The One Laptop Per Child Project commenced as a method of delivering technology to schools in areas with no educational infrastructure. Through this initiative they learnt that teaching children stuff, fact and figures is not that valuable. Instead what is important is teaching children how to learn. Rather than follow their normal procedure of delivering laptops to students with teachers, they delivered tablets to two villages in Ethiopia. There were enough tablets for each child in the village and were presented in boxes taped shut with no instructions.

The aim of this exercise was to see if the children could teach themselves to read and write english by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs. What was unique about the villages selected is that the inhibitors have never before seen a written word. There are many who have a literacy rate close to zero. The tablets were preloaded with an english language operating system and SD cards to track how they were being used. What happened was this according to  OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference last week :

“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] 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 it had a camera, and they hacked Android.” (quote from device.com)

Elaborating later on Negroponte’s hacking comment, Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, said that the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different.  We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,” McNierney said. “And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.” (quote from MIT Technology review)