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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




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