Professor brings technology and education to developing world

Professor of Information Systems Sameer Verma is the local leader of an education project that puts laptop computers into the hands of children in the developing world. But the way he sees it, the children are leading.

A photo of Verma speaking with a professor from the University of the West Indies about introducing the laptops in Jamaica

Verma (right) speaks with a professor from the University of the West Indies about introducing the laptops in Jamaica (Credit: Varun Baker).

"The children have really taken this technology and run with it," said Verma, the chief organizer of One Laptop Per Child San Francisco. "They're able to teach themselves by exploring the software that's loaded on the computers, and they create demand for the program by telling their friends about the laptops."

The One Laptop Per Child project was formed to connect first world technology with education systems in the developing world. The nonprofit organization designed inexpensive, durable and powerful laptops to distribute in developing countries around the world, including Argentina, Colombia, Jamaica, Peru, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and others. The small green "XO" computers are loaded with education software and can network with other XO laptops. Since 2005, the project has delivered 2.5 million laptops throughout the world.

Verma first volunteered with the organization in 2007 out of his own interest for the project. His involvement has now grown into SF State's "Commons Initiative," which connects people at SF State with larger open source technology projects. He was drawn to the idea after witnessing poverty in parts of his home country of India and imagining the impact that technology could have in helping people solve problems in their communities. Verma leads and organizes San Francisco-based groups working on the project, and has also been involved in introducing the laptops in Jamaica, India and Madagascar.

Verma says that organizers of the program are still learning the best ways to introduce the laptops into communities, which can have vastly different educational structures and literacy levels.

"When the kids use the laptops in their home, a lot of the learning is discovery-based," he said. "They start learning on their own without the help of classrooms or teachers. But can that scale up? That's a big question for us right now."

What works in one country or community may not work for another. In Uruguay, for example, their education system invested in training teachers to use the laptops, and now they are in every primary school in the country due to the government's enthusiasm for the program.

A photo of Professor of Information Systems Sameer Verma

Professor of Information Systems Sameer Verma. (Credit: Aaron Anderson)

"In some cases you need to do a lot of professional development and training with teachers, and in some you don't," he said.

In Jamaica, Verma has worked with the education system, but kids who have received the laptops have shown strong motivations of their own.

"There is a strong competitive spirit in Jamaica," Verma said. "The kids there are very ambitious. Once they are given an opportunity, they take it and run."

In one Jamaican school, math literacy jumped 14 percentile points in one year just after the laptops were distributed. Verma partially attributes that to a math game called TuxMath that is very popular among students in which they shoot down asteroids on the screen by correctly solving math equations.

As the program grows, children and organizers have been finding and sharing innovative ways to use the computers. SF State's Downtown Campus hosts the annual "community summit" each year for volunteers involved with the project to trade ideas and share successes.

"We're planning for five more pilot projects in new communities next summer," Verma said. "I think we'll get funding for a few more pilots beyond that."

"It's a good program for SF State in particular," he added. "It suits the social justice and equity focus we have here."

-- Philip Riley