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Handheld to campus-wide – the OSWALD at OSU

Wow.  It’s not just that the student-designed and -built OSWALD devices are innovative and cool (they are, and I saw the on-campus sweatshop to prove the student-built part.)  The brilliance is the way the OSWALD is the linchpin in an OSU strategy that reinvents computer science teaching, while making room for disciplines outside of CS and packaged growth beyond OSU.

The OSWALD (Oregon State Wireless Access Learning Device) is built from the ground-up from idea in the Summer of 2008 to the first units in first-year CS student hands on 23 April 2009.  It runs OSU’s version of an OpenEmbedded Linux; check out the full software stack to see there is a lot of capability in one hand.  It has ports for external devices (via USB) such as keyboard, mouse, monitor, and GPS.  The unit itself has a joystick with click for the left thumb, ABXY keys and a thumb-size touchpad plus buttons for the right hand.  It holds in your hands like a handheld game device.

It is also fairly raw, especially in terms of additional software ports, because it is a platform for students to learn on.  In his first-year CS class yesterday, Carlos Jensen handed out the devices for the first time.  The students’ first assignment is to write an MP3 player so they can listen to music on it.  Next week they work on the user interface for the player.

Ironically, the students who are doing the work to bring this to first-years are amongst the last class to work on dead-code autopsies. They were in the same first-year class long ago and no handheld like the OSWALD was in sight.

OK, so now the students have a handheld that encourages them to hack it for their own needs.  To provide the other half of the circle, OSU has a new social project hosting website.  They did a lot of work to blend Elgg and Trac into a seamless project tracker that makes friends want to flock.  Although they are running this as an OSU-specific project hosting with an open/public view, it can accomodate their industrial partnernships and class privacy needs.  They sound ready to roll this solution for other educational institutions to use, and I think they have a good chance for strong adoption.  I’ll be writing more about this, since I’m going to do what I can to help get it packaged for Fedora.  The concept is strong and the field seems pretty wide-open to get filled with a stellar open source solution.