Give an illiterate child a tablet, see what happens

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Plenty of people are wary of laptops and other mobile devices making their way into classrooms. A couple of weeks ago, a Pew survey of teachers found that almost 90 percent said digital technologies are hurting kids’ attention spans.

But here’s a side of the story that compels attention.

In April, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)  project delivered about 40 PCs to a remote Ethiopian village, a place with no written language — no street signs, no newspapers, not even  labels on boxes or bottles. None of the children had ever seen a written word.

OLPC left the tablets in several sealed boxes. The Motorola Xoom tablets, charged by solar power, were loaded with books, games and other apps in English. They also had tracking software to let researchers see how the tablets would be used.

The organization’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte, described what happened:

We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes!

Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up.

Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village.

And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.

Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, elaborated:

The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different.  We had installed software to prevent them from doing that. And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.

The continuing question, Negroponte told a conference last month in Cambridge, Mass., is whether those Ethiopian children learn to read and write in English, and how quickly they might do it.

This is critical because “if you can learn to read, you can read to learn,” he said. “If they can do that, it [could] not only impact the 100 million kids who can’t go to school, but might also help us understand how to help the educational system here.”

The implications of such powerful evidence of self-learning can be enormous, even for the developed world. American school administrators generally work very hard at regulating students’ use of high-tech gizmos. Maybe they should think a bit about leaving the kids to their own devices.

“I’ve seen what my 6-year-olds can do with an iPad,” says Robert Schwartz, a Los Angeles educator in the Huffington Post. “This generation of students are digital natives and we need to honor that by encouraging them to surpass what we know and are able to do with the technology.”

Schwartz says that adults shouldn’t abdicate their responsibilities, but should use technology to change the way they interact with students.

For example:

Create a culture in the classroom/school where students help each other by teaching each others what they learned on-line while the teacher steers and guides each student through the completion of the specific task, helping them when they are stuck or off-track. Sometimes that help may be telling them to learn from another student who knows more about that than the teacher.

Where do you think Negroponte’s experiment could lead to?

(Photo: One Laptop Per Child)

One Response to “Give an illiterate child a tablet, see what happens”

November 15, 2012 at 12:53 pm, Nick Tablets said:

I think this is awesome. I love the OLPC project because it’s different than the more traditional charities which offer buying supplies but you’re unable to see what actually goes on beyond the scenes. Great story here.

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