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In Ethiopia, Children Go from No Reading Skills to Hacking Android

BY Lisa Goldman | Thursday, November 1 2012

So what happens if you leave an unopened box of computer tablets in a remote Ethiopian village, to be distributed to illiterate children who have never seen a written word? According to an article in MIT Technology Review, within five months the children figured out how to circumvent the settings on the operating system and began to teach themselves English.

The initiative for this project came from One Laptop Per Child. The NGO wanted to see what would happen if they made computers a tool that children could use to learn on their own, rather than under the instruction of a teacher, since 100 million children around the world do not have access to schools.

Earlier this year, OLPC 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.”


Credit: Evan Szablowski

These are children who had never seen an on/off switch before, let alone a computer.

The tablets were powered by a solar charging system, which Ethiopian instructors showed the village adults how to use. But other than that, the childrens' learning experience was entirely auto-didactic.

In a blog post about visiting one of the villages that was a subject of the tablet experiment, Evan Szablowski, a West Point cadet who spent the summer in Ethiopia as an academic volunteer, writes,

As we continued to interact with the kids and watch them play around on the tablets, this incredible sense of excitement and hope kept building in me. It’s hard to describe, but when watching these children you quickly realize that this program is working exactly the way it is supposed to: These kids are learning from these devices in ways they wouldn’t be able to before, and they’re excited about it. An overwhelming sense of excitement and optimism overtook us, and we couldn’t stop smiling as we watched. This technology is empowering them in a direction to change their lives.

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