Birmingham Schools' XO laptops
The Birmingham Schools' XO laptops are 15,000 laptop computers designed for collaborative education which were purchased from the One Laptop Per Child Foundation for use by first- through eighth-graders in Birmingham City Schools. The units were designed to provide low-cost computers to children in developing nations. Birmingham was the first city to put this type of computer in the hands of American schoolchildren.
The program allows students to take their laptops home and to keep the same unit until completing the eighth grade. Wi-fi internet access will be implemented in every Birmingham school using part of its share of the Jefferson County School Construction Fund. UAB and Miles College offered to partner with the system to provide technical assistance. The mayor also proposed a "Right Spot" initiative to get the hundreds of churches in the area to provide Wi-Fi access across the city using inexpensive routers.
In February 2008 Langford created the Birmingham Education Initiative, a non-profit foundation to receive the city's program funds and solicit private donations in order to purchase and distribute the laptops to students and administer the laptop program on behalf of the city. After Councilor Valerie Abbott objected to the involvement of former Computers for Kids chair John Katopodis in the foundation, Langford dissolved the group and encouraged the Council to form an independent agency to solicit private donations. In approving the purchase of the laptops in its March 11 meeting, the Council declined to do so, instead transferring the $500,000 from its previously-accepted $3.5 million budget to the Birmingham Board of Education for technology improvements needed for the new laptops to have internet access.
The Board of Education, meanwhile, expressed reservations about accepting the unsolicited gift from the city. Vice President April Williams noted that the board and city did not discuss student needs before the purchase agreement was made while member Dannetta K. Thornton Owens expressed reservations about stigmatizing Birmingham students with computers made for "poor" children.
The Board accepted the computers, distributing 1,000 of them in a pilot program at Glen Iris Elementary School. The cost of providing a wireless internet server and 15-20 access points in the school was estimated by the system at between $9,000 and $12,000. Actual costs incurred in the pilot program would help establish a budget for improving technology system-wide. The first shipment was delivered to Glen Iris on April 21, 2008 and TALA Professional Services was hired to oversee their implementation.
During 2009 Birmingham budget meetings which took place while the pilot project was ongoing, City Councilman Roderick Royal proposed expanding the laptop program — using some of the money saved by not funding scholarships to purchase more powerful traditional laptops for middle school students. Darryl Burroughs, the system's director of information technologies, told the council that traditional laptops could be more easily integrated into the schools' existing infrastructure. Board vice president April Williams, however, said that teachers' experience with the XO laptops shows how they could be beneficial in the middle school curriculum.
Meanwhile at Glen Iris, consultants from TALA found that the school's existing internet connection was insufficient, so a second line was added at a cost of $300 per month. Additional software was installed on each laptop to make it easier for younger students to use them. Soon after they were distributed educators were still learning how to operate the laptops while students quickly made use of the "chat" function to communicate with each other over the built-in mesh network. In all, implementation of the pilot program cost just over $37,000. Based on that figure, consultants reported that a system-wide implementation would cost just over $1.3 million.
On July 8, 2008 the school board voted to accept the remaining 14,000 laptops on the condition that the city would pay for all necessary technology upgrades and that the system would not be financially responsible for maintaining the program. An agreement was reached with final approval from the board on September 9.
A few students took advantage of a summer workshop at the Birmingham Public Library to become more familiar with the computers. An "XO Expo" was held at the McWane Science Center in August 2008 to share experiences from the early implementation of laptops at Glen Iris. Prothaniel Harris, a fifth-grade teacher, said that the laptops had changed the way he teaches and involved the children first hand in the lessons, successfully trumping other distractions in the classroom.
By early November only students at A. G. Gaston Elementary School had received the additional laptops and only Sun Valley, Robinson, Avondale, Barrett, Glen Iris, Jackson, Central Park, Minor and South Hampton Elementary Schools had wireless internet service in place for them. School officials and volunteers hoped to have configured and distributed all 14,000 additional laptops by early 2009 and to upgrade internet services as funds promised by the city were made available.
In at least some classrooms, such as at Princeton Elementary School, the computers were used for lessons on basic coding and keyboarding. The chat function was used for collaborative projects and the laptops were also used in testing. In some other schools, the unopened packages were distributed to students with little expectations for use in the classroom. Birmingham Public Library staff members were trained to help students who brought their laptops to libraries and did assist many children with assignments.
In August 2009 UAB won a $1 million grant to help 160 fourth and fifth grade teachers make better use of the laptops in their curricula and to evaluate the results. Later that month the city placed an order for an additional 2,300 units.
In September 2009 Mayor Langford proposed giving the system another $864,000 to provide 1,530 more laptops to incoming 1st graders, to train elementary school teachers and parents on their use, and to fund a two-week summer camp for students. The board accepted the donation on September 22.
By March 2010 only two of the system's 38 elementary schools (Glen Iris and Central Park) were fully equipped to allow students to access the internet through the XO laptops, but with the access points in place, TALA expected to have the remaining schools equipped by August. Meanwhile Joanne Stephens, the system's executive director of instructional technology, was still surveying teachers to determine if the computers are being used effectively in the curriculum. Teacher workshops were held that summer to provide training and lesson plans.
In a 2010 survey conducted by UAB assistant professor of sociology Sheila Cotten, only 20% of elementary school students reported using the laptops "a lot" in class, while an equal percentage said they never used them. Money for the program was eliminated in the 2011 Birmingham budget, which was constrained by a deficit from 2010. Cotten secured a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop curricula and train teachers over the next five years. Newly-hired superintended Craig Witherspoon said that he supported the use of technology in classrooms, but had not formed an opinion about the XO laptop program.
The XO laptops purchased by Birmingham have a 500-megahertz processor, 256 megabytes of DRAM and 1 gigabyte of flash-based on board memory. The laptops contain no internal, floppy or compact disk drives. The screen is a 7.5" LCD with 1200 x 900 pixel resolution. Other hardware features include dedicated game controls, an internal microphone and integrated 640x480 video camera. USB ports enable connections to supported peripherals. The battery and power management are designed for flexible charging situations. The computer operates with very low power requirements and is designed to last for at least five years.
They run a specially-designed graphical user interface called "Sugar" which runs on the Linux operating system. Each laptop can connect to other nearby XO laptops through a built in wireless mesh connection. Internet access is available through a Wi-Fi connection, which will be filtered to block inappropriate internet content in the schools. Pre-installed software applications include word processing, computer programming, math graphics, video and audio captures, drawing, and a few skill games.
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