What happens if you give a thousand Motorola Zoom tablet PCs to Ethiopian kids who have never even seen a printed word? Within five months, they'll start teaching themselves English while circumventing the security on your OS to customize settings and activate disabled hardware. Whoa.
The One Laptop Per Child project started as a way of delivering technology and resources to schools in countries with little or no education infrastructure, using inexpensive computers to improve traditional curricula. What the OLPC Project has realized over the last five or six years, though, is that teaching kids stuff is really not that valuable. Yes, knowing all your state capitols how to spell "neighborhood" properly and whatnot isn't a bad thing, but memorizing facts and procedures isn't going to inspire kids to go out and learn by teaching themselves, which is the key to a good education. Instead, OLPC is trying to figure out a way to teach kids to learn, which is what this experiment is all about.
Rather than give out laptops (they're actually Motorola Zoom tablets plus solar chargers running custom software) to kids in schools with teachers, the OLPC Project decided to try something completely different: it delivered some boxes of tablets to two villages in Ethiopia, taped shut, with no instructions whatsoever. Just like, "hey kids, here's this box, you can open it if you want, see ya!"
Just to give you a sense of what these villages in Ethiopia are like, the kids (and most of the adults) there have never seen a word. No books, no newspapers, no street signs, no labels on packaged foods or goods. Nothing. And these villages aren't unique in that respect; there are many of them in Africa where the literacy rate is close to zero. So you might think that if you're going to give out fancy tablet computers, it would be helpful to have someone along to show these people how to use them, right?
But that's not what OLPC did. They just left the boxes there, sealed up, containing one tablet for every kid in each of the villages (nearly a thousand tablets in total), pre-loaded with a custom English-language operating system and SD cards with tracking software on them to record how the tablets were used. Here's how it went down, as related by OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte at MIT Technology Review's EmTech conference last week:
"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."
This experiment began earlier this year, and what OLPC really want to see is whether these kids can learn to read and write in English. Around the world, there are something like 100,000,000 kids who don't even make it to first grade, simply because there are not only no schools, but very few literate adults, and if it turns out that for the cost of a tablet all of these kids can simply teach themselves, it has huge implications for education. And it goes beyond the kids, too, since previous OLPC studies have shown that kids will use their computers to teach their parents to read and write as well, which is incredibly amazing and awesome.
I've got mixed feelings about this. Best comment summing them up is below:
'd like to see the Ethiopian Chief go to the MIT lab and drop 1000 snakes there. Then write observations:
"The first day, 5 people got killed by the snakes. The second day, people realized they should run away... etc etc"
Who gives us the right to use kids as lab rats? If education is what you are looking for, send a professor and 2 assistants there!
Who'll be responsible if these kids, instead of learning the survival skills they need out there, hang out all day playing Angry Birds? Who'll be responsible for the long term effects?
The world has gone crazy.... this is not civilization, this is playing God.