What happens if you drop off a thousand Motorola Xoom tablet PCs in a village with kids who have never even seen a printed word? Within five months, they’ll have taught themselves to customize the software, reactivate disabled features and, perhaps, start down the path of learning to read.
That last, critical part is at the core of a grand experiment in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. MIT is trying to crack the wicked problem of teaching literacy and other skills to 100 million or so first-grade-age kids in the developing world with no teachers or infrastructure. Since vast swaths of the world unable to provide even basic education, scaleable solutions are needed to complement the long road to achieve universal schooling (something that took the West centuries).
So Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC and MIT’s Media Lab, is doing what comes naturally to scientists: running experiments to see what works. OLPC’s latest trial in DIY education involved delivering Motorola Xoom tablets and solar chargers with custom software to two remote rural villages in Ethiopia where literacy rates are close to zero.
As Negroponte said at MIT Technology Review's EmTech conference this year, here’s how it went down:
"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."
While promising, it’s not yet science. To prove its effectiveness at scale (the trial involved only 20 first-grade-age children), MIT will need to see how well it performs in more villages and then monitor the outcomes. OLPC still has a long way to go. So far, the groups says it has distributed 3 million mini "XO" laptops to 40 countries.
The holy grail is a scaleable solution that complements massive investments in universal pubic education. And it must be rolled out for cheap while impacting millions of people in remote, poorly served areas.
But the experiments are everywhere. In India, the academic whose work inspired Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q&A, and the movie Slumdog Millionaire, showed that simply giving kids access to a computer in the slums of Delhi could empower them to learn math and English. Here in the U.S., the online Khan Academy has delivered almost 250 million lessons through its YouTube videos on everything from computer science to European history.
No one’s cracked the code yet on how to turn formal education into something children do themselves—but the first attempts at such a world are already emerging.