Sugata Mitra on Minimally Invasive Education; a growing hole in a huge wall
After nearly 9 years of experiments and field research in poor, rural areas of his home country, the Indian scientist Sugata Mitra, currently professor for educational technology at Newcastle University, comes up with a daring hypothesis: In the 21st century and given the limited educational resources in some areas of the world, groups of children will be able to bypass the entire school system by using computers and the Internet. He also explains his views on how the Internet is challenging the fundamentals of education in the developing countries and how this will influence the future of developed economies.
In 1999 Sugata Mitra placed a high-speed computer in a wall, connected it to the Internet, and watched who, if anyone, might use it. That wall separated Delhi's modern IT district with its 21st-century office from a slum. The first ones attracted to the machine where the children of this poor neighbourhood and when they asked, "Can we touch it?", the scientist said, "Yes, it is on your side of the wall!". The "Hole in the Wall" project started out as a pure experiment trying to answer a very simple question: Can children learn to use a computer on their own?
From Delhi the educational scientist went out to remote rural India to see if children between 6 and 12 years who have never seen a computer would also be able to learn how to use it. The first problem was where to put the computers so children would use it? "Putting it in the local government house is almost like putting it in a police station and if you put it in a school, the principal would lock it away saying "this is too expensive to play with", he points out. In the end it was decided to embed the machines in a kiosk-like wall and put it into the open in the public space.
The first surprise for the scientist was, how quickly children who had never seen a computer before started browsing, it was a question of minutes. When Mitra asked them how they had learnt so many things about the computer, one of the boys said, "What is a computer?".
«As we head from the industrial to the knowledge society, the role and methods of friendship become more powerful than the role of violence or aggression. The children have already understood that collaboration is the way to go forward»
The second big surprise was that for the children the English contents were no problem, they learnt English very fast and so Prof Mitra stepped up the difficulty of the experiment. "I uploaded Internet links to the desktop and during the first month the children kept clicking those links. Then they discovered Google and everything started to change!", he laughs. The kids suddenly started to score better grades at school, especially in mathematics, English and science. "Suddenly, they knew more about the subject than their teachers because they googled everything they heart about, and he goes on, "So then a few months ago, in a small Village in Tamil Nadu, I was determined to find out the limits of my experiment and I uploaded bio-technical material on the desktop because I wanted to show that it was impossible for 6 to 12 years Tamil-speaking kids to learn about DNA. When I came back three month later and gave them a test, they scored 30% on average and had understood all the basics of genetics in a foreign language!"
«A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be! So, instead of giving them bad teachers, I think you can give them machines!»
After this, the Indian scientist thought it was time to take a real risk and proposed the following hypothesis: In the 21st century and given the very limited educational resources in most rural areas of the developing world, groups of children - regardless of their social, economic, ethnic and even linguistic status - will be able to bypass the entire school system. "I realised that in many remote, poor, rural areas of the world we are simply not able to provide enough schools, let alone enough good teachers. And I know, many people won't like that and in fact, a common critic to "The Hole in the Wall" method is that a teacher can never be replace by a machine. "My answer to that is: A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be! So, instead of giving them bad teachers, I think you can give them machines!", he says without hesitating.
Sugata Mitra and his team came to the firm conclusion that children are able to self-organise their learning around a computer, they learn how to share and how to teach each other. "As we head from the industrial to the knowledge society, the role and methods of friendship become more powerful than the role of violence or aggression. The children have already understood that collaboration is the way to go forward".
«It is now the whole developed world's job to improve the education in rural India and rural China not because it's a good thing to do but because it's vital to their own survival»
But the possibilities of the "minimal invasive education" have consequences far beyond the question of how to improve primary education in rural zones in developing counties. As developed economies struggle to cover high-skilled jobs, Prof Mitra sees a major challenge coming up for western economies: On the one hand, as we shift low-skilled and low-cost jobs to India and China the standard of living there increases. On the other hand, as conditions in their home countries improve, today's high-skilled workers, among them many Indians who work in the US and UK IT sector, will head back to India. "Many of my PhD students say, Why should I work in England, where everything is more expense when I get the same in Bangalore?, so as India progresses, they want to stay!", he concludes. So in the future you won't be able to attract the well-trained urban population to emigrate for a job, you will have to go to the tiny colleges in the tiny villages where the quality of education usually is terrible in order to find trained people for the developed economies. "So as an educationist, I find this an ironic situation: It is now the whole developed world's job to improve the education in rural India and rural China not because it's a good thing to do but because it's vital to their own survival".