchase of the XOs.
In a fitting error of kindergarten-level math, it quickly became apparent that Langford also miscalculated the number of students in his city's elementary schools. Therefore, only the first- through fifth-graders received the computers.
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Despite these problems, the city recently agreed to purchase another 1,530 XOs to give to this year's crop of new students.
It is now becoming painfully obvious that this "gift"
Langford procured for the city's schoolchildren is rather costly. If the BoE plans to continue to provide incoming students with the XOs every year, conduct teacher training, develop a curriculum, and maintain and update the schools' technology infrastructure, the XO program will not be cheap. After the initial investment of $3.5 million, the city invested another $1.156 million for the 2009–10 school year ($306,000 to buy 1,530 more XOs and another $848,000 to "manage the program)." That makes a total investment of $5.5 million since 2007. "We really could have used that money for teachers, or to hire technicians, to keep the existing program functioning, rather than introduce a program that is unfamiliar and that students likely won't be using in their lifetime," Volker says. (XOs use the open-source Linux operating system as opposed to the more popular Windows or Apple systems.)
Getting Our Money's Worth?
When the BoE voted to accept the laptops, on July 8, 2008, they also agreed to the city's choice of consultants for the project: Tim Lewis, owner of TALA Professional, a local technology and management consulting firm. TALA is being paid to help put the laptops into schools, train teachers, and more. TALA helped implement the XO's pilot program at Glen Iris in the spring of 2008, at a cost of $37,331. At the July 2008 BoE meeting, Lewis projected the cost of implementing the project in all 37 schools at more than $1.3 million. In September of 2009, the City Council voted to continue paying TALA to manage the XO program, at a cost of $848,060 for the 2009–10 school year.
Lewis presented the BoE with a list of tasks his company would perform in return for that nearly $1 million sum. In the fall of 2009 alone, those included programming the 1,530 new laptops and distributing them, creating a help desk (though whether it would be virtual, real, or by phone was not specified) and "support for parents, teachers, and students for 16,500 XOs," providing training for 1,000 teachers, providing parent training sessions, and developing "curriculum specific support materials with lesson plans."
Julian Daily, who moved his young family to Birmingham to work with the XO program, doubts that many of those programs are in place. He and his wife, Shaundra, through their company g8four, appear to be doing some of Lewis' work for him. G8four has hosted XO workshops for students and parents at McWane Science Center, among other places. (McWane is planning an XO exhibit, featuring a giant XO laptop, scheduled to open next year.) He says Glen Iris Elementary Principal Michael Wilson paid g8four to integrate the XOs into the school with money taken from Title I funds (federal funding for disadvantaged schools). A summer, 2008, XO workshop at Glen Iris was funded by OLPC, Daily says.
The Dailys moved to Birmingham from Boston after spending the summer of 2008 here working with students on the XO on behalf of OLPC. (They had previously worked with OLPC in Boston; Shaundra is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT.) Daily says he and Shaundra felt the XO project here, as the largest of its kind,
" was magnetic." Now that he has been in Birmingham for more than a year and attempted to work with the schools, the city, and the BoE he says, "We were crazy to be interested in this." G8four has worked with the laptops in other cities and even Haiti, with few problems.
The Dailys remain committed to the program and are being paid from a two-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant's principal investigator, Shelia Cotten, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, surveys students before they get the XOs, then examines the educational and social effects computers have on students who have worked with them in school.
Lewis, meanwhile, says his company spent the last year identifying educators who "have taken the time to understand what the XO can be used for," and they are reaching out to those individuals to help with teacher training. As for developing a teaching curriculum for the computers, he says, "We're not an educational training company, but we're putting together those teams. We'll be working on this next phase until next summer."
No Method, No Teacher
Lewis is the first to admit that, this being the first attempt to distribute the XOs on such a large scale, "the biggest issue is there is no model to go by."
Everyone asked readily admits that no one had a plan for how these laptops were to be used or what teachers or students were supposed to be getting out of the experience. "It's up to the individual teachers," McKenna says. "There are no guidelines yet as to how we use them and that's what we're developing," says Prothaniel Harris, a fifth-grade teacher at Glen Iris Elementary School. Cotten, who recently surveyed 1,700 kids in 26 city schools using the XOs, says "The teachers said they didn't get a whole lot of training. Langford had a great idea to close the digital divide, but he didn't actually work with the schools on training. The teachers are overwhelmed; they need help with training. I'm sure there are some teachers who never use them."
Joanne Stephens, executive director of instructional technology for the Birmingham City Schools, who describes her job as "helping teachers integrate technology into the curriculum," addresses one of the most disturbing facts about the XO program: "We don't have a unified curriculum. I don't know the philosophy behind why they handed them out before having the curriculum in place."
Volker calls the idea "a chicken in every pot, a nice political thing," but she says the computers have cost the school system a great deal of time and money. "Rewiring the schools to support them was a lot of extra work and expense, as was distributing the laptops and learning a new system. It wasn't logical to me to spend that time and money and the teachers' energy in doing that. I would've much preferred to pay our teachers and make sure the computers we already had worked, rather than buy some dinky computer. I thought the city gave us a lot of work."
Harris admits that parents, too, have had their doubts. "Originally, the parents thought it was one of those toy laptops," he says. "They were really adamant about saying that the city had wasted all that money. But we've had some formal training sessions with the parents, and they're coming around."
A Lesson in Maintenance
A common complaint about the XOs is how easily they are damaged, despite being designed for use in rough conditions.
"The younger students tend to drop their backpack on the ground and forget the computer is in there, so I have a lot of cracked screens," says Cleotis Williams, who teaches Spanish at William J. Christian Elementary School. "Some parents might not think it's worth it to repair their students' computers because they didn't pay for them," Williams says.
Another common problem is that the battery charger burns out when it's plugged in for more than about an hour. The computers are designed to be easily disassembled and repaired, but that process has to be learned. In fact, different people involved with the XOs offer different answers when asked how, exactly, students are supposed to get their laptops repaired. "We have no mechanism to repair these," admits Joanne Stephens. Several teachers mentioned a computer repair shop on First Avenue North as being the only one in town set up to fix the XOs. That shop, it turns out, is operated by one of Birmingham's city councilors.
Councilor Johnathan Austin was involved with the XO program early on, having attended a repair workshop for the computers at MIT in the summer of 2008. He began repairing XOs upon his return. He has stacks of them in his shop, and says he most commonly sees broken screens, destroyed keyboards, burned out chargers, and mutilated mousepads. Although fixing the computers isn't difficult, finding parts for them can be tricky. Austin admits they can be taken apart easily and says he recommended that the city create a training program for high school students to repair the laptops. "It costs nearly $100 to replace one of these screens,"
The Silver Lining?
Michael Wilson, principal at Glen Iris Elementary School and a major proponent of the XO project, insists that despite any glitches, the laptops are a positive addition to Birmingham City Schools.
"Our [students'] overall poverty rate is at or above 85 percent," Wilson says. "Providing these kids with technology gives them access to something they wouldn't already have. It goes a long way, even without a teacher facilitating learning." Wilson also says he feels the XOs are an appropriate choice of computer for the kids and says he'd prefer these to other laptops sold at a comparable price. "The kids have access to all the free software online [XO users can download programs online at no cost]. Plus they already know Microsoft, we have that available in the classroom. [Many Birmingham City Schools have computer labs or computers in their classrooms, running Windows-based operating systems.] The programs on the XO make kids think."
Prothaniel Harris, who teaches at Glen Iris, says the computer's simple design serves its purpose in Birmingham schools well. "It doesn't have the bells and whistles to distract the kids," he says. Harris says his main complaints with the computers themselves are their limited storage space—2 gigabytes—and slow operating speed.
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Comments from former Mayor Langford and his former aide (and current XO administrator) McKenna may best sum up the gulf between reality and expectation about the XO computers. Langford once told the Birmingham News: "We're not trying to give these kids a computer that would launch a space shuttle." McKenna, however, recently remarked on the XOs' capabilities:
"You could virtually launch a rocket to the moon." &
Meet the XO
The XO laptop was developed by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a Boston-based company affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (OLPC's founder, Nicholas Negroponte, is the founding director of the school's media lab). It is a small, lightweight computer (about the size of a small textbook) that according to the company was "designed and built especially for children in developing countries, living in some of the most remote environments." The XO has built-in wireless capability and a screen that can be read under direct sunlight (for children who attend school outdoors). It includes a camera for still and video photography and a speaker. It's designed to durable, portable, and energy-efficient. It includes several USB ports and ports for headphones and similar plug-ins. It has an integrated handle, thick plastic walls, and rounded edges, making it kid-friendly. OLPC estimates the machine's lifetime at a minimum of five years.
The XO operates on a Linux-based open-source system, and users can download additional programs online, often free of charge. It features an internet browser; Scratch, which OLPC describes as "an easy-to-learn multimedia programming language" that users manipulate to create stories, games, animations, and more; Speak, a face (with changeable features) that will speak any text that is typed into it, in many languages; and several music, art, and video programs, as well as some educational games. The XOs can connect with one another on a unique network called Sugar, a "zoom interface" where users can see who is logged in and interact with each other.
Teachers in the Birmingham city schools who have used the XOs say they use the camera, Speak, and Scratch programs most often. "We have kids here learning a second language or some not reading as well as they should," says Prothaniel Harris, a fifth-grade teacher at Glen Iris Elementary School. "You can type a word in to Speak and it will say the word or sentence for the child—it helps with pronunciation." Cleotis Williams, who teaches Spanish at William J. Christian Elementary School, says his students use the video conferencing feature to record themselves speaking Spanish, then play it back. "We let the kids play with it and show us what they've learned," Williams says. Wilson Elementary School teacher Theresa Tarver says she has written lesson plans on an XO then sent them out by network to her student's laptops. "The things I teach in class—antonyms, synonyms, prefixes and suffixes, numbers and operations, division, subtractions—we can do all of that through the XO. It's learning made fun, it's an enhancement in teaching." —C.C.