Partial Transcript: Episode 11 (Tablets in Ethiopia)

Virginia: One Laptop per Child dropped off a tablet computer with preloaded programs.  The goal was to see if kids without any knowledge of computers or reading could figure out how to work these things.  It turns out that within a month, they had basically schooled the tablet and had been able to do anything.

Nick: They had no access to written words?

Andrew: They had a literacy rate of zero.

Nick: Literacy rate is different from no knowledge of written language.

Virginia: After several months, the kids learned the “alphabet song.”  One kid wrote the word “lion.”

Andrew: My understanding is that the literacy rate went through the roof because they were learning on their own.  The thing that interested me was how they were able to change the anti-customization software and were able to change their tablets.  I think they even enabled the camera.  They basically started hacking the software, which is pretty amazing.

Nick: How remote are we talking here?

Virginia: The article says two isolated villages.  One is on the rim of a volcanic crater.  The kids had never seen road signs or printed materials.

Nick: It sounds too good to be true.

Andrew: I think it’s pretty cool.  The software was called Nell, and it used stories with teachable moments to help the kids learn.  The idea is that you draw the kids in with the stories, and you use that to teach them morality.  It’s also got math and problem solving.  I learned about it when I read “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson.  One of the main characters in the book gets a piece of hardware that teaches her about the world.  Someone took that idea and came up with the Nell software.  That idea that started out as science fiction has made it into these tablets and seems to be working pretty darn well.

Nick: That’s pretty cool.

Andrew: It’s amazing!

Virginia: Is it the software or is it just the way they set it all up?

Andrew: I’d love to play with some of that myself.

Nick: It’s also one of those things where the kids didn’t break the tablets.  It shows how intuitive those things are.

Virginia: It’s funny that they chose children.  Did the adults engage?

Nick: Kids have no frame of reference, so they are more open to learning.  Adults aren’t interested a lot of time.

Andrew: Adults tend to lose the inquisitiveness that kids have in abundance.

Virginia: It’s be interesting if you could get the same idea to work with an adult.  We talked before about teaching kids programming.  To me, the biggest challenges that I encounter are with adults.  It’s like we see the first five years as this great time for learning, but then we revert to the old ways to teaching.  Adults aren’t given the same opportunities for learning.

Andrew: I’ve met a lot of people who don’t want to learn anything after they get out of school.  There’s nothing that you can do about those people. They’re just not going to learn.  I’ve told my wife that if I stop wanting to learn things, just shoot me.

Virginia: What’s the hardest thing you’ve learned lately?

Andrew: A lot of things seem really hard until I start getting into them, and then I realize that it isn’t that bad.

Nick: I do that too.  Our mail server went down again.  I don’t want to learn how to do that.  It’s so uninteresting to me.

Virginia: The hardest thing that I learned was programming.  I’m not a professional.  I’m still a beginner.  But, it was so hard.  It took sustained effort over a course of time.  But, it took a lot of work to get it be fluid.

Andrew: Everything is a learning process.  Once you struggle through it, you learn differently.  Now that you know one programming language, you can see the parallels with other languages.

Virginia: It made it easier for me to learn other stuff.  It’s kind of funny if you think about it because kids in Ethiopia have to frame of reference on technology and tablets, so maybe they’re just that much more open to learning new things.  I understand how Ruby on Rails works, and that helps me understand how other applications work.  I leverage my prior knowledge.  These kids can’t do that.  I took this graduate level course last year, and I was really excited about it.  I had done my own reading and was super enthused.  But, the professor was boring.  He sucked the life out of it.  I wonder if it’s about innate ability versus brain plasticity and whether or not the educational system has beaten it out of us.

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