This week I will be at the 2012 Interaction Design and Children conference in Bremen, Germany. I will be presenting the Growing Up With Nell paper as well as discussing the OLPC Foundation's literacy pilots in Ethiopia.
The Literacy Project is a collaboration between four different groups (as alluded to by the title of this post): the One Laptop per Child Foundation (“Nell”), the MIT Media Lab (“Tinkrbook”), the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, and the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University (“Omo”). The goal is to reach children even further from educational infrastructure than OLPC has ventured to date. In particular, the Ethiopia pilots are complete child-led bootstraps, attempting to teach kids to read English (an official language of Ethiopia) who neither speak English nor read in any language yet. There are no teachers in the village, and no literate adults either.
Adapting Nell to this environment has some challenges: how do we guide students through pedagogic material with stories if they don't yet understand the language of the stories we want to tell? But the essential challenge is the same: we have hundreds of apps and videos on the tablets and need to provide scaffolding and guidance to the bits most appropriate for each child at any given time, just as Nell seeks to guide children through the many activities included in Sugar. In the literacy project there is also a need for automated assessment tools: how can we tell that the project is working? How can we determine what parts of our content are effective in their role?
I'll write more about the Literacy Project in the coming weeks. As we've started to get data back, some of the lessons learned are familiar: kids do the strangest things! They learn how to do things we never knew they could do (or meant for them to) and often are motivated by pleasures which surprise us. For example, one app we deployed had a sphere which deflated with a sort of farting noise when the child picked the wrong answer. It turns out that the kids liked making the farting noise much more than they liked the response to the correct answer! Obvious in retrospect, but the lesson reminds us why we are pursuing an incremental development and data collection approach. Happily, the hardware itself has been a success: low hardware failure rates, solar powered charging is successful (although they prefer to charge the devices during the middle of the day; we'd expected them to do so overnight from storage batteries charged during the day), and they've mastered the touch interface very quickly on their own. The pilots have been running since February, and the kids are still very engaged with the content. So far, so good!