Sugata Mitra

In 1999, Sugata Mitra traveled to an urban slum in New Delhi with a curious mission. He dug a hole in a wall, inserted an internet-connected personal computer, and walked away, leaving only a hidden camera to observe the results. Little by little, children began to approach this “Learning Station,” accidentally discovering various functions such as scrolling, clicking, and eventually becoming able to operate different programs. These children, ages 5-16, had little or no prior formal schooling and could not speak English (Thomas). However, this did not hinder the power of a child’s curiosity. After playing around and exploring, the children eventually became comfortable and proficient with various computer programs. Mitra and his colleagues observed children drawing with MS paint and browsing with Internet explorer. The kids even came up with their own computer language. For example, the word for needle, “sui,” was assigned to describe the cursor. Even more fascinating than the individual exploration of computer function was the exchange of information between children that occurred. Peer interaction served as the primary share of computer knowledge as children simultaneously observed and assisted their friends in using the computer. In the absence of teachers, children formed impromptu groups that worked together to learn and teach. Test scores between those who were actually interacting with the computer compared to those who were merely observing were identical. This interactive learning discovery was astonishing, and thus the success prompted Mitra to repeat the experiment across India in both urban and rural settings (Thomas.) After two years, children all over India began to Google their homework. Eventually, the project spread to countries across the world, including Italy and Cambodia. Despite location, the results were excitingly similar.

The Hole in the Wall experiment provides an important insight towards how children learn. Whereas traditional education settings assume that children need formal schooling, rigid curriculum, and a structured environment, Mitra’s experiment reveals that an environment that stimulates curiosity and peer are extremely important. Mitra learned that if a child wants to learn something, and is given the tools to do so, they couldn’t be stopped. When motivated by curiosity and peer interest, children are able to teach themselves and others even without direct adult supervision. However, the important understanding found in this experiment is that children must be in groups. The way the learning environment is set up is as such: One child is generally given the role of leader. This child navigates, browses, and explores the Internet. Two or three other children that serve as advisors surround the child. Because this environment involves social interaction rather than independent study, the children are much more likely to retain what they learn. These learnings can range from language acquisition to understanding of biotechnology.

Another interesting experiment that Mitra set up is called the “Granny Cloud.” In an effort to teach English to children in remote areas (whether geographically remote such as distant villages or socially remote such as urban slums,) Mitra recruited a group of grandmothers across the UK. These women log onto Skype once a week to talk with young Indian children and to take on the positive familiar role. These women not only coo over the daily experiences of children but also tell stories, stimulate fresh ideas, and offer new ways for the children to look at things. Mitra hopes to see a 25% increase in English attainment thanks to this coaching/feedback mechanism. (McIntosh) The Granny cloud has expanded recently, and now the name is a misnomer because most of the volunteers are young women (but not necessarily all women.)

Mitra is furthering his educational ideas by creating self-organized learning environments (SOLEs). Project Sole, created because of the findings from the Hole in the Wall Experiment, was begun in 10 locations in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesha. A typical SOLE consists of a glass-walled room that is visibly located on a school’s premises. The ideal location involves a lot of foot traffic, which will bring attention to the unit. Nine computers are set up in clusters of three. A pattern clearly emerges as groups of four children often gather around a single computer, surrounded by a larger group of purely observant children (Sole.)

In order for education initiatives to be successful, stakeholders must understand how people approach, interpret, and internalize new information. The Hole in the Wall experiment is one example of a successful study that explores the learning process in the minds of children. The success of this program is illustrated in a quote from Linux Journal, “Education-as-usual assumes that kids are empty vessels who need to be sat down in a room and filled with curricular content. Dr. Mitra’s experiments prove that wrong (Sugata Mitra.”) It opens the door for many opportunities. In an increasingly technological world, understanding how to use ICTs such as computers eliminates one large obstacle for underprivileged children. Today, the Hole in the Wall program has grown to more than a hundred computers at various locations in India and abroad (Thomas.) The benefits of this experiment are twofold; while the children are given the opportunity to learn about technology, researchers are provided with insight that can be applied to education models of the future.

Mitra has applied what he’s learned to other models of ICT4D across the field. For example, he believes that the One Laptop per Child initiative should really be OLP4C, because group learning has such effective results. Mitra has recently published an E book (available on Amazon’s Kindle) called Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning. He has spoken with TED talks multiple times and is continually involved in development initiatives. He is active on twitter, often posting thoughtful questions such as “Is the Internet conscious,” and “Will education become obsolete, like alchemy has?” He also keeps up a blog on BlogSpot. For those more interested in Mitra’s work, please check out his two videos on Self Organized Learning on Ted.com.

McIntosh, Ewan. Sugata Mitra: The Granny Cloud. Edu.blogs.com. http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2011/01/sugata-mitra-the-granny-cloud.html

Soles and Some. A bit about SOLE and SOME

Sugata Mitra: Education Researcher. Ted: Ideas Worth Spreading. Accessed 3/20/12. Online.

Thomas. Sugata Mitra and Minimally Invasive Education. Open Education. Accessed 3/20/12. Online.

Sugata Mitra Blog Post

Hole in the Wall

Sugata Mitra’s Twitter

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