“Miles from the nearest school, a young Ethiopian girl named Rahel turns on her new tablet computer. The solar powered machine speaks to her: “Hello! Would you like to hear a story?”
Quote from Nell’s Primer in Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel The Diamond Age
Earlier this year, in a unique experiment, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) workers simply dropped off boxes containing tablet computers with preloaded programs and no instructions at two Ethiopian villages. Their goal was to find out if illiterate children – children who had never seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on them could learn how to read by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs.
The boxes containing the tablets (Nell) were taped shut. It was thought that the kids might just play with the boxes, but within just a few minutes one of the children had not only opened the box, but found the on-off switch and powered the tablet up.
Within five days, 47 apps per child, per day, were being used. Within two weeks the kids were singing ABC songs in the village. And most amazing, within five months they’d hacked Android. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC explained this by saying: “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they (the kids) figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”
OLPC’s mission is to empower the world’s poorest children through education. The organization began by donating inexpensive computers to schools in countries with little or no education infrastructure. The goal was to improve school curriculum.
Yet, around the world, there are something like 100,000,000 kids who don’t even make it to first grade, simply because there are no schools and few literate adults, so these kids have no one to teach them. Now, because of OLPC’s efforts, it seems that for the cost of a tablet all of these 100,000,000 kids could simply teach themselves.
What a brilliant way to show that the human brain, no matter what situation it is in, can accomplish amazing things without traditional learning. This has huge implications for education.
- Growing up with Nell: A Narrative Interface for Literacy
- Ethiopian kids hack OLPCs in 5 months with zero instruction
- One Laptop Per Child gets hip with a new tablet version