Illiterate Ethiopian schoolchildren find workarounds to customize OLPC tablets, and Negroponte draws similarities between learning and coding.
For those unfamiliar with the project, One Laptop Per Child is an organization led by chairman Nicholas Negroporte, delivering Motorola tablet PCs into the hands of impoverished educational communities worldwide. To date, 2.1 million kids are experimenting with new learning techniques on their tablets pre-installed with Android apps. Some children are regularly using as many as 47 different learning apps, from alphabet songs to drawing programs
This spring, Negroporte started a bold initiative in Ethiopia; he landed nondescript boxes of “XO” tablets in two remote villages, unaccompanied by the usual staff who run training and adoption. Critics challenged his hand-off approach. These villages have never seen written material, not even a road sign. The literacy rate is zero. Yet this month, bright young kids hacked their Androids to enable their cameras and customize their desktops – despite the pre-installed security software designed to prevent just that. Alright, I’ll bite. This learning initiative works.
2005 remarks about OLPC by former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, may describe what happened.
“They can learn by doing, not just through instruction or rote memorization. Moreover, they can open a new front in their education: peer-to-peer learning.”
(Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General)
What started as a village sing-along of the alphabet song grew into a much larger collaboration between students. Children were learning independently and sharing their knowledge with their peers, and working together to accomplish something amazing. In many of the OLPC programs, technicians swap out memory cards weekly and send them to educational researchers to analyze the actions of the users, hoping to garner some insight into the learning methods used by the children. Teachers know how valuable peer learning is in the classroom, making this type of insight a remarkable leap forward in the way we design education plans.
“Self-study, self-exploration, self-empowerment — these are the virtues of a great education.” (Shimon Schocken)
Shimon Schocken gave a recent TED Talk about his self-organizing computer science course, which enabled students to learn and collaborate at their own pace. Lessons began with the foundations of computing, truly the building blocks of computers – Nand gates. It’s up to the student body to organize the Massively Open Online Course themselves. Schocken pushes to put less emphasis on grades and more on self-motivation.
“…Technology has a clear and effective place in underprivileged learning communities.”
Similarly, Sugata Mitra’s 2007 TED Talk about self-education suggests piloting education technology into underprivileged communities. It’s unfortunate that educational technology is typically adopted in affluent schools first; that mode of thinking is backward. His findings, which mirror those found this month in Ethiopia, are evidence that technology has a clear and effective place in underprivileged learning communities.
Believe it or not, developers have more in common with teachers than they may think. Negroporte explains in his MIT Technology Review article,
“The closest I have ever come to thinking about thinking is writing computer programs. This involves teasing apart a process into constituent parts, step-by-step functions, and conditional statements. What is so important about computer programs is that they (almost) never work the first time. Since they do something (versus nothing), just not what you wanted, you can look at the (mis)behavior to debug and change your code. This iterative process, so common in computer programming, is similar to learning.”
Isn’t that a fascinating interpretation? Maybe technology will play a necessarily larger role in education as we uncover the benefits of personal computers in the classroom. The program is open-sourced, and Toronto-based developers are lending a hand to the project. You can sign up for the Toronto OLPC community mailing list at the link, or head over to OLPC to volunteer your help in other ways.
Rhys Mohun for Three Point Turn