The Hole-in-the-Wall

The following is an excerpt from Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (pgs 174-177). I’m excerpting this here because I found it to give such a great insight into one potential future for education.

In 1999 the Indian physicist Sugata Mitra got interested in education. He knew there were places in the world without schools and places in the world where good teachers didn’t want to teach. What could be done for kids living in those spots was his question. Self-directed learning was one possible solution, but were kids living in slums capable of all that much self-direction?

At the time, Mitra was head of research and development for NIIT Technologies, a top computer software and development company in New Delhi, India. His posh twenty-first century office abutted an urban slum but was kept separate by a tall brick wall. So Mitra designed a simple experiment. He cut a hole in the wall and installed a computer and a track pad, with the screen and the pad facing into the slum. He did it in such a way that theft was not a problem, then connected the computer to the Internet, added a web browser, and walked away.

The kids who lived in the slums could not speak English, did not know how to use a computer, and had no knowledge of the Internet, but they were curious. Within minutes, they’d figured out how to point and click. By the end of the first day, they were surfing the web and—even more importantly—teaching one another how to surf the web. These results raised more questions than they answered. Were they real? Did these kids really teach themselves how to use this computer, or did someone, perhaps out of sight of Mitra’s hidden video camera, explain the technology to them?

So Mitra moved the experiment to the slums of Shivpuri, where, as he says, “I’d been assured no one had ever taught anybody anything.” He got similar results. Then he moved it to a rural village and found the same thing. Since then, this experiment has been replicated all over India, and all over the world, and always with the same outcome: kids, working in small, unsupervised groups, and without any formal training, could learn to use computers very quickly and with a great degree of proficiency.

This led Mitra to an ever-expanding series of experiments about what else kids could learn on their own. One of the more ambitious of these was conducted in the small village of Kalikkuppam in southern India. This time Mitra decided to see if a bunch of impoverished Tamil-speaking, twelve-year-olds could learn to use the Internet, which they’d never seen before; to teach themselves biotechnology, a subject they’d never heard of; in English, a language none of them spoke. “All I did was tell them there was some very difficult information on this computer, they probably wouldn’t understand any of it, and I’ll be back to test them on it in a few months.”

Two months later, he returned and asked the students if they’d understood the material. A young girl raised her hand. “Other than the fact improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease,” she said, “we’ve understood nothing.” In fact, this was not quite the case. When Mitra tested them, scores averaged around 30 percent. From 0 percent to 30 percent in two months with no formal instruction was a fairly remarkable result, but still not good enough to pass a standard exam. So Mitra brought in help. He recruited a slightly older girl from the village to serve as a tutor. She didn’t know any biotechnology, but was told to use the “Grandmother method”: just stand behind the kids and provide encouragement. “Wow, that’s cool, that’s fantastic, show me something else!” Two months later, Mitra came back. This time, when tested, average scores and jumped to 50 percent, which was the same average as high-school kids studying biotech at the best schools in New Delhi.

Next Mitra started refining the method. He began installing computer terminals in schools. Rather than giving students a broad subject to learn—for example, biotechnology—he started asking directed questions such as “Was Wold War II good or bad?” The students could use every available resource to answer the question, but schools were asked to restrict the number of Internet portals to one per every four students because, as Matt Ridley wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “one child in front of a computer learns little; four discussing and debating learn a lot.” When they were tested on the subject matter afterward (without use of the computer), the mean score was 76 percent. That’s pretty impressive on its own, but the question arouse as to the real depth of learning. So Mitra came back two months later, retested the students, and got the exact same results. This wasn’t just deep learning, this was an unprecedented retention of information.

Mitra has since taken a job as a professor of education technology at the University of Newcastle in England, where he’s developing a new model of primary school education he called “minimally invasive education.” To this end, he’s created “self-organized learning environments” (SOLES) in countries around the world. These SOLES are really just computer workstations with benches in front of them. The benches seat four. Because these machines are hooked up to what Mitra calls the “granny cloud”—literally groups of grandmothers recruited from all over the United Kingdom who have agreed to donate one hour a week of their time to tutor these kids via Skype. On average, he’s discovered, the granny cloud can increase test scores by 25 percent.

Taken together, this work reverses a bevy of educational practices. Instead of top-down instruction, SOLES are bottom up. Instead of making students learn on their own, this work is collaborative. Instead of a formal in-school setting for instruction, the Hole-in-the-Wall method relies on a playground-like environment. Most importantly, minimally invade education doesn’t require teachers. Currently there’s a projected global shortage of 18 million teachers over the next decade. India needs another 1.2 million. America needs 2.3 million. Sub-Saharan Africa needs a miracle. As Peter Smith, the United Nations’ assistant director-general for education, explained recently, “This is the Darfur of children’s future in terms of literacy. We have to invent new solutions, or we are good as writing off this generation.”

But Mitra discovered that solutions already exist. If what’s really needed are students with no special training, grandmothers with no special training, and a computer with an Internet connection for every fourth student, then the Darfur of literacy need not be feared. Clearly, both kids and grandmothers are plentiful. Wireless connectivity already exists for over 50 percent of the world and is readily extending to the rest. And affordable computers? Well, that’s exactly where the work of Nicholas Negroponte comes in. (One Laptop Per Child)