“Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves”
Classrooms are changing. Technological advances are transforming the way that children learn, or at least are taught. This is happening fast - there are dramatic differences between my school experience and that of someone only 5 years younger. My French teacher used chalk and a blackboard to teach us our verbs, something which now seems positively prehistoric, although some teachers were more high-tech and favoured the overhead projector.
It is widely acknowledged that technology can aid learning: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt demonstrated that children who learn from an ipad version of a textbook compared to a standard paper version can score up to 20% higher on standardised tests. Through engaging children and capturing their attention with colours, videos and games, technology can improve learning with the same content just in a different format. But this applies in a school setting with teachers, so what if there are no schools and no teachers? Can technology help children to teach themselves? The organisation ‘One Laptop Per Child’ (OLPC) has teamed up with MIT to give children in Ethiopia Motorola Xoom tablet PCs. In villages with no schools and near 0% literacy rates they distributed solar powered tablets in unlabeled boxes with no instructions and monitored the results.
“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” Nicholas Negroponte.
So did it succeed? Can children teach themselves? They taught themselves how to use the tablets and even how to hack into Android but it is as yet unclear whether they will teach themselves to read and write. The fact that the tablets are in English rather than their own language probably won’t help. But even if the children do learn to read and write, to say that the children have ‘taught themselves’ is not strictly true. They may not have been taught by a ruler toting, glasses wearing, librarian-esque old woman but instead they are being taught by app designers and content devisors - the people who wrote and selected the “preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs” . Tablets were chosen over laptops because of their intuitive usability which captures and works with the natural curiosity of children. Features which seem intuitive to the user are heavily designed and the fact that they seem easy and natural is a result of brilliant design. The same is true of programming and writing - e-learning programs have to seem intuitive, mimicking the natural learning process to guide you through it.
Even in non-education focused games “good game designers are more like good teachers” because they need to teach you how to play the game; anticipating your possible next moves and steering you through the process without you even realising it. Subtle signaling, encouraging and gentle nudging in the right direction is the style of teaching involved here – in line with the vision of OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte “I believe that we get into trouble when knowing becomes a surrogate for learning” . It is true that in contrast to the traditional slate tablets which Victorian children used to rote learn facts, modern tablets – some even named after slates – facilitate a more exploratory and creative development but it is not true that the user is unaided in this path to discovery.