Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves

“Earlier this year, OLPC [One Laptop Per Child] workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only 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,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.” – MIT Technology Review

It’s an educational experiment that could impact billions of children around the world. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the One Laptop Per Child program, says there are 100 million six-year-olds with NO access to school. Poor and profoundly isolated, many of these children not only do not have access to school, but have no access to ANY reading material.

So what can we learn from this experiment?
Lots. It harkens back to Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiments on Minimally Invasive Education (my blog post about that here). We can learn that unstructured learning is indeed a powerful force, and that classroom and curriculum design need to be careful to stay out of the way of a child’s natural desire to learn.

What can’t we learn from this experiment?
Lots as well. Much will be made about how this “proves” that teachers aren’t necessary, or that computers can replace teachers. Alternately, we will read that it’s a dead-end, that the children won’t progress beyond poking and playing, only a few kids will really stick with it, the equipment will break, or that we should send food instead. Some will say what we really need is more teachers, more professional development for those teachers, and more ministers of education to administer those programs.

But mostly what it uncovers is our own bias and inability to escape our own cultural context. We in developed countries can’t imagine what it’s like anywhere else. We can’t imagine what NO schools and no hope of every having a school looks like. We can’t imagine what the tiny seed of learning could blossom into under those conditions. We can’t imagine that even if one and only one child learned to read and was able to find information that saved her mother’s life, it would change an entire village and entire generations.

This photo is not from the same OLPC deployment as above, but is in Ehtiopia

This is about changing the paradigm of poverty and illiteracy as destiny. As Nicholas Negroponte (the founder of OLPC) says, “If they can learn to read, then they can read to learn.” This is a profoundly different stance than hoping that someday somebody will build a school there. Why do we assume that they need to be taught? They need access. That we can give them.

I find it interesting and encouraging that OLPC is moving forward in trying to address global disparity in educational opportunities. They were being criticized, unfairly, I believe, for trying to work with existing school systems in  countries like Peru. As Ben Grey points out in his post, We Need to Think Very, Very Seriously About This,

“It’s intriguing to compare the new approach OLPC is taking with the tablets to the approach they took in Peru. Reading through the reflections on the failure in Peru brings to the surface two immediate observations. The hardware/software wasn’t ready for the task. And the adults continued getting in the way.

I agree with Ben–the adults and their entrenched concepts of the “right way” to do school get in the way. But we all have those entrenched concepts, it’s nearly impossible to stop seeing the world through me-colored glasses.

However, I do not think that OLPC is saying this is a “new” approach, implying that they are not going to work with schools any longer. It’s not even the only OLPC project going on in Ethiopia, many of which are classroom based. It’s just different. There will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to solving global problems. By the way, I do not believe that OLPC in Peru is a “failure” just because a few people are critical of parts of the operation.

Finding the appropriate path to create learning opportunities is something we all face. I believe there are two important lessons to learn here:

1) Context matters

2) Young people are better able to see things without the blinders of “we’ve always done it that way” than adults.

But – and this is a big caveat, youthful zeal and open-mindedness works best when guided by adults who care about them. The youthful ability to see the world anew, combined with the wisdom of age can revolutionize learning. That’s certainly the mission of Generation YESYouth and Educators Succeeding.


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