Last weekend was spent getting depressed about yet more schools in various developing countries, set up with international aid money, which were being forced to close as result of corruption, lack of funds or security threats.  

And of course there would have been plenty of children in these schools' tentative orbit, who never had access to them anyway, because of their inability to access them - distance, lack of infrastructure, gender or the need to earn their keep, all denying them their education as surely as any other ground.

My malaise over this issue was further exacerbated by the tragic news that Malala Yousufzai, 14, a Pakistani schoolgirl who had spent three years championing the right to girls' education, had been shot by the Taliban and was in critical condition.  

Although Malala's bravery has drawn attention to the fact that access to education, particularly girls' education is tenuous in many parts of the world, it is at far too great a cost.   

The question arises - are there new approaches we can bring to this educational access problem, beyond simply sending more aid for more schools?  

Fascinating work is being done by researchers exploring  lateral uses of technology in addressing the above challenges - even asking whether in some cases one might to some extent circumvent the need for traditional schools altogether?  

Sugata Mitra with his 1999 New Delhi "hole in the wall" computer experiments made surprising findings.  

In the absence of supervision or formal teaching, New Delhi slum children,  who were given access to a computer but no teaching at all, taught themselves and each other an incredible number of English language and computing skills, motivated by curiosity and peer interest.

See the below TED talk, where Mitra discusses what transpired.

It would appear that this idea is being explored further by a team of researchers including Nicholas Negroponte, a luminary of MIT, who co-founded the group One Laptop per Child, which distributes cheap computers to educate the world’s poor.

According to the Financial Times, they:
"have launched an experiment so bold it might be science fiction.

Six months ago, they dropped dozens of boxed iPads into two extremely remote villages in Ethiopia, where the population was completely illiterate, dirt poor and had no prior exposure to electronics. They did not leave any instructions, aside from telling the village elders that the iPads were designed for kids aged four to 11. They also showed one adult how to charge the iPads with a solar-powered device. Then the researchers vanished and monitored what happened next by making occasional visits and tracking the behaviour of the children via Sim cards, USB sticks and cameras installed in the iPads.

The results, which will be unveiled in Boston later this month, are thought-provoking, particularly for anyone involved in the education business. Within minutes of the iPads landing among the mud huts, the kids had unpacked the boxes and worked out how to turn them on.

Then, in both villages, activity coalesced around a couple of child leaders, who made the mental leap to explore those tablets – and taught the others what to do. In one village, this leader turned out to be a partly disabled child: although he had never been a dominant personality before, he was a natural explorer, so became the teacher.

The discovery process then became intense. When the children used the iPads, they did not behave like western adults might, namely sitting with a machine each on their laps in isolation. Instead they huddled together, touching and watching each other’s machines, constantly swapping knowledge. Within days, they were using the pre-installed apps, with games, movies and educational lessons. After a couple of months, some were singing the American “alphabet song” and recognising letters (at the request of the Ethiopian government, the machines were all in English). More startling still, one gang of kids even worked out how to disable a block that the Boston-based researchers had installed into the machines, which was supposed to stop them taking pictures of themselves. And all of this apparently happened without any adult supervision – and anyone in those mud huts having handled text before.

This experiment still has much further to run, and has not been independently audited. But the researchers have already drawn three tentative conclusions. The first is that, “no matter how remote children are, or how illiterate their community, they have the ability to figure out sophisticated technology,” as Keller says. Second, and leading from that first point, technology can potentially be a potent self-learning tool. And third – and more controversially – Keller concludes that “getting kids access to technology may be much more important than giving them schools.” Instead of pouring money into shiny buildings and teacher training, in other words, aid groups might do better just to distribute mobile phones and laptops with those self-teaching games. 

Many people would dispute that. After all, the technology world is full of hype; and some economists and development experts such as C.K. Prahalad have questioned whether poor communities can truly derive the benefits of modern technology without help. Singing an “alphabet song” is one thing; reading calculus is quite another. 

But at the very least, Negroponte and Keller’s experiments raise two further questions in my mind. First, what is all this technology doing to our kids’ neural networks and the way future societies will conceive of the world? Second, and more practically, could these lessons about self-learning be applied to the west? Should someone who worries about the failures of the US education system to reach the American poor, for example, be looking to iPads – and not just teachers’ unions – for a possible solution?"  

In seems that the democratization of access to education, whether in the developing world or in poor communities in developed countries, has incredible potential for change in an educational model which has hereto remained largely unchanged for centuries.  How it manifests will be fascinating.

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