In Ethiopia over 2,000,000 children of school age do not go to school. Most of them never will. A few of them have tablets – and miraculously taught themselves how to read and write.

MIT professor and technology nerd Nicholas Negroponte wanted to see what would happen if you handed a tablet computer, equipped with educational apps, to a group of children who could neither read or write, in the isolated village Wonchi in the Ethiopian countryside. Would they figure out how to use it and explore the possibilities of digital learning, or, would they rather play with the box it comes in?

Negroponte could not believe what he saw. “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.” When the researchers returned after a few months, to check on the children’s progress a boy opened a paint programme and wrote the word “lion”. Another child proudly showed a video he made of his grandfather.

Could that be it? The solution to both the digital divide and illiteracy? The project of Negroponte’s “One Laptop per Child” foundation (OLCP) is not spared from criticism. Isn’t it inherently arrogant to believe that these African children might not explore the shiny tablet handed to them like any child in the developed world would, too? Wouldn’t these villages be better off with electricity and running water, instead of the latest Western technology? Can a tablet really replace a real-life teacher and a non-virtual classroom? How should the expansion of the project be funded given the currently still high market price of a tablet computer?

Whether OLPC’s literacy project has a future depends on many factors. Not at last on the question, whether the knowledge the children acquire actually makes them better off in their world, and not just in ours.

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