The Miracle of Wenchi: Ethiopian Kids Using Tablets to Teach Themselves

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Fiona Ehlers, Dec. 28, 2012 (Photo-GalleryTranslated from the German by Christopher Sultan).

A US aid organization has handed children in the remote Ethiopian village of Wenchi tablet computers in an experiment aimed at enabling them to teach themselves. They are now speaking their first words of English – without ever having encountered a teacher … //

… Self-Teaching Experiment: 

Keller works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. His goal is to prove that children can learn independently and without instruction. The children in Wenchi have no opportunity to attend school, because the nearest school is too far away or their parents prefer to send them out to fetch water or into the fields, where they watch the cows in the morning and the goats in the afternoon.

But what if these children, who, like their parents, can neither read nor write, were provided with a computer? And if the computer were loaded with learning programs, films about animals and faraway countries, arithmetic games, in both English and Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language? And if the children were simply allowed to do as they please, in the hope that they would teach themselves and learn from each other?

Could this approach enable developing countries to make the leap into the information age? Or would the tablets end up in the dust just as quickly as children’s toys end up in the garbage in the West when they cease to be new and exciting? If the experiment were a success, could the same approach be used to help 100 million children worldwide, children who don’t go to school because they live in rural areas or their families are too poor?

Keller strongly believes in his hypothesis. He believes that all you have to do is give children a computer, and that everything else will fall into place. “Children are autodidacts,” says Keller. “They don’t have to be taught to walk and speak, either.”

If his project succeeds, it will be a veritable revolution, one that could put an end to the plight of uneducated children and help bridge the gap between rich and poor.

The idea came from Nicholas Negroponte, 69, the world-famous American computer scientist, technology enthusiast and visionary. His bestseller “Total Digital,” which he wrote on a notebook computer in a hut on a Greek island, was the manifesto of the Internet age.

In the book, which Negroponte wrote back in 1995, he predicted that we would live in a networked and digitized world one day. Negroponte is Keller’s boss, and he’s usually right. Their joint project, called “One Laptop per Child” (OLPC), has been underway in Ethiopia since February 2012. In Wenchi and another village, Wolondhete, they gave each of 20 children between the ages of four and 11 a Motorola Xoom tablet. It’s a test project, and they plan to collect data for one to two years. Their plan is to find governments to finance the tablets, so that they can be distributed worldwide.

It Works: … //

… Self-Help Rather Than Aid:

“Ethiopia was helped to death,” says Mike. You can see this in Addis Ababa, he adds, the stronghold of East African aid workers, who drive around in SUVs with tinted windows and have barbecues at the Western Five-Star hotels. “You whites fed us fish,” says Mike, “but you didn’t show us how to fish.”

But the tablet project is truly changing Ethiopia, he says, because no one is receiving handouts. “The Wenchi children work hard for six hours a day,” says Mike, “merely because they like to and are proud of the fact that they can do something. We have nothing against schools, but schools just aren’t being built here in the highlands.”

Mike believes that Ethiopia has moved past its image as a country of starvation. In fact, it is one of the fastest-growing countries on earth. It will develop into the leading economic power in East Africa within a few years, and officials there hope to see the country grow into a site for textile plants and even develop technology. This is the reason why the project means so much to the government in Addis Ababa. Apparently the education minister can hardly wait until the test phase is over and more tablets are brought to his country — with the help of foreign sponsors, of course.

The evening fog is beginning to settle over the roofs of Wenchi. Keller is back at his five-star hotel. The solar hut in Wenchi is locked, and no one is allowed to charge his mobile phone or siphon off electricity. Those are the rules.

Eight-year-old Kelbessa is tending his father’s oxen. He says that when he grows up he wants to live in the city and work with computers. He knows that it’s the answer whites like to hear. Abebech says she wants to be a truck driver, and to drive from Wenchi to the market in Ambo, “with my father’s potatoes.” He stands next to her, looking skeptical but proud. “In the past, girls were married off,” says the father. “We paid their dowries, and they were worth nothing to the family.”

But how far can Abebech go when she’s an adult? Two-thirds of the 85 million Ethiopians are under 25. Ambo, the next town, is filled with young, dissatisfied people who loiter in the streets. They are well educated, but they can’t find jobs because there simply are no jobs to be had.

The black emptiness of night descends on Wenchi. Half the village is sitting around a fire in the hut owned by Abebech’s father. It feels like it did in the past, before the modern age came to Wenchi, like a stable in Bethlehem, with an ox and two donkeys standing near the fire. The women are breastfeeding their babies and the men are telling stories about Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia. The fire provides warmth and fills the hut with light, and then it slowly subsides.
Suddenly the children arrive, like a swarm of fireflies. The tablet computers serve as flashlights, as the blue glow of the future lights their way.

And then it seems as if everything made sense, after all. Abebech walks into the hut, and as the Teletubbie voices sing the ABC song on her computer, the men gather around the child. She explains the foreign letters to them and shows them how they’re written. The men marvel at this 10-year-old child, a girl, at that, and they listen to her. It’s a scene that would have been unthinkable before the whites came to Wenchi with their strange devices.
(full longer text).

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