One Tablet Per Child boosts literacy

One Tablet Per Child boosts literacy

You might assume that children can learn something from using tech devices, but it’s hard to isolate the results from other education and life influences. But the man behind the One Laptop Per Child program says he found encouraging results by running a semi-controlled experiment in two Ethiopian villages.

Nicholas Negroponte (pictured) first reported the experiment last month and then spoke in further detail at a conference this week organized by MIT Technology Review.

He says the OLPC organization delivered batches of Motorola Xoom tablets — adapted to run on solar power — to the villages, providing one unit per child of first-grade age. Parents were shown how the devices worked before delivery, but the tablets were presented to the children without any instructions.

The villages were particularly useful for tracking the effects as neither had any type of formal education. In one of them, the children were so isolated that they were not only illiterate but had reportedly never come across printed words before.

The tablets contained a memory card that tracked use in detail, with a technician visiting once a week to change the cards.

Negroponte reports that one child had figured out how to turn on and use the tablet within four minutes of receiving it in a sealed box. The memory cards then showed that five days later the average child was running 47 of the pre-installed apps each day.

It’s not clear how spontaneous this was, but Negroponte says that within a couple of weeks, and on repeated occasions after that, the children were singing spelling-related songs even when they weren’t using the devices. One child who’d been playing a literacy game involving animals later ran a paint application and used the “brush” to write the word “Lion.”

Kids being kids, they didn’t stop at playing with the apps and learning. The devices had been set up to prevent any customization of the desktop and with the camera disabled. However, the children figured out a way to bypass these restrictions, set up their own desktop displays, and activate the camera.

The big limitation to reading too much into any of this is that we don’t know whether the “one gadget per child” philosophy really held or if older children and adults either manipulated the devices or guided the younger children in using and learning from the apps.

Negroponte says this initial test was not intended to be a scientific study. He’s now looking at getting funding to repeat the project in a different village for a longer period and under more closely controlled conditions.

(Image credit: Gin Kai, U.S. Naval Academy, Photographic Studio)

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