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Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves (technologyreview.com)
229 points by ColinWright 1604 days ago | hide | past | web | 72 comments | favorite




Yes, Dr. Mitra was involved in this project too. See this comment by Ed McNierney on the Technology Review article:

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/506466/given-tablets-bu...

Although OLPC initiated and has been managing this experiment, we haven't done it alone. Right from the beginning the project team has included Prof. Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/ecls/staff/profile/sugata.mitra) and Prof. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research (http://ase.tufts.edu/crlr/team/wolf.htm).


Go watch his speech. It is amazing.


Personal background: my wife works in development and has organized education projects in Ethiopia. The development community know all about this and are scathing of it.

What the article doesn't mention is that:

a) these tablets are vastly more expensive than just hiring teachers locally - by orders of magnitude. This is not a remotely scalable scheme, and frankly research budgets would be much better put to use working out how to distribute cheap teaching materials through existing education networks.

b) More perniciously, the tablets educate in English or Amharic: not in the local language of the population in question, which these children would otherwise speak; their parents are often not fluent in either.

The Ethiopian government (a dictatorship) loves this project, because it is actively trying to exterminate local languages and culture. This provides for them a route to do so.


Hi,

Personal background: I work on this project, but only as a software engineer -- I didn't travel to Ethiopia, and don't have a development background (other than the last 6+ years at One Laptop Per Child). I'm not speaking for OLPC right now.

> The development community know all about this and are scathing of it.

People taking Approach A often think that the people taking Approach B are foolish and misguided (else they'd work on it themselves); it's not a point that carries normative weight by itself. We have to actually look at the arguments.

> a) these tablets are vastly more expensive than just hiring teachers locally - by orders of magnitude.

Well, steady. The two villages we chose are entirely illiterate -- they have no literate adults, and no-one there has ever been to school. One of the villages has potential access to one school that's 10 miles away and 3000 feet lower, which is not a plausible trip.

So now you've signed up to build two schools, and then find literate teachers who want to live in or spend all of their working time teaching in a remote illiterate village. And you realize that Oromo is highly dialectal, such that the two villages in this case speak dialects that aren't comprehensible to each other; your teacher probably doesn't know their dialect already. Is it still orders of magnitude cheaper than tablets?

> b) More perniciously, the tablets educate in English or Amharic: not in the local language of the population in question, which these children would otherwise speak; their parents are often not fluent in either.

There are no Oromo applications of any kind for Android, so in effect you're saying that this experiment should simply not happen, and these kids should not get to use technology. I don't agree with that.

Even if it's successfully argued that teachers are a better solution for Ethiopia -- I certainly agree that a small class size and a brilliant teacher is a wonderful thing when it's available -- there are a hundred million kids in the world with no access to a school. That seems worth researching a potential amelioration for, right?

Maybe you're missing that this is a pilot-stage experiment that only involved 40 children? It's not being proposed as country-wide policy.


Speaking of small class sizes, the size of these classes are one tablet per child plus a group of friends plus mystery. That's a pretty powerful combination.


Both A and B have valid viewpoints.

The OLPC is a bold experiment. After all, it is bringing a piece of technology that is ahead of the prevailing infrastructure or markets. We don't really know what this will lead to.

These kids can't turn work in PC repairs when people don't have electricity.

These kids can't compete with children from India or China who have formal education.

There are no consumers, no customers, no investors in the village.

However, there is a chance OLPC team might have created something emergent. That when the opportunity arises, these skills will be repurposed. I look forward to what happens next.


Thanks for contributing to such an awesome project.

A self-contained young lady's illustrated primer (thanks, Neal Stephenson) attempting to judge the current knowledge level of the reader with a set of preliminary questions and delivering progressively more advanced, always relevant content would be awesome.

Has anyone attempted to build it not starting at school level, but from ground up (i.e. colors, words, sentences, basic physics, maths, music), while adding content as the first participants progressed?


This is an awesome project. Congratulations. Education needs to be reinvented all over the world. Research like this will help us discover how we really learn, and identify better ways to teach students everywhere.


I love what you're doing. I am curious though, about Negroponte's comment on making a "clean start" with a new village if the project gets funded. What will happen to the kids and the program in the original village?


Just wanted to say thanks for a calm, level-headed, and informative response.


Why would you want to teach kids a local language instead of a more widely-used and applicable language? Forcing groups to stick to their own language sounds like a more useful tool to oppress them than giving them equal language footing. And for the country overall, unifying everyone to one common language is a massive benefit.

What am I missing? Why teach them skills in a lesser-used language?

(Personal experience from having lived in Guatemala, where there's pressure from outside groups to "keep the culture" and teach kids in their regional languages. As some of the parents of those kids noted, this only sets things against them: Having perfect Spanish offers them much more opportunity.)


Local languages make it easier for a regional government/power to control a group of people.

More importantly, it dramatically reduces the amount of consumable information available to someone. Instead of being able to learn from tens of millions of books and billions of web documents, now you are able to learn from, if you are lucky, hundreds of books and thousands of web documents.


Precisely. I see no point in teaching them in anything but English. They're children, if they don't know it, they will learn fast. In fact, teaching them in any other language would be a step backwards.

I am not a native English speaker myself. I am Mexican. Yes, native Spanish speaker which is supposedly one of the top 3 most widely spoken languages on Earth and I must confess that most of the time I don't see the point in reading any content in Spanish anymore (except for some literature - in other words, yes, you probably want to read Shakespeare in English and Cervantes in Spanish, etc)

Foreign news, science, technology in Spanish? all that content is nothing but translations (sometimes bad ones) from the original English source. I see how something could get posted on HN one day and only after many days (usually weeks) it would finally appear in the "Technology News" section of the most "cutting edge" newspapers and media in Latin America or Spain.

I live here in Japan and most scientific papers and research from major universities (like Kyoto or Tokyo University) is also published in English.

I think it's cute to try to keep one's traditions and culture alive but at the end of the day being able to communicate efficiently with each other and do stuff like hacking Android is what keeps the world spinning. Anything else in your way is just extra overhead.


I was wondeirng this too. I have no idea if the OLPC project overall is a good use of funds compared to alternatives (I suspect not, but have zero evidence and no relevent background to state this with authority), but the idea of a literate population witha common language seems like a great idea for a lot of reasons, starting with a literate population that can communicate with their neighbors instead of keeping them as an enemy because they can't communiate to find any common ground.

I've never understood the big deal when a language gradually dies out - insisting on keeping it around is insisting on keeping a group of people stuck in an older culture that doesn't work if they want to interact with others in the modern world.


I'd wager there are often some valuable things lost when a language dies -- myths, sayings, observations on life and human nature -- that if written down and translated, could benefit all of us. (And yes, I know translation isn't always easy.)

I don't entirely disagree with you either. There is a lot to be said for joining the modern world. But I'd like to see people recording what they can of their traditional culture as they do it.


But I'd like to see people recording what they can of their traditional culture as they do it.

We'd all like to see a lot of things. It's unfortunate when things are forever lost, but those things are valuable, they will be translated and kept alive. If the people who know them don't consider them valuable enough, or have not been taught/informed by their culture that they're valuable to keep, they won't do it. Keeping a culture using an isolated language doesn't help that either way.


In other words, memes go extinct just like gene lines.


On the bright side, the internet will make it possible for linguists to reach out to these people in a way that is not accessible before.


So Meles was Tigray, and the new guy is from Wolayita, not Amhara. Why would these guys want to stamp out local cultures and replace them with the Amharic language?

I think rule #1 with regard to Ethiopia is that non-Ethiopians don't know what they're talking about, no matter how well-intentioned they are.


> a) these tablets are vastly more expensive than just hiring teachers locally - by orders of magnitude. This is not a remotely scalable scheme, and frankly research budgets would be much better put to use working out how to distribute cheap teaching materials through existing education networks.

I don't like to be harsh, but what is the quality of the teachers they are likely to get? A bad teacher can be worse than no teacher. By "bad teacher", I mean one who doesn't understand the material themselves.

> b) More perniciously, the tablets educate in English or Amharic: not in the local language of the population in question, which these children would otherwise speak; their parents are often not fluent in either.

It's a complex issue, but if people can only speak a local language they'll face heavy discrimination if they try to get a job elsewhere.


What really bothers me on this project, is that all accounts of it i've read sofar (i don't have an insider's view, which might make me think different) is that it sounds like "let's experiment with the savages and see if they can come up with something". It's like in the good old days of colonial empires. Do the little savages have brains ? How do savages's brains work ?? Are they really so different than ours ??? Does the size of the skull or caudal appendice explain it ?

Drawing a caricature here, but principles don't change that much.

Only thing it seems to prove is that kids are all naturally born hackers. It's what society does to them later on that takes that ability away (like using apps or loving Steve)


True, this is something of an experiment and may not be the optimal way to educate. At least, not yet. But Xoom tablets are $200 today and the price for tablets continues to fall. In a year or so, there will be e-readers on the market for $20 and many decent tablets will be available for $60 and less. The market is glutted with last-generation tablets and phablets. Something of this nature could provide a second life for these tablets. Xooms in particular are extremely durable and could service children for years.

I would also keep in mind that the development community is probably biased toward hiring new teachers. Again, this just sounds like an experiment.


> In a year or so, there will be e-readers on the market for $20 and many decent tablets will be available for $60 and less.

In volume (lots of 100,500,1000) this is already the case.

You can find sellers dumping lots of 1000 of "outdated" tablets (mostly Android 2.2) for $5-$10 a piece.

For smaller lots of more current generation: A Freescale IMX6Q quad core based 10.1" tablet with Android Jelly Bean (4.1), 1024x600 capacitive screen, 1GB RAM, 8GB flash: $32.50 a piece in lots of 200....

Current generation reasonable spec'ed 7" tablets ordered from China in lots of 1 start around $40-$50, with free shipping to large parts of the world...


Actually most Oromo people can speak, and many can read/write in Amharic as it's the dominant national language.


It's the plurality national language (there's no single language with a greater adoption in Ethiopia) but it's not the majority language -- fewer than 50% of Ethiopians are able to use Amharic. So, "most people" in Ethiopia use a local language instead of Amharic.


I am actually from Ethiopia, and from what my parents who were raised there tell me, the education was in Amharic so they learned to read/speak it early on, alongside their morhertongue Somali. Of course ethnic groups tend to use their language first and Amharic for more official matters. So I don't really see what the problem with using Amharic and English is. You're reaching more kids and like another poster said, there's more resources and apps available in Amharic than Afaan Oromo.


> these tablets are vastly more expensive than just hiring teachers locally - by orders of magnitude.

What are the actual prices over a multi-year period? Something that's a penny is a few orders of magnitude less expensive than something that's $10, though that doesn't mean you can't scale with the second thing.

> the tablets educate in English or Amharic ... trying to exterminate local languages and culture

Good, many cultures are despicable and the ones that aren't shouldn't worry. Also English (and other languages widely in use) is the language of the rich and powerful, consciously refusing to teach it to kids in poor countries is a great way to keep them poor. Not even teaching the official language of the land is a great way to keep them ignorant on official matters.


Newsflash: teaching kids to read is actually much much easier if it's done in the language the kid speaks.

"Good, many cultures are despicable and the ones that aren't shouldn't worry"

What is this I don't even...


> Newsflash: teaching kids to read is actually much much easier if it's done in the language the kid speaks.

They did not de-fund traditional education to bring in this form of education. If you want to do something to teach these kids their native language's written form, knock yourself out. In the meantime, this is a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Neither are they taking these children away from their family or village. They are introducing a supplemental window into the world. Any knowledge of culture these children could have acquired through verbal communication with their parents will still be transferred. If elements of a culture are willingly abandoned by people when they are exposed to additional sources of culture, those abandoned fragments of culture are not to be mourned.

Were they forbidding local education and preventing the spread of knowledge, then there would be an issue, but that is most certainly not what is going on.


People seem to be hell bend on using whatever straw man is available to defend this effort from any criticism.

"They did not de-fund traditional education to bring in this form of education."

No one said they did.

"If you want to do something to teach these kids their native language's written form, knock yourself out. "

Ad homenim attacks are not a legitimate defense to honest criticism of a policy's inadequacies.

"In the meantime, this is a hell of a lot better than nothing."

Who said it wasn't better than nothing? I'm saying it's a hell of a lot worse than teaching them to read in their own language. Are we seriously going to debate something that obvious or are we just going to keep watering down the goalposts?

"Neither are they taking these children away from their family or village. "

No one has claimed this.

"They are introducing a supplemental window into the world."

So is dropping dictionaries out of the sky. Neither program is above criticism from a cost effectiveness or absolute effectiveness standpoint.

"Any knowledge of culture these children could have acquired through verbal communication with their parents will still be transferred. "

Not making kids worse at talking to their parents seems like an extremely low bar to celebrate.

"If elements of a culture are willingly abandoned by people when they are exposed to additional sources of culture, those abandoned fragments of culture are not to be mourned."

This sort of blanket declaration about cultural genocide may sound great but more often is just vacuous bullshit by the people propagating it. Did Soviet Jews "willingly abandon" their heritage to fit in? Are Tibetans doing the same today? Apparently it's all ok as long as a non-profit company is involved.

"Mrs. Jones, we have good news and bad news. The bad news is the Republicans and Libertarians have finally killed public education. The good news is we have some free tablets for your kids. They're all in Chinese but rest assured your children will still learn some English from their many verbal interactions with you. And if they gradually forget our culture it's no big deal after all it was totally voluntary!"


> cultural genocide

Providing supplemental educational resources to children is not cultural genocide. That is all that is being done in this particular case. I am not claiming that cultural genocide is not real, nor that it is not a problem.

I sought to make this clear in my original response to you; it seems I have failed to communicate effectively.


Not teaching kids to read is even easier. Are we to judge the merits of something based on easiness?


"The Ethiopian government (a dictatorship) loves this project, because it is actively trying to exterminate local languages and culture."

yeah, because local languages and culture is more important than big languages and big cultures.

The fact that someone in a village says "hello", and in another they say "haello" because they are isolated is super super important. It is so much better that they can't travel out of their village so we can preserve their culture even when they don't want to.


Knowing one's heritage is just as important as knowing the lingua franca. Neither should be diminished in favor of the other.


Who needs native culture when you've got nyancat


A friend shared this story (from a different link posted by Mashable) on Facebook, and I asked then how we really know how well the students are picking up what knowledge of what topic through this means. I see, going back to that link (the same text appears in your link),

"In an interview after his talk, Negroponte said that while the early results are promising, reaching conclusions about whether children could learn to read this way would require more time. 'If it gets funded, it would need to continue for another a year and a half to two years to come to a conclusion that the scientific community would accept,' Negroponte said. 'We’d have to start with a new village and make a clean start.'"

I also noted in the Facebook discussion thread that National Public Radio in the United States recently broadcast a report about One Laptop Per Child in remote villages in Peru, where ensuring access to the Internet or even electricity was a difficult problem for the schoolchildren attempting to use the laptops. I think further research is needed before we can be really sure that dropping off the laptops next to groups of children in the Third World will genuinely result in learning gains for the children in the usual school subjects.

AFTER EDIT: An astute top-level comment below asks,

Nobody's actually there, so who knows what's going on?

And, indeed, I should have mentioned that to properly evaluate this project, you would not only need people in-country, seeing the children face to face, but you would have to make sure that the evaluators are familiar with the local language, as foreigners who visit another country without knowing the local language often miss many important details in their interactions with local people.


multilevel aggregator spam for http://www.technologyreview.com/news/506466/given-tablets-bu...

edit: submission url updated, thanks


Instead of the "promising results" maybe we can focus on the actual results of the randomized control trial that focused on educational outcomes of OLPC?

That RCT conducted in 320 schools in Peru found:

1. The program dramatically increased access to computers

2. No evidence that the program increased learning in math or language

3. Some benefits on cognitive skills

Source: http://blogs.iadb.org/desarrolloefectivo_en/2012/03/06/and-t....


There is a difference in the sense that in Peru the laptops didn't have math or language software and in this case it did


There's also another difference in that adding a laptop for a kid that is already in school without doing anything to take advantage of the laptop in the teaching is very different from making tablet available for a kid that is not only without access to school, but in a village where everyone is illiterate.


Check out the Amazon home page and you will see this related story:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=amb_link_365909982...


    “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. 
I know we're not supposed to be snarky on this site and all, but I just can't help myself . . .

Compromised by illiterate children. That's a secure OS!


I know you are just being snarky for fun, but it sounds like the kids set the desktop background when they thought they had disabled the option in settings. I doubt they did anything more than find a different option that lets you set the background through the browser or something.


Illiterate children from an illiterate village with no technology or anything remotely analogous not only figure out how to use a laptop, but customize it to their personal preferences.

Let's give credit where credit is due. This is pretty amazing.


This is the future of education at the "bottom" in the 21st century. In several years (perhaps a few decades) solar powered tablet computers will be mass produced and so ubiquitous and inexpensive that they will flood the world. And one of their key uses will be education.


Anybody else reminded of The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson?


I was reminded of that as well. And when I read through the comments, one of the experiments confirmed that yes, the Diamond Age actually gave them inspiration:

>> Richard Smith >> Exactly. See http://cananian.livejournal.com/tag/nell The Diamond Age was an inspiration for some of the software we developed for the tablet.


Yup; fascinating to see how close / far that future is.

To my mind the most acute observation Stephenson makes in that novel is that if you control the education of hundreds of millions of people in the third world, you also get tremendous political and social influence (the "Mouse Army"). This potential for power is something that I think is understood deeply by Salman Khan (who already has a devoted legion of followers whose lives he has changed) and by groups like Coursera and EdX.

How much government funding is there in the educational startup space?


Nobody's actually there, so who knows what's going on? Perhaps they learn by asking nearby adults to show them how? Even so, providing motivation is great.


I would imagine a way to address this is to snap a picture every time it gets turned on (or some other period) to see who's using it when they're doing each thing.


Interesting, that got an IT person in legal trouble for trying that in a US school.


Looking at things from my comfortable vantage point a million miles away, I've always had a somewhat skeptical view of OLPC & similar efforts.

(a) They built in the high risk, high capital cost aspect of developing pretty complicated devices. Big things like inventing their own laptop for radically different conditions & making a radical flavor of Linux when none of the existing flavors have had much success with nontechnical users. (b) They planned to go through Governments, the UN & other giant organizations.

Simple & revolutionary technology coming about this way always seemed unlikely.

This on the other hand is interesting. It may seem almost cruel, giving away scores of tablets at a price that could have built and staffed a school. OTOH, it's still not a huge amount of money (in the context of the OLPC budget), you can do it right now and it might work.

If it works, then they can find ways to make it cheaper, cooperative with schools. etc.


Another similar story with Samsung's solar-powered mobile school:

http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-57542623-1/samsung-solar...


That's one way of shifting all those unsold xooms


The Xoom is really solid, now that they've upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich. I often tell people wanting a new laptop to just buy a Xoom. You can't get better bang for your buck. I have a Xoom and I totally love it to death. I love it as a tablet. It also makes an excellent desktop when you connect it to a monitor and bluetooth mouse / keyboard.


Indeed, at the rate companies are pushing and customers buying updated versions of gadgets a program like this is way better than dumping unsold or outdated tablets on a landfill.


Just curious - is this actually 'hacking'? Seems that kids are just figure out how to used the installed software on their own....


> “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,”

For instance, they could have had one of those "lock" apps that requires a code for certain apps like system settings or app installation, and the kids killed the lock app via a task manager.


The systems came pre-installed with software to prevent the kids from using the devices cameras and customizing their home screens. They found their way around these 'protections'.


Something irks me about whether or not they consulted any ethics guidelines for this project.


Same in India. They left a village with a computer. Within 30 days, the previously illiterate students through it. It's important to note that they didn't master the computer but used it as a tool to master educational content.


Teachers with an ego trip, step back. Technology is taking over your job, too.


good teachers are worth their weight in unobtainium. poor teachers can be a huge negative to student learning.


This is a particular area of interest for me, as well. I've experimented with an Android app designed to help my toddler learn to count (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.cdarrow.co...), and it really seems to work. In fact, I think the app can give him better feedback than I can because it doesn't get bored.

I really do think a lot of things can be taught through games and unsupervised computer experiences. It's an area I'd like to explore further.


We use an autodidactic approach for our kids' home education. Working out really well so far with one at high school age on down to our 4th that is kindergarten aged.


“Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

Sounds like a great guy to work for. #sarcasm.


Given Tablets and One Person with an Internet Connection, Children Discover Porn... or MMOs. Absence of teacher is no substitute for a teacher.


The hole in the wall project and this are certainly interesting. I can't help wonder what would happen if such tablets happened to be dropped in kids' hands in an urban literate area. Would they end up stuck playing angry birds and loitering on facebook?



Reminds me of Nicaraguan Sign Language:

> Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN; Spanish: Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua) is a sign language largely spontaneously developed by deaf children in a number of schools in western Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaraguan_Sign_Language

Similar story, in some ways: In Nicaragua, the kids were taught a wholly deficient sign language that wasn't sufficient to the needs of actually using it as your mother tongue. They improved upon it by inventing grammar (not just words, but actual rules) and generally bringing it up to the standards required of a real language. Same kind of independent discovery and invention.

In a linguistic sense, there appears to be a minimum complexity a language must have before it's worthwhile, and humans will spontaneously invent complexity that is missing. This also completely debunks the idea that grammar is dying: Humans can't exist without grammar. They can, however, exist without your preferred grammatical and stylistic conventions. (Grammar is observed, as part of a science; style is dictated, as part of fashion.)

In a broader sense, humans desire a certain minimum level of complexity in their lives and will get bored and invent complexity if it is lacking. We aren't cattle.


I think most sign languages started to take a turn for complexity when children started using them from when they were young,




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