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Keynote: Mitra - Towards the future of learning

Keynote by Sugata Mitra, International Cambridge Conference of Open and Distance Education, 22/09/09

Cloud created by:

Gráinne Conole
22 September 2009

The antithesis experiment – towards a curriculum, pedagogy and technology for self regulated school education

Sugata Mitra, University of Newcastle

Sugata outlined some of his work over the past decade or so and his vision of  new education for children…

These are some live blogging notes from his keynote.

  • There will always be people in the world who are willing to mediate in children’s learning for say an hour a week with no remuneration. Therefore if we create clouds of mediators and children on the internet and an arrangement by which they can interact, potentially then we would have an alternative schooling.
  • In past three years Sugata and his team have created 12 Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) in addition to the several hundred ‘hole in the wall’ computers that exist in India, Cambodia and several African countries. There exists a cloud of mediators that have begun to interact with these SOLEs. The cloud is self-organised and called a Self Organised Mediation Environment (SOME). The mediator interact with the children over Skpe.

For a paper describing this work in more detail, refer to (also linked above):

He decided recently to come up with a new, bolder title for this keynote...

New title for the talk: The future of learning

Learning in the past

  • 1983 (around the start of the Int. Cambridge Conference) was 26 years ago, can we say that 26 years from now will be at least as different as 26 years ago/ So what was it like in 1983?  IBM PC doesn’t exist, windows doesn’t exist, networking is an idea in labs, the internet doesn’t exist. Computers in schools consisted of screens of text with children’s answers questions – BBC micros, but little learning evident. Going back further to images of Victorian learning in the UK, presents an image of: no girls, aging male teacher (with a stick), with a blackboard, sadly you can still  find examples of this in some parts of the world today. More generally, nowadays the blackboard has been replaced by a whiteboard and a smartboard, the teacher is typically a young women. What are the changes and where are we heading?

The origins of the hole in the wall experiment

  • The hole in the wall experiment is now 10 years old. 1999 urban India big issue is the digital divide. What about poor children in rural India? Computer teachers are now necessarily good at computing! Ie if they are good they will go into industry. Government trained them, all the good ones leave and go into industries, the bad ones go into cities, the really bad ones go into rural areas – where they say computers are expensive and not for children. Hence the idea of the hole in the wall to bring computers to children – windows plus Internet, in a slum area. Assumed that it would be broken/stolen. Didn’t happen, saw two children one showing the other how to browse. Passers by might have helped. Even with no one there to help they worked out how to use it, download, browse etc. The kids engaged with it and worked it out.  Repeated the experiment – found kids learnt English so they could use the computer, adults would say you gave us a computer in a language I don’t understand so I cant use it, whereas the kids learn how to and are more resourceful.
  • The first phase lasted about five years. Conclusions:
  1. groups of children can learn to use computers on their own irrespective of where they are (in India, Cambodia, 7 African countries, UK and Norway),
  2. After 9 months – basic windows, chat, browse, download, play video, email, games and educational material – they do it because of adult management and administration, it’s a self organising system, share the time, manage themselves, etc. ,
  3. These effects can be achieved if you put the computer in a safe open area where the kids can explore and play on their own, away from adult supervision. It happens because of the absence of adults,
  4. Cost is ca. 3 US cents per child per day – ca. 30 dollars per child over a three year period leading to an irreversible change.
  5. Also distinct improvement in the kids’ schoolwork – English, Maths. Also a change in social values, improvement in school attendance, reduces school drop out rate and reduces petty crime. Generates local goodwill.
  • The Hyderabad experiment 2002: “given the appropriate digital resources groups of kids can improve their English pronunciation by themselves”. Poor city in Southern India with lots of small private schools trying to teach English. Teachers have a Southern Indian accent and so learn English with this. Used a speak to text engine, train the machine in your language and then you can dictate it and repeat it back and adapted the programme so that the kids could do this on their own, process of trial and error.
  • The BBC experiement in Varna in 2005. A village of kids who sing, and somehow they found the recording facility in windows and were able to record themselves. Phase2 can self organise to teach themselves, improve their skills and english, they don’t need instruction.

What happens next?

Sugata has been at Newcastle for three years now. If this is all true, what is there that children cant learn on their own. Can Tamil speaking kids learn biotechnology in English on their own. Put hole in the wall in Kuppam in 2007, which was hit by the 2004 Asian Tsunami. Downloaded material on biotechnology and DNA replication.  Came back after two months – 22 kids. Post test – 30%!!! It happened all because of a 12 year old girl. She phoned an uncle in Bombay – she asked him the meaning of the word DNA, he explaied… The real power of peer pressure… as a method of learning.

So now what?

  • The Gateshead experiment. All the kids have a laptop. Kids have the laptops but nothing is happening. Tool 32 10 year olds. Divide yourself into groups of 4 and then asked each group to do something. Usually 3 friends and a boffin. Every group of 4 can use only one computer, can talk within the group, switch between groups, look at others groups work and claim it as their won. Gave them 6 GCSE questions, best group did it in 20 minutes, 45 minutes for the worst group, everyone got everything right! Methods – google, wikipedia, copied answered them. Came back two months later and did the same test. 70% got 70% correct. Why? Think its because of the group of 4, one writes the answer down, others disagree, look at other sources, discuss the different answers etc. Peer collaboration and discussion.

How far can we go?

  • The Longbention project. Group of 60 kids, what do you want to be when you grow up – foot ballers and fashion designers. The Longbention community project. Watched TED talk on Leonardi de Vinci. Organised into groups of 4. They go on the computer and research what they have just seen. Then made presentations and discussion. After about 8 – 10 sessions, would their aspirations of what they would like to be. TV only shows basic role models, internet expands their views. In India where there is a bigger divide between rich and poor kids have greater aspirations ironically. In UK where gap not so big they don’t want to work that hard, aspire that high.

Latest work

  • Now 13 SO LEs in operations in Hyderabad and Maharashtra. Have game shows with GCSE questions.
  • Presence  remote presence, Self Organisaed Mediation Environments – grandmothers who were willing to talk to kids over Skype. Got 200 grandmothers volunteered – one hour of their time free, most are retired English teachers. Fantastic resource. The teacher is available and kids can ask for help if they need it.

The future

  • Subsidised broadband and electricity in all schools
  • Self organised fault tolerant technology
  • Self organised learning environments as part of the timetable
  • Clouds of mediators as part of faculty
  • A curriculum that is based on questions which has some meaning (kids ask the question – why am I doing this?)
  • A self-organised assessment system

His vision....what might be possible with a little imagination and vision...


Schools of clouds – clouds of kids interacting with clouds of mediators driven by questions and a desires to know....

10 million retired teachers – one hour a week, 10 billion kids…

Extra content

The last line is bit off. Its 10 million retired teachers contributing one hour a week of their time, 1 billion connected children, 1 million SOLE facilities to connect the two clouds.

Sugata Mitra
08:30 on 24 September 2009

Embedded Content


Gráinne Conole
10:27am 24 September 2009

Thanks Sugata - sorry for my error!

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