CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Smart phones, tablets and video game systems are often seen as distractions to school children in developed countries, which tend to adhere to a strict teacher-student educational model. At Technology Review‘s Emerging Technologies (EmTech) conference here on October 25, a panel of technologists and educators posited that it's time to embrace students' use of such technologies and rethink learning in both developed and developing countries.

"The issue isn't education or schools—it's learning," panelist Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman emeritus of M.I.T.'s Media Lab and the chairman of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation, said. "The fork in the road is the difference between knowing and understanding. We test people on what they know, but they might not understand a thing."

Not a new argument, but Negroponte's approach to resolving it has been novel. Although OLPC's efforts to put low-cost computers in the hands of underprivileged students has met with varying degrees of success, his latest focus is on what he says are the 100 million children worldwide without access to any formal education. While it's impractical for a single organization to try to build schools for all of these children living in remote areas across the globe, an alternative might be giving these children tools and technology they can use to teach themselves, one another and their parents.

To test this, OLPC in April delivered boxes containing more than a dozen tablet computers loaded with books, games and other apps—in English—to an isolated village in the Ethiopian highlands. No instructions were given to the village children regarding what was in the boxes or what to do with them. The villagers have no reading or writing skills, nor have many of them ever seen so much as a written word, not even on a sign or bottle, Negroponte said. "I thought they'd [just] play with the boxes," he added.

Instead, within four minutes the village children had opened the boxes and learned how to turn on the tablets, he said. Within a few months they had learned the A, B, Cs and were singing the alphabet song in English.

The question now is whether those Ethiopian children learn to read and write in English, and how quickly they might do it, Negroponte said. This is critical because "if you can learn to read, you can read to learn. If they can do that it [could] not only impact the 100 million kids who can't go to school but might also help us understand how to help the educational system here," he added.

The key to learning, Negroponte's fellow panelists agreed, is to engage children rather than simply talk at them. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is through play.

Panelist Idit Harel Caperton, founder and president of education app developer World Wide Workshop, sees learning as a process of hands-on construction and reconstruction rather than simply information transfer. "You can't understand something unless you go through the process of [building it]," she said Thursday.

So Harel Caperton launched Globaloria, an educational program that encourages children to learn by setting and meeting goals that can be achieved through software, whether it's explaining climate change or communicating a message to discourage bullying. Coding and computer languages are essential to learning, to the point where a lack of understanding of programming in the future will be like being illiterate, she said.

Panelist Brian Waniewski, managing director of Institute of Play said he and his organization are using games to stimulate interest in learning among a group of New York City middle schoolers. "Games create a need to know," Waniewski said. "You find things out as you progress toward your goal."

About three months into their project, Institute of Play, working with game maker EA, is still figuring out how to assess the understanding gained through game play. It won't be through standardized tests because the ubiquity of information mitigates the need to memorize facts, which are at the fingertips of anyone with an Internet connection. "What matters more is, can they use that knowledge?" Waniewski said.