Monday, October 29, 2012

Ethiopian Kids on Computers Excel without Teachers

Ethiopian kids on computers would probably be the last thing anyone would consider to be something that would neither make headlines or even be something that was possible. Until now...and what a surprise it has been.
The OLPC Motorola Zoom tablet

Imagine your surprise if you were to go to school to find a box of goodies left at your doorsteps. Now imagine that this was in a rural village where the children had hardly been exposed to electricity let alone modern gadgets like computers and laptops. That’s exactly happened when students in Welenchiti and Wenchi in Ethiopia, about 150 km south of the capital Addis Ababa, came to school one morning to find boxes left at their schools’ doorsteps. Opening them, they discovered that they contained laptops but there were no instructions about how to operate the them included in the packages.

The laptops were part of an experiment being conducted by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization. The devices are Motorola Xoom tablets that are solar powered and designed to be wear-and-tear resistant. They have software installed on them that allow children to learn the basics of their school curriculum and also allows them surf the internet (wherever access points are available.

The aim of the experiment was to find out if kids on computers would be able to take off as they would in any western country. But in this case the hitch was that the kids had no previous exposure to technology whatsoever, they barely - if at all - knew how to read and write and there was no one there to teach them.

In short - they were expected to not only read and write but also learn to operate a technologically advanced gadget without having a sense of what it was in the first place. Every week an OLPC worker would visit the children to swap memory cards that registered how the computers had been used. The results were amazing:

  • The kids were found to be singing the alphabet song in both villages.
  • A child that could neither read or write at the time of receiving the laptop, after playing a literacy game, was able to spell “LION” under the correct animal.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC, while describing the Ethiopian experiment at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Conference, said that the results were encouraging. He went on to add:

The One Laptop Per Child logo
I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

Elaborating further on the comments made by Negroponte, OLPC’s Chief Technology Officer, Ed McNierney added:

The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different.  We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,” he said. “And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.

So, this begs to challenge the old beliefs that children always need the guidance of their teachers and that not being exposed to something doesn’t necessarily mean that a person will not be able to not only figure out how to use it but also how to customize it to cater to their own needs.

Maybe seeing kids on computers will stop being a status symbol and more of a new way of learning. It is about time.


  1. Are any of the kids blogging yet? I would love to read a first person account of their experiences!!

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