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Toddlers and Tablets
Jonathan Lin   Dec 12, 2012   Ethical Technology  

These days, you would not be alone in thinking that perhaps future generations would master the PC before the pencil. Actually, more realistically speaking, infants born in the iPhone era may not see an entire personal computer for a long time. Instead their interaction is more likely to be with more portable tech: tablets and smartphones.

Many recent new stories have centered on this emerging trend. Utah-based Deseret News published an article in late November on a couple whose 4-year old child was already entertaining himself with Angry Birds - a video game that neither his parents had ever attempted before. Given some alone time, the toddler had switched on the household Internet TV, selected a game, and began launching birds very decently for a beginner.

Something about this scene prompts thoughts on the inherent appeal of technology, and how their use is almost intuitive to the user - even to those who haven't been on the earth for very long. One could argue that not all technology, but only the more successful models and examples, can be used properly via intuition.
But it appears that younger children in the United State are quickly becoming very adept at handling digital systems. The Deseret article cited a 2010 survey of more than two thousand mothers in North America and northwestern Europe, which reported that many kids between ages two and five are more likely to learn how to play computer games than swim or tie their shoes.

At this point one may be skeptical and demand more evidence: after all these kids have developed both in and outside the womb in heavily saturated environments, where digital stimuli and technological devices are practically ubiquitous. Even without deliberately teaching the child how to surf the web or save documents in Microsoft Office, there is still the possibility that unconsciously these kids are becoming more familiar with tech via everyday interaction and perception. Fabricated images and sounds coming from little rectangles or high-definition panels may almost be taken as being completely real. So perhaps there's an argument to made that there is still a ways to go before one can conclude an infant's natural talent with tech.

It's here that the story leaves behind the developed world, with its high infrastructure density and reliable internet coverage. In two remote Nigerian villages, the nonprofit group One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) based in Massachusetts recently ran an experiment.

The organization is dedicated to providing learning opportunities for children in the poorest parts of the world, and supplies kids with low-cost laptops preloaded with educational games. As tablets quickly emerged onto the market, OLPC wondered if these devices might be better learning tools, and decided to test out an equipment switch. Vice President of global advocacy at OLPC Matt Keller hits on the idea of intuition, commenting that just touching the screen of a tablet will make something happen, versus the more complex keyboard commands on an actual portable computer.

The Nigerian villages had no running water and electricity, and OLPC left unsealed boxes full of solar-powered Motorola Zoom tablets with the villagers. The devices were installed with a custom English-language operating system and SD cards that could track child progress. In acquiring parental consent, the researchers at OLPC then began to observe the young children, many whom had never even seen written words, let alone electronics. Here is what OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte had to say:

“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”

It's really quite something to think about, where even for young kids from an environment with virtually no digital saturation, operating and navigating around the device did not take long. By relying on what appears to be basic instinctual behavior that takes cues from touch and response, children were opening apps and proceeding through processes and learning English vocabulary without anything close to an instruction manual.

It certainly appears that Keller's comment on the intuition of the tablet is holding true. One could say that the simplicity and lack of hardware options on the device directly contribute to the ease of use: the kids only had to find the power button. Perhaps some fiddled around with other hardware such as volume, but those would be far less confusing and frustrating than a full QWERTY keyboard. I can imagine that the situation would have been very different with laptops: obviously there would be design modifications to ensure that the power button is clear and upfront, but the huge number of buttons would significantly change the experiment.

The digital workings of button location, visual design, and touch and response provide an undeniably effective learning environment. I've personally seen this with my youngest cousin age eleven. He was raised in mainland China his entire life and did not speak a word of English.

He did own a desktop computer that could run standard video games, and one day I installed an English-language real-time strategy game, where one had to rely on resource collection, army building, and unit control to complete missions and progress. My cousin had played video games before, but they were all in Chinese and mostly consisted of controlling one person using the arrow keys and shooting enemies. This was a whole different level.

After several rounds of experimenting, he began to understand what resource deficiencies prevented the training of certain units, what structures 'unlocked' research technologies, and how to explore the in-game map. Then came strategy, where after persistent enemy attacks he began to figure out what was effective and what perished quickly. All this in a completely foreign language, but these conditions did not limit my cousin from getting the hang of the game. Obviously the learning curve is much higher than using the tablet device. But the patterns and responses in the digital system do contain inherent logic that can be intuitively accessed by users.

There may be critics who point to OLPC and other efforts as a form of neo-colonialism, where the tech-savvy impose new forms of power by distributing the digital tools and infrastructure. Certainly there already have been voices anxious about the implications of sending English-language tablets into African communities, essentially wrenching children away from their native tongues during very formative years.

These worries are valid, but have to keep in mind that this experiment gives developers and innovators traction and results, and can prompt the design of similar initiatives that use software in the local dialect.

This is an important first step, which emphasizes a connection between youth and technology that can really yield positive results. Just like picking things up quickly for youngsters anywhere in the world, these early starts demonstrate familiarity with tech that can help better equip future generations. It seems that a good direction is to now concentrate on further testing to improve the reliability of results, and of course leave the kids to their own devices.

Jonathan Lin is a Bookworm, Music Junkie, Cineaste, Tech Enthusiast, Gadget Guru, Blogger, Musician, Jogger, Dreamer, and in the Carleton College class of '13.

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