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Tablets, But No Teachers

A student looks for his tablet computer as others use theirs, which were given by the One Laptop Per Child project in the village of Wenchi, Ethiopia.Yesterday, I saw this article in the MIT Technology Review about a solar-powered tablet experiment in Ethiopia that seems to contradict some of what are widely considered by U.S. educators the key steps to successful implementation of a new technology: the devices are being handed out to children with absolutely no instruction or teachers.

The project is lead by One Laptop Per Child, which came to the forefront several years ago when the organization developed a $100 laptop that it intended to distribute in developing countries. This time, the researchers left the tablets in boxes in two remote villages in Ethiopia where the children had not even seen printed materials including road signs or packaging materials, according to the organization's founder Nicholas Negroponte. It took the children about four minutes to figure out how to open the boxes and power up the devices, he said in the article.

Within the first week, the children were utilizing 47 apps per child per day, said the researchers, and within two weeks, they had figured out how to hack the tablets' operating system to activate the camera function and customize the desktop. Still, researchers admit that while the results are promising, much more research needs to be done to know how effective this drop-and-dash method could be.

The project reminded me of experiments conducted by Sugata Mitra in India where he left PCs embedded into a wall in remote villages for children to use. With no instruction, they were able to figure out how to interact and engage with the device.

But regardless of the project's success, the concept seems to completely contradict some of the mantras I hear repeated often by ed-tech advocates (Technology is just a tool and should only be incorporated thoughtfully and when it makes sense, for instance.) Obviously the challenges faced by the children being targeted in this experiment are wildly different than those faced by students in U.S. public schools, but I wonder what, if any, implications could be drawn for students here in the U.S. and vice versa.

What do you think? Is this a breakthrough for educators and students in developing countries? Or is it short-sighted? What could we learn from these experiments?

Photo: A student looks for his tablet computer as others use theirs, which were given by the One Laptop Per Child project in the village of Wenchi, Ethiopia. —Jason Straziuso/AP

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