Ethiopian Kids Hacked Their Donated Tablets In Just Five Months

After a box of Motorola Xoom tablets was dropped off in an Ethiopian village, kids who had never seen a computer before quickly taught themselves how to make modifications to Android.

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.

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  • Azri St-Michaels

    what pissed me off is that my kids & i , AT the time, lived WELL below the poverty level an when i heard about this i thought "YAY a leg up for my kids".

     yeah you wanna  know what MIT  nitwits said when i emailed them about getting a couple for my  lil ones?  i was told " if your school district  will buy a  million dollars worth of them? sure your  kids can have 1".  
     so what American kids are left  out cause they  have maybe a solid roof over their heads & maybe a good solid meal a day? 

    thats when i knew what this whole SCAM was all about. AFTER i cried for several hours. American is so willing to help other countries but spit on their own. it's BS!! what the folks who BACKED MIT want is a bunch of mildly technically skilled 3rd world people so they can take their tech biz overseas and pay people crap wages and not have to pay an American a decent living wage.

  • Sdfj

    "kids who have never even seen a printed word?"

    Come on.  The printed words are every where.

  • Mauricio Tubado

    I was quite disappointed by this quick hack of an article, but the following sentence near the end saved it from being a total waste of time:

    "The holy grail is a scaleable solution that complements massive investments in universal *pubic* education." [emphasis mine]

    I'm not sure whether the author simply didn't care, or is a nuanced troll.

  • Charles_Boyle

    So, you prefer to celebrate that these kids are now little villains for having accomplished an illegal act rather than demonstrate that the operating system of a simple computer was relatively intuitive.
    Plus, half the work in familiarisation has already been done: I challenge you to find any number of kids who have NEVER heard of a computer or what it can do.  And how come the kids knew to pick up and open and use the equipment from boxes abandoned in the village with no-one around to guide them?  Now you have made them thieves as well... 

  • Guest

    Meantime, in Argentina, when kids hacks their blocked netbooks (government gives blocked netbooks to schollar kids) they are called terrorists, and their sites are closed.

  • ArtSees Diner

    This is wonderful, and it supports my research and belief that "play based learning" is in fact the best way in which to educate children. This is also what happens when you just let children learn at their own speed. It is further evidence that all children can create their own learning experience! As a public school educator in the United States, I have been crying out for a lap top in the hands of every child for years. We do not have this at all. Contrary to the belief that our kids are tech savvy  I have found that they lack the basic instruction in technology to even properly type in a url correctly, or understand its purpose. It is further evidence that the "standards" by which we teach in the United States are sub-standard at best. While we sit our kids in front of a computer with multiple choice questions before their eyes and have them take a standardized test, we merely develop consumers in the place of producers.  I think MIT, and the one laptop promoters, may want to look into our hardest hit communities in the United States and see what a laptop in each kids hands would do...oh, but, you may want to lobby to make sure Standardized testing, McGraw Hill and a few other publishers stay out of the mix! 

  • Tester4borovnica

    Useless crap of an article! Old, with so wrong images, that's even insulting!

  • kitplummer

    What exactly did they hack?  Nothing.  They figured out what "Settings" meant and turned the camera on.  Come on now.  Yes, it's a great feat of intuition - but, it's not like they were writing code, or disassembling the tablets and doing anything with the parts.  BTW, the picture is a OLPC - not a Moto Xoom.

  • Anon

    Here in America we cant get kids to learn given qualified instruction for 8 hours a day with text books, computers, 1 on 1 instructions.  But motivated children can learn to hack a tablet in 5 months?

    What we have is a motivation and interest problem.  no amount of "save the children" funding for our schools will fix that.

  • ArtSees Diner

    While you criticize the children in this country, you may want to criticize the elected officials who desire to create robomatons, mere people who can push the button, say exactly what they are told to say and who to vote for. I would love to see an Institution of Higher Learning funded by the taxpayers, put a laptop into the hands of the children who in many cases do not even have paper and pencil in this country. The reason these children were able to hack a computer, is because they are not being taught to a damn test! Plain and simple. I learned how to fix my bike, my radio, etc, when I was 8 years old because I had the time, and knew no one else would. It was also because, I knew it would not just be replaced! 

  • Christopher Longo

    Yep I agree with you 100% on that our math levels in America are very low and today's lack of schooling and motivation will bring the USA down to levels below other countries if we don't wise up and fix our economic crisis other countries will catch up.
    Android is a farly easy os it is based on HTML 5 and CSS and java script easy to program and take apart and these kids in 3rd world countries are smart.
    I can see clearly that education is lacking in USA