Cooperazione Italiana Etiopia finds “Tablets but No Teachers”

From their YouTube Channel:

The One Laptop Per Child organization is trying something new in two remote Ethiopian villages: simply dropping off tablet computers with preloaded programs and seeing what happens.

Last week we went to Wonchi, one of the two villages where the experiment is taking place. This is what we saw.

“If kids can learn to read, then they can read to learn” Nicholas Negroponte – Tablets Reading Project in Ethiopia

MIT Technology Review’s annual EmTech is the premier conference focused on emerging technologies and their impact. Each year, this unique event brings together key players from the technology, engineering, academic and management communities to discuss the technological innovations that are changing the face of business and driving the global economy.

During the last conference, Nicholas Negroponte presented the latest information about the Reading Project, an experiment/research, conducted with kids in Ethiopia to see what can happen without a teacher, because these kids have none.

During September, MIT Technology review posted the article “Another Way to Think about Learning” describing some of what was going on. Recently, a new article explains more on the latest findings; “Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves

After several months, the kids in both villages were still heavily engaged in using and recharging the machines, and had been observed reciting the “alphabet song,” and even spelling words. One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint program and wrote the word “Lion.”

Learn more about the Reading Project explained by Nicholas Negroponte in the following video (min 57:53):

Watch live streaming video from emtech2012 at

Nicholas is back to the stage on a Panel: minute 2:19:20

“Why I hope kids in Ethiopia can teach us something profound about education.” by Nicholas Negroponte

I believe that we get into trouble when knowing becomes a surrogate for learning. We know that a vast recall of facts about something is in no way a measure of understanding them. At best, it is necessary but not sufficient. And yet we subject our kids to memorizing. We seem to believe that rote learning is akin to physical exercise, good for their minds. And, quite conveniently, we can test whether the facts stuck, like spaghetti to a wall. In some cases knowledge is so drilled in that you know and hate a subject at the same time.

The closest I have ever come to thinking about thinking is writing computer programs. This involves teasing apart a process into constituent parts, step-by-step functions, and conditional statements. What is so important about computer programs is that they (almost) never work the first time. Since they do something (versus nothing), just not what you wanted, you can look at the (mis)behavior to debug and change your code. This iterative process, so common in computer programming, is similar to learning.

One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a non-profit association that I founded, launched the so-called XO Laptop in 2005 with built-in programming languages. There are 2.5 million XOs in the hand of kids today in 40 countries, with 25 languages in use. In Uruguay, where all 400,000 kids have an XO laptop, knowing how to program is required in schools. Estonia just did the same. In Ethiopia, 5,000 kids are writing computer programs in the language Squeak.

OLPC represents about $1 billion in sales and deployment worldwide since 2005—it’s bigger than most people think. What have we learned? We learned that kids learn a great deal by themselves. The question is, how much?

 To answer that question, we have now turned our attention to the 100 million kids worldwide who do not go to first grade. Most of them do not go because there is no school, there are no literate adults in their village, and there is little promise of that changing soon. My colleagues and I have started an experiment in two such villages, asking a simple question: Can children learn how to read on their own?
If you want to learn more about this research, read the original post here.


A visit to Wonchi: OLPC’s Ethiopian Literacy Project

Evan Szablowski was in Addis Ababa, spending a week meeting Ethiopian entrepreneurs. Michael, one of the tech leads for our literacy project in Ethiopia, was one of the people he met with. He was captivated by the literacy project, and on hearing that Michael was heading to Wonchi (one of the two villages taking part in it), he and his teammates decided to tag along.

While he was there he met some of the students eager to show off how they liked to use the tablets (they are using Motorola Xoom tablets with mainly off-the-shelf Android literacy apps, with a few custom apps and tweaks by OLPC). At some point, one of the children (below) stood up to quiz the others on what they were learning.

Evan wrote up the experience in a beautiful essay on his new blog, illustrated with photos from the day.

While this is just one anecdote from the project, the photo series is priceless, and puts the whole effort in context: the geography of the town, the social setup of the small farming community, and the economic circles of the village and the technicians supporting them.

An overwhelming sense of excitement and optimism overtook us, and we couldn’t stop smiling as we watched. We left with such a feeling of inspiration and optimism, amazed at witnessing two completely different worlds [fuse] with one another… Zach said this was the best thing he has done in a long time, and I agreed.

I hope they realize it someday. I hope that someday one of those kids will say, ‘When I was only 4 years old, the laptop project from MIT came to my village, and it forever changed my future.’ What an amazing perspective that person will have.

This was not foreign aid, or handouts… This was education, and just the first step in enabling them. Enabling the young minds of Africa for brighter futures. For a brighter nation, and a brighter continent.

@Evan: Thank you for sharing the day with us!