02 March 2016

Reverse-Engineering... Education

Education researcher Sugata Mitra has won 2013's million-dollar Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Prize with his 'Hole in the Wall' experiment, showing slum children learning to work a computer and teaching each other minus adult supervision. Speaking with Pratigyan Das, Mitra discussed the dynamics of this venture in India, the radical potential it offers  and how our educational system apparently persists in trying to produce clerks for an empire long gone:

What is the 'Hole in the Wall' experiment about?
Well, i wanted to prove that kids can be taught computers very easily without any formal training. This is about teaching without any kind of supervision — in other words, the acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning, provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal human guidance.
Since 1982, i had been toying with the idea of unsupervised learning through computers. Finally, in 1999, i decided to test my idea. On January 26, 1999, i and my team members carved a hole in the wall that separated the NIIT premises from the adjoining slum in Kalkaji, Delhi. Through this hole, a freely accessible computer was put up for use — this computer proved to be an instant hit among the slum-dwellers, especially the children.
Interestingly, the children learnt to use the computer on their own.

How did you come up with this idea?
By observing children of affluent parents who had computers, teaching themselves to use these.

Would you say we don't need teachers anymore?
No  but teachers need to change their pattern of teaching. They need to frame questions that children can research and learn from by themselves without any help.

What about teachers' role in fostering links between children and ensuring discipline?
Well, these were very useful tasks in Victorian England and India about 200 years ago in a very boring setting  not any more.

Can your project work in India where there's no access to computers  or even electricity  for many?
It was discovered in India! This is not a problem, there`s broadband and mobiles in almost all places in India. I feel like cable TV, this will solve its own problems. Entertainment can be a more powerful driver than poverty.

How does literacy work here do children need to know some English to follow a computer?
They need to know some basic English  but even if they don`t, they pick up a smattering in months if they`re allowed to work in unsupervised groups and we stay out of their way.

How do you view our current educational system?
The Indian education system, like the Indian bureaucratic system, is Victorian and still in the 19 th century. Our schools are still designed to produce clerks for an empire that does not exist anymore.
We don`t need to improve our education system — we need to reinvent it.

And what are the opportunities your study offers India?
This could play an important role towards levelling the playing field between the affluent and the poor, quickly, effectively and cheaply. All continents are paying attention. Everybody is interested in self-organised learning  they can see a generation doing it anyway and all the time with their mobile phones.