Children hacking laptops – whoa!

Recently, I came across this fascinating article which made me rethink some assumptions we have about education. In a nutshell, the article recounts an experiment where a thousand laptops were given to Ethiopian kids who have never even seen a printed word. This is part of the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ (OLPC) initiative that was created to deliver technology and resources to schools in countries with little or no education infrastructure, using inexpensive computers to improve traditional curricula.

Yet, the interesting thing is that rather than giving out laptops to kids in schools with teachers for them to use in their teaching, the OLPC Project decided to try something completely different: it delivered some boxes of the tablet PCs to two villages in Ethiopia, taped shut, with no instructions! Just like, “hey kids, here’s this box, you can open it if you want, see ya!”

Now, we would expect the children to just play around with the boxes, or to be stumped by what to do with these new devices which they have never seen before in their lives (context: the kids 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) But what actually happened was amazing! This is what was related by OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte:

“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.”

Within five months, the children started teaching themselves English while circumventing the security on the OS of the laptops to customize settings and activate disabled hardware. Whoa!


So what are the implications of this? That teaching kids stuff is really not that valuable.  That memorizing facts and formulas isn’t always going to inspire kids to go out and learn by teaching themselves, which is the key to a good education. Instead, we need to start figuring out a way to teach kids to learn – which is what this experiment is all about. There is a subtle but essential difference between teaching and learning, and we sometimes miss this critical point.


~ by irwin on February 22, 2013.

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