technologyreview | Have you watched a two-year-old use an iPad?
The meteoric rise of modern instructionism, including the misguided belief that there is a perfect way to teach something, is alarming because of the unlimited support it is getting from Bill Gates, Google, and my own institution, MIT. While Khan Academy is charming and brilliantly nonprofit, Salman Khan cannot seriously believe that he and a small number of colleagues can produce all the material, even if we did limit our learning to being instructed.
One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a nonprofit association that I founded, launched the so-called XO Laptop in 2005 with built-in programming languages. There are 2.5 million XOs in the hand of kids today in 40 countries, with 25 languages in use. In Uruguay, where all 400,000 kids have an XO laptop, knowing how to program is required in schools. The same is now true in Estonia. In Ethiopia, 5,000 kids are writing computer programs in the language Squeak.
OLPC represents about $1 billion in sales and deployment worldwide since 2005—it’s bigger than most people think. What have we learned? We learned that kids learn a great deal by themselves. The question is, how much?
To answer that question, we have now turned our attention to the 100 million kids worldwide who do not go to first grade. Most of them do not go because there is no school, there are no literate adults in their village, and there is little promise of that changing soon. My colleagues and I have started an experiment in two such villages, asking a simple question: can children learn how to read on their own?
To answer this question, we have delivered fully loaded tablets to two villages in Ethiopia, one per child, with no instruction or instructional material whatsoever. The tablets come with a solar panel, because there is no electricity in these villages. They contain modestly curated games, books, cartoons, movies—just to see what the kids will play with and whether they can figure out how to use them. We then monitor each tablet remotely, in this case by swapping SIM cards weekly (through a process affectionately known as sneakernet).
Within minutes of arrival, the tablets were unboxed and turned on by the kids themselves. After the first week, on average, 47 apps were used per day. After week two, the kids were playing games to race each other in saying the ABCs.
Will this lead to deep reading? The votes are still out. But if a child can learn to read, he or she can read to learn. If these kids are reading at, say, a third-grade level in 18 months, that would be transformational.
Whether this can happen has yet to be proved. But not only will the results tell us how to reach the rest of the 100 million kids much faster than we can by building schools and training teachers, they should also tell us a great deal about learning in the developed world. If kids in Ethiopia learn to read without school, what does that say about kids in New York City who do not learn even with school?