The kids in this volcano-rim village wear filthy, ragged clothes. They sleep beside cows and sheep, in huts made of sticks and mud. They do not go to school. Yet they all can chant the English alphabet and some can spell words.
The key to their success: 20 tablet computers dropped off in their Ethiopian village in February by a group called One Laptop Per Child.
The project’s goal is to find out whether children using today’s new technology can teach themselves to read in places where no schools or teachers exist. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s researchers analyzing the project data say they are already startled.
“What I think has already happened is that the kids have already learned more than they would have in one year of kindergarten,” said Matt Keller, who runs the Ethiopia program.
The fastest learner is eight-year-old Kelbesa Negusse, the first to turn on one of the Motorola Xoom tablets in February. Its camera was disabled to save memory, yet within weeks Kelbesa had figured out the tablet’s workings and made the camera work.
He proclaimed himself a lion, a marker of accomplishment in Ethiopia.
On a recent sunny weekday, nine months into the project, the kids sat in a dark hut with a hay floor. At 3,380m above sea level, the air at night here is chilly, and the youngsters coughed and wiped runny noses. Many were barefoot. However, they all eagerly tapped and swiped away on their tablets.
The apps encouraged them to click on colors — green, red, yellow.
“Awesome,” one app said aloud.
Kelbesa rearranged the letters HSROE into one of the many English animal names he knows. Then he spelled words on his own, tracing the English letters into his tablet in a thick red line.
“He just spelled the word ‘bird,’” said Keller. “Seven months ago he didn’t know any English. That’s unbelievable. That’s a quantum leap forward.”
“If we prove that kids can teach themselves how to read, and then read to learn, then the world is going to look at technology as a way to change the world’s poorest and most remote kids,” he said.
“We will have proven you can actually reach these kids and change the way that they think and look at the world. This is the promise that this technology holds,” Keller added.
Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University professor, studies the origins of reading and language learning, and is a consultant to the One Laptop project. She was an early critic of the experiment in Ethiopia, but was amazed by the disabled-camera incident.
“It’s crazy. I can’t do that. I couldn’t hack into anything,” she said. “But they learned. And the learning that’s gone on, that’s very impressive to me, the critic, because I did not assume they would gravitate toward the more literacy-oriented apps that they have.”
Wenchi’s 60 families grow potatoes and produce honey. None of the adults can read. They broadly support the laptop project and express amazement that their children were lucky enough to be chosen.
“I think if you gave them food and water they would never leave the computer room,” said Teka Kumula, who charges the tablets from a solar station built by One Laptop. “They would spend day and night here.”
Kumula Misgana, 70, walked into the hut that One Laptop built to watch the kids. Three of them had started a hay fight.
“I’m fascinated by the technology,” Misgana said. “There are pictures of animals I didn’t even know existed.”