UOC UNESCO Chair in Elearning | Fifth International Seminar – Sugata Mitra: Hole in the Wall

13 November, 2008

Notes from the UOC UNESCO Chair in e-Learning Fifth International Seminar. Fighting the Digital Divide through Education)

Sugata Mitra explains his “Hole in the Wall” project. More pictures of the Seminar at Flickr.

Hole in the Wall
Sugata Mitra, Newcastle University

Strong correlation between school performance and geographical distance from Delhi, the capital: the longer the distance, the lower the performance. Teachers from rural areas, indeed, do want to move to Delhi or closer to the capital, to an urban centre. Remoteness reduces the quality of education.

But remoteness not necessarily has to be geographic: there is some sort of “quality remoteness”, where some teachers want to get closer to “good” schools, and feel remote by staying in a low quality school. Remoteness, thus, has many shapes and depends on the cultural, economic, social, geographical, etc. contexts.

Alternative primary education is needed where there are no schools, or schools are not good enough, or where there are no teachers, or where teachers are not good enough.

Educational technology should be designed for and reach the underprivileged first. Indeed, educational technology is perceived to be over-hyped and under-performing in schools that have good students and teachers. And educational technology should be designed by educators, not corporations, politicians, lobbies, mass media…

Values are acquired: doctrine and dogma are imposed.

Self organizing system

Self organizing systems structure themselves without any intervention from outside the system (e.g. John Conway’s Game of Life). Is it possible to set some kind of self-organizing system whose output is an educational system? The Kalkaji experiment: a computer fixed on a wall, and, without instructions, children learnt how to browse (by essay an error) and did browse and teach each other how to.

The Madantusi experiment: will English stop them from using the computer? with enough time, the kids learnt how to play games with the computer and asked for more power and better pointing devices… and saw English not as a barrier but as a challenge: “if I learn English, I’ll be able to use the computer better”. Assertiveness, not negative statements.

Evolution of the experiments

But, are these projects replicable? sustainable? adaptable to different contexts? Can really emerge educational systems from such experiences?

The pattern was: discover the use of the computer, discover browsing… and, systematically, discover Google and see the whole experience shifting towards a higher level.

Next step: install a software to learn English, based on voice recognition. No instructions provided. Again, with few time children were using all the features of the system.

But more than computer literacy, other things were happening.

SOLE: Self Organised Learning Environments

Groups of children interacting with groups of computers. No timetables, no instructions. They are able to find solutions to problems given. Questions being: is this learning? How far can this go (e.g. learn Quantum Mechanics)?

What about the teacher? Is the teacher just presence? Is the teacher guidance? Experiment: put the teacher in a screen (videoconference) with webcams communicating in both directions (teacher-classroom). It’s interactive, and somehow present.

Some conclusions: Education for development

Development is about reducing inequalities. And engagement, and effort, is worth it if the reward (reducing the personal distance with the rest) is big. If there is no reward (inequalities are relatively small), effort does not pay off, and thus engaging in learning is a tough thing to do. How to fight this lack of commitment, or vision, toward one’s own education?

Some conclusions

  • Groups of children can learn to use computers, irrespective of who or where they are.
  • Children share a computer and get literate in 3 months: learn by doing, but also learn by watching.
  • $0.03 per child and day
  • Computers improve maths and English (even biotechnology)
  • Improve school attendance
  • Anwer school leaving examination questions
  • Reduce petty crime
  • Generate local goodwill
  • Change social values
  • Children in unsupervised groups can self organise to do all these things, and teach themselves English (speaking and pronunciation too) or improve algebra

Can they change their own aspirations? Can they achieve their own schooling?

Q & A

Paul West: Can such a method be mainstreamed in any way? A: It can be done. Examples and evidence are more convincing than good words.

Q: Can it be applied with adults? A: Adult ego is a strong inhibitor and it might probably not work.

Emma Kiselyova: Can we use second hand hardware to replicate this kind of experiences at a broad scale? A: Children are enraged if they do not get the appropriate (cutting edge) technology. So, the answer is: let’s keep the old computers for us, as we are less power demanding, and send the new ones, as the kids do need more powerful features.

Q: Would this work with retarded or autistic children? A: Autistic children are brilliant, but lack the social skills, a clue of success of these experiences. And brilliant as they are, they might end up going on their own.

Ismael Peña-López: if kids are now so exposed to abundance of information, and learn to collaborate and learn together with other students, are they going to become different adults? A: Definitely. Some youngsters are already collaborating in most intensive ways and even challenging their workspaces and ways their jobs are managed or structured. Surely the nature itself of Education has to change because the reality has dramatically changed. Because full generations are chaning.

Francisco Lupiáñez: Besides remoteness, GDP per capita, or health conditions, do they affect too? Beyond a threshold (i.e. 200miles from the urban center), all these variables are homogeneous in rural India, while remoteness still suffers a gradient in relationship to performance.

Larry Nelson: What’s next after getting the skills? What’s the teacher role? A: After skills, games come. Then, Google opened a large gate of knowledge, really useful for homework. And it was on an imitation basis: the one that takes advantage of using Google to do schoolwork, is imitated by the others not to lag behind. Teachers end up encouraging this kind of behaviour: forbidding gaming is breaking the whole emerging learning process. And there are astonishing stories about kids leaving schools, having smashing success at high school, and attributing it to the computer experience.

Q: Are there any filters in the Internet access? A: Not even there are no filters at all, but even the default set links by the users were overridden from start. And public exposure avoids vandalism, criminal or socially unaccepted browsing. And as the computer is so needed by the students, they will not risk losing access to it.

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