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Negroponte plans tablet airdrops to teach kids to read

Market forces are failing the poor, he warns

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Open Mobile Summit Nicholas Negroponte, the brains behind the One Laptop Per Child initiative, is detailing a new plan to inspire the world’s poorest children to teach themselves to read using tablet computers.

The design for the tablet is simple. At its heart is a solar powered battery, built into the back of the tablet which can be charged on a windowsill and then clipped onto the screen to activate the device. In some cases power can also come from a hand crank, or be transferred to the tablet, via twin USB ports. They are water resistant, very durable and can be dropped from 30 feet without breaking.

Speaking at the Open Mobile Summit in San Francisco, Negroponte said that within a year his team would be dropping tablets into remote villages by helicopter – without staff – and letting children teach themselves how to use them. He cited Professor Sugata Mitra’s research into minimally invasive education as an example of how people who cannot read or write can teach themselves language and computing, if given the right technology.

In 1999 Mitra installed an internet-connected computer and keyboard into a hole in a wall in an Indian slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. Within 25 minutes the illiterate children who gathered to use it had found a way to get online, and were browsing web sites, and Negroponte said this showed the possibilities for self-taught literacy.

“In the first year we’ll go in and meet with tribal elders and aid organizations, people not involved with education, but then we let the kids learn,” Negroponte told The Register. “Then we'll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go aback a year later and see if the kids can read.”

The ability for children to teach themselves, and others, had been one of the most surprising aspects of the OLPC project to date. There are now around 500,000 children in Peru who are teaching their parents to read using OLPC and that was a stunning achievement, Negroponte said.

What was also surprising was the value the recipients of OLPCs held their hardware in. Children are fiercely protective of the computers and their families also valued them because the screens were the brightest light source in the home. The group had distributed 5,000 laptops in Ethiopia, and a year later only two of them had been broken or lost, he said.

All of this work by Negroponte and others was essential, he explained, because market forces were leaving the poor of the world behind. Meanwhile, the largest countries had adopted strategies that offer little for the developing world.

China was very good at providing turn-key solutions, such a building a road or a school, but did the work using their own people and then took the money and left, without leaving much in the way of additional infrastructure or training of local people. While efficient, this was hardly a model for development and was too prone to corruption, he said.

India, meanwhile, is largely irrelevant outside its own borders, he opined. While the country has announced various plans for $35, or even $10 laptops, these in fact were more expensive to build and simply subsidized – and were aimed at school and college students, not the primary level of education that is so important. While cheap laptops are to be applauded, they are ill-focused at present, he said.

America, on the other hand, has both the money and the skill to have a major impact in the area, but was choosing not to, in favor of massive military spending. He pointed out that the war in Afghanistan was costing the government $2bn a week, but the US is spending less than $2m a week on all educational programs within the country.

“Education is the long term solution to every problem,” he said. “I don’t know of any solutions that aren’t achievable without some form of education. Primary education is the most important - if you mess that up it’s a lot of work to change things for the better.”

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