Even if you only have a passing interest in technology and philanthropy, you’ll probably have heard of Nicholas Negroponte and his One Laptop Per Child initiative. There were two main parts to the OLPC scheme – creating a usable laptop that cost $100, and getting said machines into the hands of children throughout the developing world.
As successful as the OLPC scheme has been, it only addressed half the problem, in as much as all the children still needed someone to teach them how to use their laptops, and educate them thereafter. Ultimately, any tool is only useful if you know how to use it and get the best from it.
Now Negroponte is taking his vision to the next level, whereby children can learn to read without the need for a teacher or a traditional classroom structure. He believes that children are engineered to learn, and by encouraging this natural curiosity through entertaining interaction, the need for a traditional educational model is all but eradicated.
The introduction and evolution of tablet devices has been key. Unlike a traditional computer, tablets are intuitively easy to use. Hand an iPad or Android tablet to a child, and within minutes they’ve figured out how to interact with it at a basic level. This is something I’ve seen first hand, when I gave an iPad to my four-year-old daughter – I didn’t have to show her what to do, she just naturally understood how the multi-touch interface worked.
It’s this intuitive user interface that makes tablet devices ideal teaching tools for children. With the barrier of learning to actually use the tool removed, children can concentrate on interacting with the applications that are designed to help them learn.
With the basic hardware issue addressed, Negroponte turned to Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research, to figure out the next piece of the puzzle. Together with the MIT Media Lab, Negroponte and Wolf conceived a two-year experiment in some of the poorest countries in the world, the goal of which would be bringing literacy to communities that would otherwise never learn to read.
The experiment has already started, with Negroponte delivering tablet devices to two villages in Ethiopia, on a one tablet per child basis. No instructions were delivered with the tablets, not that anyone in the villages would have been able to read them even if instructions were supplied!
The tablets are equipped with solar panels, so that they can, essentially, power themselves in an environment completely devoid of electricity. The tablets are pre-installed with an array of educational applications and learning tools, designed to appeal to the naturally inquisitive nature of children.
The tablets are also equipped with software that logs all the interactions of the children, building up a clear picture of how each tablet is being used. Also embedded in each tablet is a wireless connection to what the OTPC team calls the “sneakernet”. This connection allows the scientific team out in the field to study how the children use the devices and how they develop.
New apps and content can be delivered to the tablets seamlessly over the sneakernet, allowing each tablet to evolve as each child learns more. Key to the experiment is that there is no direct contact with the children whatsoever.
This initial phase of the experiment quickly yielded results, with the children unboxing the tablets and switching them on within a matter of minutes. By the end of the first week, an average of 57 apps were being utilised per day. By the end of week two children were already learning to recite the alphabet and even competing with each other while doing so.
That natural interaction also represents an important aspect of the study, with children gravitating towards both collaboration and competition – the sociological backdrop to the experiment is almost as important as the educational goals.
It’s still too early to tell whether these children will complete the long journey to full literacy without any input from outsiders, but the initial results are looking very promising.
Reading is a skill on which almost all of our learning is based, and if something as simple as a tablet computer can empower children across the globe with that most basic of building blocks, that has to be technology at its very best.
To quote Negroponte “If a child can learn to read, he or she can read to learn.” Reading is something that we all take for granted, but without that skill, what could we really have achieved?Leave a comment on this article