Twenty tablet computers donated in an Ethiopian village by a group called One Laptop Per Child are already reaping results.
Tablets as teachers
WENCHI, Ethiopia // 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 goal is to find out whether children using today's technology can teach themselves to read in places where no schools or teachers exist. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US analysing the project data said 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 programme.
The fastest learner is Kelbesa Negusse, 8, the first to turn on one of the Motorola Xoom tablets last 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 3,380 metres above sea level, the air at night here is chilly, and the youngsters coughed and wiped runny noses. Many were barefoot. But they all eagerly tapped and swiped away on their tablets.
The apps encouraged them to click on colours - 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'!" Mr Keller said. "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."
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 towards the more literacy-orientated 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 their children were lucky enough to be chosen.
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," Mr Misgana said. "There are pictures of animals I didn't even know existed."
He added: "We are a bit jealous. Everyone would love this opportunity, but we are happy for the kids."
While the adults appeared grateful for the One Laptop opportunity, they wished the village had a teacher.
Mr 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 don't get to attend school. Ms Wolf said Mr 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 won't be in Amharic, Ethiopia's first language, but English, which is widely seen as the ticket to higher paying jobs.
Mr Keller and Ms Wolf say they are only at the beginning of understanding the significance of how fast the kids of Wenchi have mastered the English ABCs. The experiment will be replicated in other villages in other countries, using more targeted apps.