In a village in Ethiopia, a cardboard box full of Motorola computer tablets, is discovered by a group of curious children. Western researchers from the NGO One Laptop Per Child, study their reaction, 'I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, (he) found the on-off switch (and) powered it up', says one, for all the world as though the children were a group of experimental beagles being presented with an unfamiliar laboratory situation.

Meanwhile in another part of the continent, the Kenyan government is spending $620million on rolling out a Gates backed programme 'laptops for schools', while failing to address the shortage of 100,000 teachers in the country. Over in the US, the Rocketship charter school chain is sitting primary age children in front of computer screens, without the aid of qualified teachers, for hours every day. And the Los Angeles School District plans to spend $1billion on Apple Tablets, even as it serves redundancy notices to teachers.

What all these initiatives have in common is ultimately this question, articulated by the organisation One Laptop Per Child: 'Can we give them a tool to read and learn—without having to provide schools and teachers and textbooks and all that?' To put it another way, can we take the human relationship out of learning? Can we turn children into little consumers of technology, in some cases tailored to their perceived desires and interests, but always pre-programmed to enable their minds to become willing receptacles of whatever knowledge those in power wish them to have? As a bonus, if we can, the children themselves can be transferred into data sets which theoretically enable complete control of both their development and the school system.

Not surprisingly, the creative talent who manufacture these wonder products want something else for their own children. In the US silicon valley the most popular schools for the upper echelons are Steiner schools with scarcely a tablet in sight, unless its homeopathic. After all as one insightful article asked “Would you want Clippy from Microsoft Word teaching your child to read Shakespeare?”

Though all these schemes are framed in the rhetoric of social justice, there are powerful interests behind. And none more so than that great friend of popular education, moving seamlessly from tabloids to tablets, Rupert Murdoch. His Amplify company is targeting the $17 billion US market as it 'reimagines' education.

No-one with any sense would say that there is no place for technology in education. But what we have here – played out in rural Ethiopia, in Kenya, in the US and increasingly globally is a win-win situation for the masters of the universe. Perfect control of teachers, if not their elimination, unparalleled access into the child's brain both for depositing and retrieving information and billions if not trillions of dollars.

Not all is going the way of the oligarchs however. When the tablets were rolled out in Los Angeles it took scarcely a week for the students to work out how to circumvent their controls and use them to network, play games or watch TV. Rocketship schools have had to rethink their programme and in Kenya, the government faced weeks of strikes from teaching unions opposing the laptop spending, as well as opposition from environmental groups worried that the tablets will eventually add to the piles of E-Waste dumped on the continent of Africa.

So we can take heart. Removing the human out of teaching and learning isn't quite as easy as getting curious children to take a tablet.