About a year ago, closed boxes filled with computer tablets were left in two villages in Ethiopia.
The villages had no literacy and no cellular service or electricity. One adult in each village was taught how to configure a solar panel.
It took the 45 children, between five and 11 years of age, two and a half minutes before a child found the on and off switch, Nicholas Negroponte recalled at the Whaling Church Friday evening. Five days later, the children were using an average of 50 applications per day on the tablets, and five days after that, they were singing alphabet songs.
Mr. Negroponte, the co-founder and former director of the MIT Media Lab, said this was a victory for One Laptop per Child, his initiative to provide education and literacy to children without access to school — and to provide a new approach to learning itself.
During a wide-ranging discussion with WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook, the host of On Point, Mr. Negroponte argued that the tablets in Ethiopia represent a new way to look at education. New media might topple old ways of thinking.
Armed with just the tablets, he pointed out, the children in Ethiopia were so successful that six months after the tablets arrived, and with no formal instruction, they hacked Android to enable a deactivated camera on the device.
One Laptop per Child (which now includes tablets as part of its mission) has distributed three million laptops to children in 40 countries. The goal of the nonprofit, Mr. Negroponte said, is bringing education to places like Ethiopia and Afghanistan where it has been inaccessible.
There are 100 million children in the world who have no school within 20 kilometers, Mr. Negroponte said. And sometimes the education provided is worse than nothing, he added.
In Afghanistan, he said, 25 per cent of teachers are illiterate, and anther 25 per cent are only one year ahead of their students in school. Seventy-five per cent of girls in Afghanistan do not go to school because there is no school available, he said.
So the solution comes back to the One Laptop per Child initiative, and Mr. Negroponte’s belief in a constructionist model of education: learning by doing, instead of through instruction.
Mr. Negroponte said that writing computer code, which five and six year olds can do, is the closest activity one can do that is actually thinking about thinking. It also helps learn how to problem-solve.
The tablets left in Ethiopia, which were armed with tools so researchers could see how and when they were used, had applications including games with phonetic themes, children’s books, and subtitled children’s movies and cartoons.
“Can we bet the house on this?” Mr. Ashbrook asked. Mr. Negroponte said yes.
But instituting programs like the one in Ethiopia are harder in the United States, he said, where there are more distractions facing children and other modes of learning are entrenched in the school systems.
Mr. Negroponte spoke against education based on test scores and age segregation in schools, which he called “nutty.”
Given the cost of educating students in America, Mr. Negroponte said, the cost of purchasing lap tops or tablets is small. “There’s no excuse,” he said, noting that every student in Uruguay has a laptop.
As for books, another traditional staple of learning, Mr. Negroponte doesn’t see paper books in the future. “A book is static, it can’t do much. It doesn’t even know it’s a book,” he said. But while paper books might go away, “words will not go away, and the written word is a very powerful way of representing them.”
A novel, he pointed out, is a megabyte of data — the same size of a digital picture.
Mr. Negroponte’s ideas can also be applied closer to home. One audience member asked how to stop his three-year-old granddaughter from playing with his iPhone.
“Don’t,” Mr. Negroponte said. “Get her her own iPhone.”