Earlier this year, some 40 digital tablets (the Motorola version of iPads) were packaged into two taped-up boxes with no instructions and dropped into two Ethiopian villages, each about 50 miles from Addis Ababa and each with about 20 “1st-grade-aged” children, MIT Technology Review reported. The goal in this experiment, which OLPC chair Nicholas Negroponte says has another 18-24 months to go, is to see if “illiterate kids with no previous exposure to written words can learn how to read all by themselves” using “preloaded alphabet-training games,” videos, e-books, and other apps.
Negroponte told the Technology Review he thought they’d play with the boxes, but “within four minutes, one kid [had] opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” the tablet’s operating system. What he meant by that, writer David Talbot said, was that they’d gotten around the “desktop” settings OLPC had locked in, having “completely customized the desktop” so that every child’s was different. Before that, they were reciting the alphabet song on the tablets and were spelling words. OLPC knows all this because “once a week, a technician visits the villages and swaps out memory cards so that researchers can study how the machines were actually used.” The technicians taught adults in the villages how to use solar rechargers to keep the tablets running – the only instructions anyone received.
In a blog post about this story, US educator Ben Grey called this story “simply astounding” and further wrote that “we need to think very, very seriously about this.” Among the questions he feels we need to consider are: “Why don’t we give kids more credit for their natural capacity to learn? What if we’re the ones getting in the way? Why does there remain such a fascination with teaching kids very specific technology skills in our schools today?” I have those questions too, especially the first one, but I also noted a pointed comment beneath the MIT article from international school teacher Andre de Koker in Addis Ababa saluting OLPC while also reminding them that “his part of the world needs more than just another computer or tablet.”