Training and Development

Sugata Mitra: What the Slumdog Guru Did Next

Sugata Mitra is the Indian academic and polymath who became known for his Hole in the Wall computer-based education scheme where he left internet-connected PCs in rural Indian villages and observed the amazing ways in which children with no English skills or previous exposure to computers teamed up to find information and solve puzzles.

Recently, he spoke at Dynamo 14, an event to promote the city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and the north-east of England as a technology hub. He has spent eight years at Newcastle University where he is currently Professor of Educational Technology. At the event he gave an enthralling account of his subsequent efforts to understand the role ICT can play in collaborative learning with minimal intervention by teachers.

Professor Mitra has now spent 15 years researching the field and before providing an update he recounted the first Hole in the Wall schemes, dating back to 1999.

“A lot of parents would come to us and say ‘You know what, I think my little girl is gifted. I was looking for a file on my computer and she found it’,” he recalled.

“I thought it unlikely that all these children are gifted so [I wondered] could it be at all possible that children can do things faster on a computer than adults can? This was when computers were taught: ‘This is a monitor, this is how you use a mouse…’ and so on.

“I had a nice office in Delhi but there was a slum on the other side. I asked myself: ‘Is there any reason to think that these children would not be as adept as these children of rich employees?’ So I did an experiment and I used the model the banks used. The banks put ATMs everywhere so I built myself a DIY [kiosk] in the wall of the slum with a glass pane and a touchpad running Microsoft Windows and it had a broadband internet connection and I left it there. It was three feet off the ground and the first people who came there were children and they said ‘What is this?’

“Any intervention would not be sustainable. So when people said ‘Can I touch it?’ I said ‘Well, it’s on your side of the wall.’”

What happened next was remarkable: children showing each other how to browse the web, interacting and learning, despite not knowing any English. How did this occur? Mitra didn’t know and when he tried using video cameras the children would stand back and not participate.

“So we repeated the experiment in a primary school 200 miles away. The children came back and they said ‘We need a better processor and mouse’,” he laughed.

“They said: ‘You’ve given us machines that work only in English so we learned English.”

Many had adopted a US drawl picked up off the internet.

The World Bank funded Mitra to find if this learning model had broader applicability so the project became bigger, spanning 17 villages across India to check economic, ethnic and geographical variability. It took five years.

“They were exciting years,” Mitra recalled. “We’d pick up about 25 children at random and check them against a computing literacy scale.”

The findings were remarkable: unsupervised children will in nine months reach the same level of computer literacy as a western office secretary.

“This raised a few questions about the nature and purpose of training. By about age five you know what to do with a PC, or with the iPad at two-and-a-half.”

There were sceptics who thought that left unsupervised the children’s time would be better spent in formal education.

“If you let them paint on the computer people would say ‘Isn’t that a waste of time? They’re just fooling around’. But a child said to me ‘You know, we love painting but the problem is that every time I paint something nice, it goes away. Isn’t there a way to keep it?’ I answered ‘I don’t know’ because if I taught them it would be non-sustainable.

“Later the child came back and said, ‘You know, there are little boxes and if you remember the name of the box you can get them back.’ She had discovered file systems.”

Teachers reported a sharp increase in the quality of homework as children used their new English and computer skills to query search engines for homework. Some researchers, taking a cue from the published results of Mitra’s research, conducted similar experiments, for example in Sweden and South Africa. One discovery was beginning to stand out for Mitra: “The important words are ‘groups’ and ‘unsupervised’.”

That is, give the child the basic tools to paint, play games, perform music and watch video, and let them get on with it.

“Mathematics achievement rises, pronunciation improves and so on. You have to seed the system and that’s not always easy to do but, in unsupported, groups, somewhere along the line they learn to learn.”

In 2006, Mitra won a grant to improve the quality of education in underprivileged Indian schools. One test was to get Tamil children to explain how a DNA molecule replicates itself using a hole-in-the-wall PC.

“Pre-test, they’d get a zero, a while later a zero, and people would say they need teachers. They were 12-years old. I was really miserable doing this. Then I spoke to one girl and she was really frustrated. She said in broken Tamil and English. ‘Apart from the fact that improper replication causes genetic disease we have learned nothing else.’”

To go further, Mitra turned to what he calls “the method of the grandmother”: getting a grandmother or similar elder figure who will encourage the children and say “Fantastic! How do you do that?”

When Mitra published his research there was “uproar in the community of educators”. Undeterred, he brought the scheme to England.

“People said ‘you can’t do the Hole in the Wall in England, you’ll get frozen children! You’ll need halogen heaters like they have outside pubs.”

But Mitra’s plan was to turn that model inside out and convert several English classrooms around the country by having one computer for every four or five children so they would automatically congregate in groups.

The system is “mildly chaotic”, Mitra conceded, but the big issue is, to paraphrase Pink Floyd, getting teachers to leave the children alone after asking a trigger question. “It’s a simple instruction but what I’ve found is that it’s the hardest instruction for a teacher to follow.”

The results are often remarkable and touching such as the video of a youngster, speaking in the distinctive north-east accent, describing the work of the French painter Paul Cezanne.

The concept of self-organised learning is extensible and Mitra went on to describe the “granny cloud” where the grandmother figure presides over larger groups via videoconferencing. But the implications of Mitra’s learnings are broader still. His ideas have modified teaching in Mexico, the former England cricket captain Michael Atherton wrote a column referencing Mitra and asking whether cricketers are overly trained. And, most famously, Vikas Swarup, the author of the novel Q&A, filmed as Slumdog Millionaire, cited Mitra’s influence.

And yet, at the heart of this lesson there remains a mystery.

“You can never figure it out,” Mitra said. “If you go close to [the children], they stop. And if you ask them what they’re doing they get this angelic expression and say nothing. They have a learning life of their own and it seems to be affected by an adult.”

It is a system, he said, where “the learner is like a guy on a surfboard on the edge of the where the earth meets the sky”. The results are like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly in an awe-inspiring metamorphosis and “emerges with such grandeur that you almost step back and say ‘My god, how does it do that?’”

But the phenomenon appears to occur across divisions of wealth and geography from “children who have nothing at all in lower-class India and middle-class England where the children have everything. I don’t want the paradigm of ‘they’re the developing guys and we’re the developed guys’…. They’re exactly the same.”

Today, there remain many doubters with critics saying that, unmonitored, bigger children can dominate usage and systems can fall into a state of disrepair. Cynics suggest that it also leads to learning by rote and question Mitra’s academic rigour. But it is surely a remarkable project and series of discoveries that give us new clues into how children learn and the role of teaching, collaboration and ICT tools.

Mitra concluded his address with a video of small children in rural India, their faces illuminated by an LCD screen and the fascination of acquiring knowledge. The image, enough to make a bigot catch his breath, is a study in rapt attention where child and computer have almost merged into one and the backdrop is a fuzzy halo.

“These are children who have nothing,” he said. “If you look at their faces… I don’t have to say anything more.”


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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