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Changing Lives One Laptop at a Time


Photo of a girl holding an XO laptop developed by the One Laptop Per Child organization

In 2007, Sameer Verma, an associate professor of information systems and, admittedly, a shameless fiend for new technology, was attending a conference in Portland, Ore., when he saw an odd-looking laptop computer.


It was fluorescent green and had a 71⁄2-inch screen and a child-sized carrying handle. Moreover, as Verma would learn, the laptop used open-source software, a personal passion of the professor's as well as the focus of his research at SF State.


"The geek in me said, 'I need to get my hands on it,'" Verma recalls. But the only way to do that was by volunteering with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a U.S.-based nonprofit that puts rugged, low-cost computers into the hands of the world's poorest children.


Since 2008, OLPC has given away about two million laptops to children in the developing world, many of whom live in communities with no electricity and whose classrooms are little more than a patch of hard dirt under a hot sun.


OLPC laptops can juice up with solar or hand-crank chargers and connect to the Internet using a mobile phone. The devices make it possible for poor kids to do what their wealthier counterparts do everyday -- research school reports, make videos, draw pictures, post photos and send messages.


The folks at OLPC agreed to give Verma a laptop of his own in exchange for helping out with software and hardware testing. The professor was so impressed with the little laptop and the difference it was making in the lives of poor children that he began proselytizing for it around campus.


Soon, others -- faculty colleagues, staff members and students -- were toting around their own green laptops, called "XOs." A users group ensued, with Verma as its organizer. Since its first meeting more than three years ago, OLPC San Francisco has grown to more than 160 XO enthusiasts. Members meet monthly at the SF State Downtown Campus and provide support services for OLPC projects in about 12 countries.


In Senegal, volunteers are bringing wireless technology to a rural village that lacks even running water. They're making electronic dictionaries for children in Madagascar. At SF State, Joachim Pedersen, an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering, is teaching others how to make simple repairs on XOs using a screwdriver.


From time to time, Verma travels overseas for a firsthand look at how youngsters are adapting to their new computers. In Khairat in Verma's native India, youngsters showed off reports they had put together, in words and photos, documenting two big events in town -- a visit by a tightrope walker and celebrations marking Gandhi's birthday. Since the XOs arrived in town a couple of years ago, school attendance has soared to nearly 100 percent.


Will XOs change the world? Verma isn't sure. But one thing he knows for sure is that they're changing the lives of youngsters, one laptop at a time.


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