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ALTC 2010: Sugata Mitra Keynote: The hole in the wall: self organising systems in education

Sugata Mitra

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The Cloudworks Team
31 August 2010

14:00 - 15:00 on Wednesday, 8 September in Room MA

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This is my live blog of Sugata Mitra’s inspirational keynote speech. I found it hard to keep up so I’d thoroughly recommend taking the time to have a look at the Elluminate recording – link in ‘links’ below.  Wonderful stuff :-) You might also be interested in Grainne Conole's live blog of a similar keynote in 2009. It's interesting how we've captured different things.

The lecture hall is packed with quite a few folks standing at the back. Sugata Mitra begins by suggesting the title of the keynote should be A, rather than The, Future of Learning. He then sets the global scene by telling us that approximately 50 million children in the world have more than they need, another 200 million have adequate resource and 250 million have inadequate resources for life an learning. Here in Britain we are dealing with top two blocks, and mainly with the top slice.

Prof. Mitra cites two key issues for children in their learning:

  • Problems of aspiration
  • Problems with resources

Mitra tells us about his research in India which showed that there is a correlation between the distance of schools from the centres of learning (ie Deli) and school results and about similar research in the UK which showed a correlation between the density of council housing and school results. Remoteness in India is geographic,  whereas remoteness in UK is socio-democratic. He says: “There are places on earth in every country where for various reasons good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go”. He argues that in developing countries the problem is primarily resourced based and in the UK the problem is with aspiration.

In 1999 Mitra tried an experiment. He put a computer into a ‘hole in the wall’ (looks a bit like an ATM). He put the English internet on it and observed how the children learned to use the computer all by themselves AND all the English they needed to do that. He saw that if you just leave a computer with children within 9 months they could do what a secretary could do - irrespective of who or where they were.  Computer literacy does not need to be taught – just providing access is key. Unexpectedly, many of the schools in the area started seeing improvements in English, science and maths results. He looked at why and discovered what was happening was that the children had found Google and were Googling their homework – leading to improvements across the board.

Prof. Mitra tells us that learning English impacts enormously on life chances for children in rural India, but rural teachers are not generally good English language speakers themselves, and children come out of school with good reading and writing skills, but heavy accents that are very difficult to understand. In another experiment (The Hyderbad Experiment 2002) he got a PC and loaded some speech-to-text software onto it. He trained the computer in a neutral English accent then blocked the learning function. He left it with the children with no further instructions  other than to make themselves understood. They downloaded films, the spoken Oxford English dictionary etc. and in 2 months accents had significantly improved. Mitra’s finding suggested that children achieve educational objectives IF they have a reason to. He argues that in the UK children often don’t feel that they have a reason.

In 2006 he joined the University of Newcastle and in 2007 set out to discover if there were things that children could not teach themselves. He built another hole in the wall computer (The Kalikuppam Experiment, 2007) and put some software onto it about biotechnology. 2 months later he called he 26 children in the village into a classroom and tested them on biotechnology. They scored on average 30% in the test. He discovered that different children had become ‘experts’ in different areas of biotechnology. He asked an older and respected friend of the children to carry out a ‘Grandma’ role with the children for  a further 2 months. She was asked to stand behind the children while they were working on the computer and to just admire them. In a further 2 months the children’s scores had gone to 50% the same as the scores in a private school in Deli with a qualified  biotechnology teacher.

In a UK experiement he asked children to work in a similar way to the Indian village children. The magic number seems to be 4-6 children to a screen. He told them they can be in any group of 4-6, they can ‘pinch’ information from other groups and claim it as their own work, can poach people from other groups etc. He gave the UK kids four GCSE questions and left them to find the answers . Best group got answer 20mins, the worst 40mins. The class teacher asked is this learning? So Mitra went back in 2 months with same questions and asked the children to answer them in examination conditions. He found no difference between their levels of knowledge 2 months ago – there had been no forgetting.  

In another class he gave a group of UK 9yr olds the topic ‘fractals’ and got them to complete the group work exercise. The kids were so enthused that their knowledge about fractals actually went up in 2 months following the group work activity, and their test results actually improved in that time – with no teaching BUT all of this does not work if there is one child to one computer – only works in groups.

Other experiments found similar results and lead him to wonder how far can we go with this. Can teachers be replaced by computers?

Prof. Mitra links his findings with theory about self organizing systems. He finishes by speculating that education is a self-organising system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.


Rebecca Galley
19:17 on 8 September 2010

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Sugata Mitra:Keynote speech

Sugata Mitra:Keynote speech

added by Rebecca Galley


Pierre Vigoureux
2:27pm 20 September 2010 (Edited 2:49pm 20 September 2010)

"Remoteness in India is geographic,  whereas remoteness in UK is socio-democratic."

This generalisation is generally untrue.

The "issue" in the UK is that the geographic "remoteness" of Welsh rural schoolboys is not an "educational" issue (because Welsh farmers are "white" with no reason to go on to university - which is why so many of them do), the socio-democratic "remoteness" of  Jewish girls in a school in London is not an "educational" issue (because they score highest in league tables they are regarded as "Christians"), but that the statistical variance in the league table scores of "black boys" is an educational issue - simply because they are defined as being "remote". Other societies have been more honest in their definitions of untermenchen.

The "issue" in the UK is generally admitted to be complex by the sociologists who misuse statistics . Non-Muslim "Asian" girls do better in mathematics examinations than Christian "English" boys (proving without a doubt I suppose that "Asian" girls are "remote" and "English" boys are local) yes we have heard this sort of self-contradictory nonsense before. And when you add in the fact that "English" boys are free to marry "Asian" girls, and thus complicate the "racial" statistics of their children's success in high school mathematics, it is no wonder that any good mathematics teacher can safely state, without fear of contradiction, that 99% of all statistics are generally untrue, and that you can prove anything with statistics.

And though I do not have first hand experience of the "socio-economic" situation in India today, if my Indian sister in law's personal views on the "lower classes" is anything to go by, if the documentaries I have seen about the new India, and if the up-take in mobile phones in villages that previously did not even have fixed telephone lines is any indication, then I would say that the issue of education is just as socio-economic in India as in the UK - if not more.

"He argues that in developing countries the problem is primarily resourced based and in the UK the problem is with aspiration."

The problem with this oversimplification is that he is looking at the symptom, not the cause. Why should a "black" boy in London aspire to anything - if he is already told that he is a "remote" problem? Why should a "poor" boy in an Indian village be content to just read books, when his counterparts in Delhi have access to the Internet?

The truth is that with today's technology educational resources can come cheap, remoteness does not have to be an issue, and Mitra's own experiments prove his initial assumptions wrong. Leave children alone with technology and they will still learn. After all, that is how the human race evolved from hunter-gatherers. Let children decide for themselves what they want to learn, and they will still learn. After all, this is the freedom that "Western" civilisation gave to humanity - both the right to drink to excess and aspiration to do it. An interesting facet is of course the tendency for those societies (e.g. the UK) that attempt to "regulate" the alcoholic intake of it's citizens actually encouraging it's abuse - the Italian children who are allowed to drink wine at 10 rarely go on to public drunkeness at 20.

The issue for "educators" and "educationalists" is the question - what can we do to GUIDE and HELP our children? And the uncomfortable truth is that it is often THEIR fault, not ours, if they choose not to accept our advice, or accept our help.

My education was paid for by the City of New York. The most valuable part of that education was the free access to the New York Public Library. The second most valuable part was the free access to a "selective school". Neither provison cost very much, and the money spent on me was no more than the money spent on people who did not appreciate the money that was being spent on them. Today's technology eliminates the educational advantage of living in cities like New York, or in "university" towns like Oxford. And it comes cheaply, if it is used correctly.

"Other experiments found similar results and lead him to wonder how far can we go with this. Can teachers be replaced by computers?"

If Mitras conclusion was that schools in the UK do not need to replace their computers every two years, then I could see the relevance of this question. In all his scenarios you still needed a "Grandma" to talk to, and you still needed someone to set the computers up. My personal view is that from time to time, as a hypothetical "educational programmer", I would like to see the end users as a "Grandma".

And anyway, don't our kids spend too much time already glued to either the idiot box, or to the play station?

The problem is I think that far too many "educators" in the UK seem to think the question is "either or" - the school in the UK with buildings that are 100 years old and computers that load their OS from floppy disk are somehow considered  "disadvantaged". Even though the reality is that,  as far as league tables go, the schools in the UK that do not have only Jewish or Hindu girls as students are "disadvantaged".

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