Bringing Self-Education to a Global Scale with Tablet Tech

By Alison K. Lanier

One Laptop per Child or OLPC recently embarked on a novel and promising experiment whose results hold hopeful implications for the 100 million young children around the world who lack access to formal schooling. The organization itself is essentially a charitable project to provide a rudimentary laptop to every child it can, as per its moniker. The foundation’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte, was enthusiastic about the OLPC’s recent experiment, describing the results as an encouraging indicator of the strength of technology to educate.

The project tested the potential for children in two isolated Ethiopian villages to self-educate through tablet computers. In each village, Motorola Xoom tablets were distributed and then equipped with solar-powered batteries and data-collecting memory cards that researchers studied weekly. Without any structured introduction to the technology, OLPC dropped off the tablets, one per child, and left the children to their own devices.

A Charitable Experiment

Nvate One Laptop per Child tablets self education Nicholas Negroponte

The purpose of the experiment was to test if the illiterate children of these villages, without previous contact with the technology or with English—or any printed materials of any kind—could teach themselves to read with the tools on tablet computers. These tools included an assortment of e-books, movies, cartoons, games, and alphabet-training programs. The children, though, were starting with a lack of familiarity with any technology, a level far below that of knowing what a program was. They were basically handed 25 slim, metallic slabs. The adults of the village were instructed on how to recharge the machine using solar technology, but the children were starting from scratch.

Within a few minutes of receiving their new computers, the children had switched on the tablets. In a matter of weeks, the children had not only taught themselves to operate the tablets, but they had also taught themselves the English alphabet and used the text programs to construct basic words. Within five months, realizing that the cameras—another technology to which they had been previously unexposed—on the tablets were disabled, the children hacked Android and turned the cameras back on.

Evidence of Intuition

The minimalistic design and layout of tablet computers like the Motorola Xoom reveals an unexpected benefit. While not necessarily self-explanatory, the format of these tablets makes them, evidently, ideal for young children whose minds and neural patterns are still developing. These children are much more capable of developing new language skills as well as other skill sets, for instance, the skills necessary to use technology, even through a completely foreign medium. Simple touch screen layouts and pictorial icons make navigation easy and literacy optional. Touch-screen tablets like the ones the villagers used remove the need for training with tools as simple as a mouse. Instead, the children were apparently able to intuit that how to select and drag items using fingers.

Nvate One Laptop per Child tablets self education Nicholas Negroponte

Children in Papua New Guinea with their tablets. Credit: One Laptop per Child

What is more remarkable is the rapidity with which these self-instructed hackers understood the structure of the hardware as well as the software. Negroponte emphasized the fact, at a panel at October’s Boston Book Festival, that the children were initially unfamiliar with the camera itself.

The extent that the experiment’s students were able to discern their way briskly through the material provided to them speaks volumes about the possibility of using this type of technology to allow students of their age group to master the material they had access to. The only structure guiding the children’s self-education was the boundaries of the programs’ built-in parameters.

Is This the Ceiling on Self-Education?

With technology like these tablets on hand, information has the potential to be as accessible as it is for students with a textbook open in front of them. Basic literacy as a goal, however, is not the end-all aim of OLPC’s self-education campaign. The age group that the experiment dealt with focused around 5 to 7-year-olds, children whose access to the tablets was meant to allow them to cultivate elementary skills such as literacy. Clearly the children were able to exceed these expectations and foster higher level, albeit illicit, skills in manipulating software. However, a sample size of two villages does not speak for the whole of isolated or impoverished children who would potentially gain access to the technology as the children of the Wonchi and Wolonchete villages in Africa did.

The implications of the experiment point to simple accessibility of information as the determining factor in these children’s ability to give themselves an education. The next step in making this experiment’s results more tangible and lasting is to ensure that the children, as they grow beyond the scope of basic literacy, have the tools to pursue and expand their practical, specialized knowledge. The children in this experiment had access to—or rather lack of access to—the disabled cameras and the software on hand, and were able to educate themselves about the workings of the systems in their hands. The same principle may hold true if the material at hand to examine, explore, and understand was, say, chemical formulas, works of literature, or media theory. If given the tools, these children seemingly face the chance of entering a brave new world, where education that traditionally occurs after years of institutionalized, higher education is achieved on a touch screen.

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