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African kids learn to read, hack Android on OLPC fondleslab

Why your next sysadmin could be Ethiopian

One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte has said children are not only teaching themselves to read without teachers by using fondleslabs he provided, but they are learning how to hack Android as well.

In an experiment, the OLPC dropped off Motorola Xoom tablets with solar chargers in two Ethiopian villages and trained the local adult population how to charge them up. Children were also given sealed boxes containing fondleslabs that were preloaded with educational software and a memory card that tracks how the kids got on with the new technology.

"I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch ... powered it up," Negroponte told MIT Review. "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."

Learning to read by computer is nothing new. Professor Sugata Mitra's research into machine teaching in Indian slums has shown illiteracy is no bar to using computers, and the same proved to be true here, with children weeks later learning their alphabet and how to spell the names of some animals.

But what shocked the OLPC team was just how good the kids proved at understanding and changing the tablet's operating system.

"The kids had completely customized the desktop - so every kid's tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that," said Ed McNierney, OLPC's CTO. "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."

It wasn't just the desktop that the children learned to subvert. The cameras on the tablet had been disabled by an OLPC worker, but the children managed to get around that and turn them back on again with no instruction.

Last year Negroponte told The Register about plans to use fondleslabs for teaching children to read without human intervention, and the first phase of the project appears to have worked better than expected. ®

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