Fri, Dec 28, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Tablet computers teaching children to read

While some may question giving developing nations technology rather than aid, supporters of a new project say literacy is key to long-term survival

By Jason Straziuso  /  AP, WENCHI, Ethiopia

“We are a bit jealous. Everyone would love this opportunity, but we are happy for the kids,” he added.

Kelbesa, the boy lion, said: “I prefer the computer over my friends because I learn things with the computer.”

Asked what English words he knows, he rattled off a barnyard: “Dog, donkey, horse, sheep, cow, pig, cat.”

Kelbesa, one of four children, is being raised by his widowed mother, Abelbech Wagari, who dreams that the tablet is his gateway to higher education.

While the adults appeared grateful for the One Laptop opportunity, they wished the village had a teacher.

Keller said that Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT pioneer in computer science who founded One Laptop, is designing a program for the 100 million children worldwide who do not get to attend school. Wolf said Negroponte wants to tap into children’s “very extraordinary capacity to teach themselves,” though she said she has no desire to see teachers replaced.

The goal of the project is to get kids to a stage called “deep reading,” where they can read to learn. It will not be in Amharic, Ethiopia’s first language, but in English, which is widely seen as a ticket to higher paying jobs.

Keller and Wolf say they are only at the beginning of understanding the significance of how fast the kids of Wenchi have mastered the English alphabet. The experiment will be replicated in other villages in other countries, using more targeted apps.

One might wonder whether the children of Wenchi need good nutrition and warm clothes, rather than a second language and no teacher — a question Wolf said has given her some sleepless nights.

She thinks she has arrived at an answer.

In remote regions of Africa and elsewhere, “the mother who has one year of literacy has a far better chance to make sure her child can live to five years of age. They are savvier when it comes to medicine, to basic health, to economic development,” she said

“So at 3am when I’m thinking, if I can do one thing … using my particular knowledge, which is in reading and brain development and thinking — this is my shot; this is my contribution to the nutrition and health of a child,” Wolf said.

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