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One Computer At A Time: One Laptop Per Child

Rangan Srikhanta may be in his mid-twenties, but as the executive director of One Laptop Per Child Australia (OLPC), he’s certainly not twiddling his thumbs with drinking games or watching entire seasons of Entourage in one sitting. Instead, Rangan is figuring out ways to ensure his organisation achieves its mission statement of distributing laptops to children in disadvantaged circumstances or remote areas; children who, as yet, do not have access to a computer at all. In Australia, that counts for 400,000 children between the ages of four and fifteen. In a world where computers manage everything, such lack of skill immediately translates into limited opportunities everywhere from the workforce to their social life. OLPC aims to get a laptop to every single one of those 400,000 children. Not most, not some, not a select few who have been chosen for their ‘potential’; ALL of them.

Rangan came to Australia from Sri Lanka as a child, so he was inadvertently bestowed with a unique insight into how stifling a prospect a lack of opportunity can be. Acknowledging that his parents uprooted their lives for his, he now feels the same hope and aspiration for the children of his adopted country, too many of whom face the same lack of choice he himself would have experienced in his birthplace. The common interest within his organisation, he maintains, is the belief in “the potential of all children.”

Rangan (right) with some beneficiaries of the OLPC program

While studying at UTS, Rangan became involved with the United Nations Association. He first heard about OLPC when then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, became a fierce advocate for the One Laptop Per Child initiative worldwide. Rangan immediately saw the need and possibilities in his own country. As he puts it, “In Australia, we have a finite timeframe and it is an achievable goal”, so he got on the phone straight away. In between exams and assignments, he would wake up at 1am to call the OLPC head honchos overseas in hopes of setting up an Australian arm. It took a couple of years of perseverance, but eventually he was successful. Rangan had since finished uni and was working a full time job while getting OLPC Australia established and functioning. Fortunately, he had what he describes “a lot of luck on the way. If it wasn’t for Barry Vercoe [from Boston’s MIT] collaborating with me, and Michael Harte, Mark Reid and Olivier Jenson from Commonwealth Bank, I’d still be in my room dreaming.” Uncertain about the future but hopeful, Rangan quit his job in November 2008 to work full time on OLPC. Just one month later, he got an unexpected email from Harte, a CommBank executive, asking how he could help.

Last year was OLPC’s second year in Australia, and they distributed 1000 of the specially designed XO laptops. This year, the goal is 5000. In five years, the goal is the complete 400,000. The machines themselves are an extremely sturdy, dust & water-resistant, simple design. They are built in such a way that if something goes wrong, the children can repair them themselves. The software is all pre-installed, selected for its simplicity and functionality. And yes, spare parts are included.

Today, Rangan’s biggest worry is finding ways to reach every child and being conscious of having a “small footprint and making a positive impact.” The best intentions of the past haven’t always been beneficial to indigenous communities in hindsight, and he is mindful of the nuances required in those situations.

He takes a consultative approach and ensures not to “get caught up in changing what’s wrong” instead of focusing on what the community wants for themselves and what he can do to make that happen.

OLPC Australia aims to make sure teachers and schools feel supported, not threatened, and that the XO laptops assist rather than distract or burden. Public sentiment and awareness are crucial for OLPC Australia to gain traction for broad government support – to ensure the teachers of tomorrow are introduced to the XO laptops while they themselves are still at uni, to ensure the software on the laptop supports national curriculums and to ensure the organisation gets the financial backing needed to produce and distribute the devices on a large scale. OLPC is always on the lookout for teachers, ex-teachers and future teachers to get involved. Unlike other countries where the OLPC initiative has been implemented, government funding is not available, so corporate and individual donations and support are driving OLPC Australia’s ability to purchase the 400,000 XO laptops needed.

If you’re interested in getting involved in One Laptop Per Child Australia, you can contact them via their website.

words: Kristen Hodges


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