21.11.2014

Can children learn by themselves if they have the right technology?

Image | One Laptop Per Child

Global Learning XPRIZE is the latest of the competitions organized by the XPRIZE Foundation, which seeks to implement solutions that change the world for the better by awarding 15 million dollars to the winners of the contest. This year the award was granted to the project that manages to “develop a scalable, free and Open Source software. The initiative, which should be carried out in 18 months, will have to allow children to learn for themselves ** how to read, write and do basic maths**”. This software will have a very special destination: any Android device, especially the low cost tablets that could become fundamental tools for the education of millions of children and young people around the world.

The idea has a solid seed: the so-called Reading Project, led by Nicholas Negroponte, creator of the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC) – and Matt Keller, who after creating this initiative has dedicated his efforts towards to trying to bring it to many more devices. The Reading Project provided a series of computers that could be charged by solar energy and included various educational applications to children in remote areas of Ethiopia. There were no instructions on these devices. The surprising thing was that the children did not need them, just as Negroponte and Keller had assumed they would not.

Can children learn by themselves if they have the right technology?

Image | XPrize

The result of that experiment parallel to the development of the OLPC project was astonishing: Negroponte recounted to attendess at the EmTech conferences in October 2012, how Motorola Xoom tablets used for those tests had become tools showing that those children and young people could learn to read and write without teachers. After several months, the young people ended up being able to recite the alphabet song, spell words, and even write simple terms. Negroponte also commented how the children had managed to “hack Android”, enabling the camara on these tablets even though their functions had been disabled. Side projects like the the Global Literacy Project aim to “reduce world poverty by 12%”, beginning through youth education.

For all the enthusiasm that these initiatives can generate, there are others who want to keep our feet on the ground. The educator Sugatra Mitra-a TED prize winner – launched the Hole in the Wall project in India. The idea was, as in other projects, to offer children and young people tools to enable them to educate themselves. Computers with Internet access were installed in some remote places in the Himalayas, producing some curious results, “the two most popular things were porn and video games,” explained Mitra. Which meant that those devices were only used by boys and that girls were barred from accessing those resources.

Mitra said that although these efforts may be important, “learning is never self-directed 100%. Of course we want children to be responsible for their own education, but nobody in their right mind would approve of getting rid of human supervision, like parents, schools or even some communities exercise.” We’ll see if this new XPRIZE challenge, whose final phase will be carried out in a controlled environment, really does show that an Android tablet with learning software can help change the world. At least we will be able to tell if this type of solution might to represent an important step in helping to bring about that change.