Bernie Goldbach in LIT-Clonmel | Image from Technology Review
COULD IT BE that merely giving smart tablets to young children helps them learn to read and write? Even when their parents are illiterate and when no schools are involved in distributing the technology?
The idea emerges from work by Sugata Mitra. He believes "education is a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”  At the end of October 2012 during EmTech, Nicholas Negroponte will present the results of a very interesting experiment he conducted in Ethiopia. His team "delivered fully loaded tablets to two villages in Ethiopia, one per child, with no instruction or instructional material whatsoever. The tablets come with a solar panel, because there is no electricity in these villages. They contain modestly curated games, books, cartoons, movies—just to see what the kids will play with and whether they can figure out how to use them." 
The results suggest kids can teach themselves basic elements of writing and reading.
The experiment involved remotely monitoring each tablet by "swapping SIM cards weekly (through a process affectionately known as sneakernet)." It looks like the young children explored, created and collaborated. Some great leaps in learning happened in groups.
Negroponte's conclusions will challenge the traditional mantra that says the only way to achieve learning is to build schools, train teachers and to maintain a small student-to-teacher ratio. But what if kids can be empowered to learn to learn?
The biggest hurdles might be thrown up by teacher unions, allegiance to age segregation, resolute belief in standardised test scores, and unwavering faith in instructionism. All those hurdles have to be surmounted if learners are to be empowered with touchscreens while learning to learn.
1. Sugata Mitra -- "Child Driven Education" is a TED Talk, September 2010.
2. Nicholas Negroponte -- "EmTech Preview: Another Way to Think about Learning" in Technology Review, September 13, 2012.
3. Gillian Tett -- "When tablet turns teacher" in FT Weekend Magazine, October 6, 2012.
4. Nicholas Negroponte -- Being Digital ISBN 978-0679762904