In an interesting statement, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) founder Nicholas Negroponte has revealed that the illiterate Ethiopian children they had given the locked down Motorola Xoom tablets earlier this year have within five months not only started teaching themselves English, but managed to bypass the security on the tablet’s operating system to customize settings and to activate disabled hardware such as the camera.
OLPC is a project aimed at delivering technology and resources to schools in underdeveloped countries with little or no education infrastructure. The aim is to use inexpensive computers and tablets to improve traditional education methods.
Instead of teaching kids in the traditional “boring” way of memorizing facts and being taught how to spell words, OLPC tries to figure out a way to teach children to learn. So OLPC decided to embark on an experiment in Ethiopia. Instead of giving out the usual devices, Motorola Xoom tablets and solar chargers running custom software, to kids in schools with teachers, they tried something different.
OLPC delivered some boxes of tablets to two villages in Ethiopia. These boxes were sealed all around and came with no instructions whatsoever on what should be done with them or what they contained.
One needs to remember and put into context that these are Ethiopian villages, where the children and some adults have never read a written word. The type of rural villages where there are no books, no newspapers and no street signs.
Having highlighted that context, it is perhaps natural to think that one does not just drop off tablets in such villages without them being accompanied by someone who will train a literate local who will further train the children and villagers.
OLPC decided not to do this, it just dropped off the boxes containing one tablet for every child in each of the villages (approximately a thousand tablets in total). Each tablet was pre-loaded with a custom English-language operating system and SD cards with tracking software on them to record how the tablets were used.
Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC founder at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference last week relates what happened further:
“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up.
“Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. 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 organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”
Whether the experiment was a success or not, is not revealed by OLPC but it is quite clear that ingenuity and intelligence know no boundaries.
In addition, given that these villages had almost a zero literacy rate, maybe all this smart technology is not so smart after all, or perhaps we underestimate the intelligence of those who do not speak English and live in a way we do, you decide.