For something trying to make the world a better place, there’s been a big debate and a lot of hate around the One Laptop Per Child initiative. Some of it ties into different spats the Valley elites have had with the devices, but a lot of it goes back to a single case study done in just one place: Peru.
It gets a lot of attention, because it was the largest spending that’s been done on any OLPC program. But that’s also one reason it was so inherently flawed. It was considered a bad return on investment, because too much was invested in the devices and not enough in the educational infrastructure around rolling them out.
As I’ve argued before, that hardly seems the fault of the devices themselves.
A big part of the debate boils down to whether kids need instruction on computers. Head of One Laptop Per Child, Nicholas Negroponte, has said they don’t, to which many have derisively said if he’s right, than why couldn’t the Peru program have worked even without teacher training?
Undeterred, Negroponte keeps arguing his case, and now he has a counter proof point to Peru. He recently dropped off tablets with preloaded content and no instruction or explanation in two Ethiopian villages, the Ethiopian kids hacked their laptops in just five months.
I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs 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 the camera, and had hacked Android.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen underserved and even illiterate kids figure technology out on their own, and I don’t know why it’s always a shock to people in the West every time.
The Hole in the Wall crew saw the same thing in Indian slums with its computer kiosks. Back in 1999, NIIT’s chief scientist Sugata Mitra wondered what would happen if he left a computer out in the open in the Mumbai slum that backed up against his office. From my story back when I visited the program in 2009:
So he literally knocked a hole in the office wall to the slum on the other side. He shoved a computer in the hole and set up a camera on a tree limb to record what happened. A 13-year-old, illiterate kid who’d never seen a computer wandered over tentatively, and soon realized he could move the cursor by moving a finger across the touch pad. Within four hours, a small group of kids had gathered. They had figured out how to open Internet Explorer and were playing a game on Disney’s Web site. “All of us were absolutely shocked watching that,” says Abhishek Gupta who heads the program now. Some expected the kids to break or even try to steal the computer.
Having talked to many people on the ground using these devices, and having seen a lot of them with my own eyes, two things are clear and really neither should be a shock. The first is that, obviously, teachers will facilitate learnings. But that doesn’t mean kids can’t figure out devices on their own.
Everyone has a story about their kids’ ability to master the iPhone or some other kind of technology. Here’s my unremarkable one that sounds like all the others you’ve heard: This weekend my 15-month-old grabbed my iPad for about five seconds and navigated from Harvard Business Review article I was reading, back to Netflix with one magical swipe. I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do. He giggled with delight as he pointed to Yo Gabba Gabba. This was, astoundingly, his intention.
Not surprisingly watching his kids use his cell phone was Mitra’s original inspiration for Hole in the Wall too, and no doubt Negroponte has marveled at it as well.
My 15-month-old hasn’t had schooling. He only speaks in his own language, and we didn’t even play him Mozart in the womb. There are few discernible advantages you can point to where he’d be able to figure this out, but a kid in Africa could not. Kids just intuitively get good technology. Let’s stop being shocked at that and cut Negroponte some slack.