ETHIOPIAN CHILDREN TEACH THEMSELVES TO READ AND WRITE
Keller works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. His goal is to prove that children can learn independently and without instruction. The children in Wenchi Ethiopia have no opportunity to attend school, because the nearest school is too far away or their parents prefer to send them out to fetch water or into the fields, where they watch the cows in the morning and the goats in the afternoon.
But what if these children, who, like their parents, can neither read nor write, were provided with a computer? And if the computer were loaded with learning programs, films about animals and faraway countries, arithmetic games, in both English and Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language? And if the children were simply allowed to do as they please, in the hope that they would teach themselves and learn from each other?
Could this approach enable developing countries to make the leap into the information age? Or would the tablets end up in the dust just as quickly as children’s toys end up in the garbage in the West when they cease to be new and exciting? If the experiment were a success, could the same approach be used to help 100 million children worldwide, children who don’t go to school because they live in rural areas or their families are too poor?
Keller strongly believes in his hypothesis. He believes that all you have to do is give children a computer, and that everything else will fall into place. “Children are autodidacts,” says Keller. “They don’t have to be taught to walk and speak, either.”
If his project succeeds, it will be a veritable revolution, one that could put an end to the plight of uneducated children and help bridge the gap between rich and poor.
The idea came from Nicholas Negroponte, 69, the world-famous American computer scientist, technology enthusiast and visionary. His bestseller “Total Digital,” which he wrote on a notebook computer in a hut on a Greek island, was the manifesto of the Internet age.
In the book, which Negroponte wrote back in 1995, he predicted that we would live in a networked and digitized world one day. Negroponte is Keller’s boss, and he’s usually right. Their joint project, called “One Laptop per Child” (OLPC), has been underway in Ethiopia since February 2012. In Wenchi and another village, Wolondhete, they gave each of 20 children between the ages of four and 11 a Motorola Xoom tablet. It’s a test project, and they plan to collect data for one to two years. Their plan is to find governments to finance the tablets, so that they can be distributed worldwide.
A few months ago, Negroponte himself was sitting in a hut in Wenchi. The children didn’t know who he was, and they had only had their computers for 10 weeks. On that day, Kelbessa wrote the word “lion” in the dust in front of his hut for the first time, and Abebech reached the letter W in the alphabet. Negroponte jumped up and was close to tears, says Keller, but he quickly sat down again so as not to disturb the children.
In late October, Negroponte was at a conference in Cambridge, 10,000 kilometers away, reporting on his successes in Wenchi. He described how they had handed out the computers in their packaging, expecting that the children wouldn’t know what to do with them.
“Instead,” said Negroponte, with great enthusiasm, “they ripped open the packaging and, after only four minutes, found the power button.” After five days, he reported, children who had never seen letters before were using 47 apps. They were singing the ABC song after two weeks, and after five months they had circumvented the Android security settings. “Now they can read and write,” Negroponte said. “It works.”
About Nicholas Negroponte, the man behind it all.
In November 2005, at the World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunis, Negroponte unveiled the concept of a $100 laptop computer, The Children’s Machine, designed for students in the developing world. The price has increased to US$180, however. The project is part of a broader program by One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit organisation started by Negroponte and other Media Lab faculty, to extend Internet access in developing countries.
Negroponte is an active angel investor and has invested in over 30 startup companies over the last 30 years, including Zagats, Wired, Ambient Devices, Skype and Velti.