Not long ago, an organization called One Laptop Per Child conducted an experiment. They delivered boxes of Motorola Xoom tablets and a solar-charging system to two remote Ethiopian villages where the literacy rate was effectively zero. Most of the citizenry had never seen a printed word – no packaging, no street signs, nothing – and the researchers were curious to see what would happen when they got their hands on tablet computers with no one there to explain how to use them, or even what they were for.
Somewhat cynically, for the most part the researchers expected the village children to play with the boxes rather than the tablets, but what actually happened surpassed even the most optimistic expectations. Within minutes, the children had powered up the devices. Within days, they were at an average use of 47 apps per day per child. Within two weeks, they were singing English songs. And within five months, they “hacked” Android. Of course, the term “hacking” seems to be a modern-day equivalent of “magic,” at least for Hollywood; we don’t mean that the children wrote code or compiled kernels or anything, but they did manage to circumvent OS security in order to customize their desktops and to activate the disabled camera, which is no less impressive, all things considered.
Similar experiments were conducted elsewhere in the world, and taken together they seem to suggest that great changes are coming to traditional educational paradigms. The term “online education” has traditionally been perceived at best as low-quality, and at worst as a scam, but now that anyone in the world – with the exception of Minnesota, apparently – can take courses from Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, and others through Coursera means that it’s only a matter of time before mobile technology completely revolutionizes education as we know it today. Coursera doesn’t (yet) offer degrees (give it time), but you can still go online and take courses in just about anything you care to name, complete with interactive feedback and progress assessment.