While it is still too early to know if these children will be able to become fully literate with no outside assistance, Keller, Wolf and the rest of the OLPC team are extremely optimistic. This is the kind of disruptive innovation that can "dramatically change educational opportunities for children in the poorest parts of the world," Keller said.
Literature on international development shows a strong correlation between literacy and economic development. Consider the disparate circumstances of neighbors Ethiopia and Sudan. In Ethiopia the literacy rate is 40 percent, according to World Bank figures. The per capita GDP is just $316. By contrast, Sudan has a 65-percent literacy rate and had a per capita GDP of $1,352 in 2008. While it is hard to establish a causal relationship, this isn't a coincidence. In countries around the world there is a consistent connection: low literacy, low GDP.
OLPC's founder is often quoted saying: "If a child can learn to read, he or she can read to learn."
"Education is the absolute, unquestionable foundation of economic growth," said Keller. "Too many kids never get a chance to fill their potential because they never get a chance to go to school." If these devices can be used to "teach kids to read," he added, "they can leapfrog the failed educational infrastructure around them."
Replace the teachers?
OLPC has been criticized for trying to replace teachers with machines. The critics argue that without a teacher guiding the process there can't be true learning. But, according to OLPC and other researchers doing similar work, their goal is not to replace teachers. Rather, they just want to bring learning opportunities to children who don't have access to education.
"If you live in a part of the world where this isn't a problem, you don't need this solution," said Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK in a 2010 TED Talk. "(Programs like OLPC) are for children who live in remote areas where there are no schools and no teachers or bad schools and bad teachers," he added.
Wolf agrees with Mitra. "I don't want technology to replace teachers, but where there are no teachers, or the teachers are overwhelmed, it can be helpful." As a tool for learning to read, a tablet can help a child transcend the economic, physical and social barriers that keep them out of school, Wolf said.
"Literacy is the absolute bridge to release the potential of these kids," she said. "We need to be doing everything possible never to neglect the potential of any children anywhere."
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