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Illiterate Ethiopian kids hack tablet PCs, teach selves English

Fascinating Literacy One Laptop Per Child Education Heartwarming

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#1 Cybersnark

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Posted 04 November 2012 - 02:26 PM

This is a few days old, but I've been too busy to post. One Laptop Per Child delivered a box of Xoom tablet PCs to an impoverished village in Ethiopia.

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Just to give you a sense of what these villages in Ethiopia are like, the kids (and most of the adults) there have never seen a word. No books, no newspapers, no street signs, no labels on packaged foods or goods. Nothing. And these villages aren't unique in that respect; there are many of them in Africa where the literacy rate is close to zero. So you might think that if you're going to give out fancy tablet computers, it would be helpful to have someone along to show these people how to use them, right?

But that's not what OLPC did. They just left the boxes there, sealed up, containing one tablet for every kid in each of the villages (nearly a thousand tablets in total), pre-loaded with a custom English-language operating system and SD cards with tracking software on them to record how the tablets were used. Here's how it went down, as related by OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte at MIT Technology Review's EmTech conference last week:

"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."

This experiment began earlier this year, and what OLPC really want to see is whether these kids can learn to read and write in English. Around the world, there are something like 100,000,000 kids who don't even make it to first grade, simply because there are not only no schools, but very few literate adults, and if it turns out that for the cost of a tablet all of these kids can simply teach themselves, it has huge implications for education. And it goes beyond the kids, too, since previous OLPC studies have shown that kids will use their computers to teach their parents to read and write as well, which is incredibly amazing and awesome.

THis isn't just kids being kids; I know "educated" NorAm kids who couldn't have conceived of this. The thought of this kind of ingenuity being wasted because there was no access to education is heartbreaking.

Who knows, one of these kids could be an ancestor of Geordi Laforge.
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#2 Themis

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Posted 04 November 2012 - 04:37 PM

Heard a bit of this on the news - just incredible.  I was wondering about recharging the things but reading the story, I see that they are solar powered.  (Howcum the folk on Revolution don't have access to those?!)
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#3 Orpheus

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Posted 04 November 2012 - 08:25 PM

More to the point: why am I still fielding support questions?

Researchers in Mumbai found similar results with illiterate Indian street children when they placed a computer in a "bullet proof" transparent plastic case on the side of one of those buildings ca 1997. In two weeks, they'd mastered the [more cumbersome, primitive, more English-centric] WWW of that era and were even downloading music.

#4 Themis

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Posted 07 November 2012 - 07:52 AM

And yet - I currently have a temp job at the electric company and every day face adults who can't read  the sign-in board for customer service, not to mention those who need to do it in Spanish but can't read "English" or "Espanol" on the board to make the choice.  Sigh.
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#5 Orpheus

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Posted 10 March 2013 - 05:22 AM

Sugata Mitra, who did the studies I mentioned above, just won the 2013 TED Prize ($1,000,000)--a great investment for the world!

Here, he discusses his 1990s "hole in the wall" Mumbai ghetto internet study and others he conducted in India.
The kids didn't even speak English, and the 1990s web was English-heavy with little Hindi content

Here, he discusses bringing his work to English schools -- and teaching Italian schoolkids without knowing Italian

Now that he's won the TED prize, I expect more of his past presentations to be on public TED.

I firmly believe that learning happens wherever there is interest.
Take me: I wasn't a great student until I was a senior in college (I was self-taught & did much better in competitions) I'm now a stodgy fogey at a point in my career where it's ridiculous to be seriously studying new subjects, but I'm carrying a heavier courseload in my spare time than I usually did in school (why not? I'm a much more experienced learner now) My undergrad advisors/deans regularly teased me for learning a new language instead of using one I already knew for my proficiencies (Honestly? I chickened out and took German for my orals despite doing well in my Japanese courses. I didn't want to risk falling short of graduation. They caught on and forced me to do the German written/reading tests on the spot, a week before graduation, but that was no problem) -- yet I started studying Mandarin a couple of years ago. I clearly haven't learned from experience. I'm the educational equivalent of a 49 year old chasing sophomore coeds--and you haven't any more chance of changing this idiot than that one!

And I urge you to join me. Online Education is Da Bomb -- or whatever the kids are saying now.



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