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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

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