Tablets without teachers improving literacy in Ethiopia

Ethiopian children with tablets in the village of Wonchi. Photographs: Michael Girma

Laptops and tablets are in everyday use as much in Addis Ababa as elsewhere on the African continent, with the city’s cafes crammed with people working, updating their Facebook profiles or simply surfing the Web.

However, the technology is now also being used in one of Ethiopia’s more remote rural areas. As part of a radical new system, it is hoped will improve literacy amongst children. The village of Wonchi is reached from the Ethiopian capital by a two-and-a-half hour westward drive followed by a lengthy trek on foot.

Its inhabitants live without electricity or running water. But here in the central Ethiopian highlands within the volcanic caldera of the same name, the children of Wonchi are learning to read and write using some of the latest technology available. Abebech’s finger glides over the dusty tablet in its brown leather case. Many of the letters have been mixed up and the nine-year-old’s task is to mark the hidden English words with her finger.

She quickly finds cat, dog and brother. The computer rewards her for her endeavours by replying “awesome!” “I carry the tablet with me everywhere I go, whether I am at home or outside looking after the animals,” says Abebech, who often has to help her impoverished family tend to their cows and sheep.

The young girl is one of 40 children to have received a learning tablet in February 2012 as part of a two-year research project devised by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tufts University near Boston and the University of Georgia.

Half of the children are from Wonchi where the literacy rate is virtually zero with the other half from a small village not far from the town of Wolenchite. None of the children had ever attended school before receiving their tablets.

The researchers wanted to find out what happens when children are given early literacy apps and games without receiving any operating instructions or tuition in their use. The results have stunned the scientists. They found that children between the ages of 4 and 10 quickly learned not only how to turn the solar-powered tablets on and off but also what the function of the installed early learning apps was.

Most of the children now understand the English alphabet and can read and write words. Ethiopian project manager Michael Girma visits the village once a week to collect the data from tablets’ chips which is then sent to the United States for analysis. In this way, the scientists can see exactly how often each of the apps are opened and with what results when it comes to improved literacy.

“It is normally necessary to build a school and employ a teacher to teach children how to read and write,” explains the 29-year-old IT expert, who studied computer science in Addis Ababa and Helsinki. “But this simply isn’t possible in many of the world’s more remote regions.”

Girma believes the learning tablets offer a promising educational technique for the future, which appears to be backed up by the progress made by the children of Wonchi. Maryanne Wolf, one of the leading scientists at Tufts University, is also delighted with the progress made by the English language students.

“We believe that once the children have achieved a basic level of literacy they will be able to learn everything else and in a position to greatly increase their level of knowledge,” she explains.

Unfortunately, the project is scheduled to finish this year and it remains unclear how and if tuition for the children of the caldera will continue. All the children involved in the programme are eager to continue learning but the nearest primary school is a two-hour walk away. Abebech’s thirst for knowledge certainly has not been sated and the youngster has already chosen a future career for herself.

“I want to become a teacher and give lessons to the other children in Wonchi,” she says before turning her eyes back to her tablet. –