Tablets Help Ethiopian Kids Learn English Without Teachers

From Wenchi to West Hollywood, mobile devices are augmenting language-learning and communication. Where's Wenchi? One Laptop Per Child, a U.S. organization whose mission is to empower the world's poorest children through education, is using tablets to educate children in a village of Ethiopia where no schools or teachers exist.

Under its Ethiopia program, One Laptop Per Child last February distributed 20 Motorola Xoom tablets in the village of Wenchi, which sits on the rim of an extinct volcano. The organization's goal is to find out whether kids using new technology can teach themselves, reports The Associated Press.

"What I think has already happened is that the kids have already learned more than they would have in one year of kindergarten," said Matt Keller, who runs One Laptop Per Child's Ethiopia program.

The fastest learner — and the first to turn on one of the Motorola Xoom tablets when they arrived — is 8-year-old Kelbesa Negusse. The device's camera was disabled to save memory, yet within weeks Kelbesa had figured out its workings and made the camera work. He proclaimed himself a lion, a sign of strength in Ethiopia.

Using Motorola tablets, kids in Wenchi village are able to learn the alphabet and many English animal names. The apps encouraged them to click on colors — green, red, yellow.

"If we prove that kids can teach themselves how to read, and then read to learn, then the world is going to look at technology as a way to change the world's poorest and most remote kids," Keller said.

In Wenchi, there are 60 families that grow potatoes and produce honey. None of the adults can read, but they all support the laptop project and express amazement that their children were lucky enough to be chosen.

The intent is to see the capacity of children to teach themselves to learn, and specifically how to read, using cheap, mobile technology — an option that, as devices become more capable and cheaper, could provide the world's poorest and most remote children with an opportunity to learn.

The use of iPads and other tablets is on the rise in classrooms worldwide, and assistive technology advances are changing the way educators think about teaching non-traditional students. Sharing her thoughts with educators and parents during a daylong workshop on using iPads to aid students with special physical and mental needs, Therese Willkomm, an expert in adaptive technology, said that iPads are the best tool for students with disabilities, according to Kathleen Ronayne of The Concord Monitor.

Blind students can use an iPad to translate verbal words to written words with one touch. Using their voice, students with dyslexia or other reading disorders can work on an iPad to complete work, and students with autism can find alternative ways to express their thoughts and feelings.

But no tablet program has received more attention than Los Angeles's ambitious plan. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) recently has proceeded with plans to buy and distribute free iPads to 640,000 students in the nation's second-largest school district by late 2014, according to Todd R. Weiss of CiteWorld.

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