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No Instructions, No School, No Electricity? No Problem. These Illiterate Ethiopian Kids Mastered Xoom Tablets In a Few Days

How much infrastructure and training do children need to use a laptop or a tablet? Do they need, for example, schools and teachers? Do they need to have seen computers in a movie or picture, if not in person? Do they need to know how to read? In one recent experiment, the answer to all these questions was “no.” The researchers dropped Xoom tablets, in sealed boxes, into two Ethiopian villages where no one could read. Within days, village children were running the devices and using apps. Before five months were out, they’d hacked Android on one device to get its camera working.

The experiment was run by the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, whose goal is to provide the world’s poor kids with suitable (low cost, low-power, rugged) laptops. Given their goals, they wanted to see what kids in a poor Third World village would make of high-tech hardware. As Harry Slater reports here, the two villages they chose, Wonchi and Wolonchete, had never seen so much as a road sign or a package with written instructions. The tablets were left in taped-shut boxes, with no instructions. Village adults were shown how to plug them into solar chargers, and once a week a researcher would swap out the tablets’ SIM cards so they could examine how they had been used.

A few days ago, OLPC’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte, gave a talk describing the results.

“Within five days, [the children] were using 47 apps per child per day,” he said, according to Slater. “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 organisation or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.” Another OLPC official pointed out in addition that the kids had also customized all the tablet desktops, so that each looked different. To do so, they had to get round software designed to prevent just this move.

What does this mean? Firstly, I suppose, that the last few decades of human-computer interface design got things right. The visual metaphors they have used do seem, on this evidence, to be independent of a lot of cultural cues. Secondly, it might mean, as the OLPC likes to claim, that it’s a good idea to just drop computers in the laps of poor children around the world, without waiting for governments to build schools, train teachers, print textbooks and otherwise get their act together.

Thanks to Alexandre Berreby for the tip.

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