Last year, author Neal Stephenson wrote a World Policy Institute article titled Innovation Starvation, in which he argues that science fiction writing can, and should, serve as a model and inspiration for innovators in the real world:
Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.
In pursuit of this, Stephenson founded Project Hieroglyph, “a publication, collective conversation and incubator for the ‘moonshot ecosystem’ bringing together writers, scientists, engineers, technologists, industrialists and other creative, synoptic thinkers to collaborate on bold ideas in a protected space for creative play, science, and imagination”. He has also had the pleasure of seeing an idea from one of his books, The Diamond Age, become reality.
Published in 1995, The Diamond Age (which is subititled Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer) revolves around an interactive educational technology known as the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, a book which is intended to steer its reader’s intellectual development to lead an interesting life and grow to be an effective member of society. The Primer is designed to react to its owners’ environment and teach them what they need to know to survive and develop.
Directly inspired by this, Dr. C. Scott Ananian (Director, New Technologies, for the One Laptop Per Child project) and his collaborators created Nell, a tablet-oriented education platform for children in the developing world. Named after one of the main characters in The Diamond Age, Nell’s design embodies four key ideas: it is a narrative interface using direct interaction which grows with, and is personalized for, the child.
The ultimate aim of projects like Nell, and other OLPC initiatives, is to see if illiterate kids with no previous exposure to the written word can develop literacy skills through self-instruction, by playing with the tablet and its preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other educational programs.
Recently, OLPC delivered Motorola Zoom tablets loaded with Nell software to two villages in Ethiopia. The villages have no electricity, so the tablets come with solar panels, which the adults in the village were trained to use. Aside from that, no instruction or instructional materials on the tablets were provided. Despite this, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OPLC, reports that “Early observations are encouraging“:
“I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android”
Elaborating on the “hacking”, OLPC Chief Technology Ed McNierny explained that “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that.”
To learn more about Nell, you can read this PDF article written by the creators, from which the following passage (which demonstrates how Nell is intended to help kids learn without using traditional teaching methods or standardized lessons) is taken:
Miles from the nearest school, a young Ethiopian girl named Rahel turns on her new tablet computer. The solar powered machine speaks to her: “Hello! Would you like to hear a story?”
She nods and listens to a story about a princess. Later, when the girl has learned a little more, she will tell the machine that the princess is named “Rahel” like she is and that she likes to wear blue–but for now the green book draws pictures of the unnamed Princess for her and asks her to trace shapes on the screen. “R is for Run. Can you trace the R?” As she traces the R, it comes to life and gallops across the screen. “Run starts with R. Roger the R runs across the Red Rug. Roger has a dog named Rover.” Rover barks: “Ru?! Ru?!” The Princess asks, “Can you ?nd something Red?” and Rahel uses the camera to photograph a berry on a nearby bush. “Good work! I see a little red here. Can you ?nd something big and red?”
As Rahel grows, the book asks her to trace not just letters, but whole words. The book’s responses are written on the screen as it speaks them, and eventually she doesn’t need to leave the sound on all the time. Soon Rahel can write complete sentences in her special book, and sometimes the Princess will respond to them. New stories teach her about music (she unlocks a dungeon door by playing certain tunes) and programming with blocks (Princess Rahel helps a not very-bright turtle to draw di?erent shapes).
Rahel writes her own stories about the Princess, which she shares with her friends. The book tells her that she is very good at music, and her lessons begin to encourage her to invent silly songs about what she’s learning. An older Rahel learns that the block language she used to talk with the turtle is also used to write all the software running inside her special book. Rahel uses the blocks to write a new sort of rhythm game. Her younger brother has just received his own green book, and Rahel writes him a story which uses her rhythm game to help him learn to count.
Are programs like Nell the future of childhood education? What do you think?