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Learning via the hole-in-the-wall
March 11, 2013
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by Mark Ollig

Build a school in the Internet cloud, where children can explore and learn from one another.

This is the aspiration of educational researcher, Dr. Sugata Mitra.

While working in New Deli, India, he taught people how to write computer programs.

Next to where he worked was the shantytown, where the poorer children lived.

“How on earth are those kids ever going to learn how to write computer programs?” Dr. Mitra wondered.

The answer began in 1999.

While working in in Kalkaji, New Delhi, Dr. Mitra decided on an experiment.

He cut out a hole in the wall which divided his office building from the next door urban slum.

The hole was about the size of a small window opening. A shelf was attached, and a personal computer connected to the Internet, along with a screen, keyboard, and mouse were placed on it.

The computer was easily visible, and freely accessible to anyone who walked up to the hole in the wall.

As part of this experiment, a hidden video camera was installed nearby to monitor how the children living next door would respond to the computer’s presence.

Dr. Mitra observed children from the slum walking up and curiously looking at the computer. It was probably the first time they had ever seen a working computer in person.

Over time, the children taught themselves the procedures needed to go online and access the Internet using a web browser.

Dr. Mitra noted how the kids, while learning to play online games and surf the Internet, were self-learning basic computer skill sets, and then teaching those skills to the other children.

The children, without any prior computer knowledge, were learning how to use the computer all on their own.

Supplemental computer skills, such as how to use the mouse, were also being taught among themselves.

Dr. Mitra became very encouraged by what he was seeing in Kalkaji, and he began further self-learning experiments through the introduction of freely accessible computers in other villages and towns.

It became known as the Hole-in-the-Wall experiments.

What Dr. Mitra learned from observing the children’s use of the computer, was in an environment which motivates interest, one can self-learn, and in learning, share the newly gained knowledge with others.

“Minimally Invasive Education” is how this peer-shared knowledge experience is being described by Dr. Mitra.

While in the southern India state Tamil Nadu, in a village called Kallikuppam, Dr. Mitra downloaded into the hole-in-the-wall computers, DNA replication educational information he obtained from the Internet.

By themselves, the Tamil-speaking children living there succeeded in learning, within a short time, that improper replication of a DNA molecule causes disease.

During a recent presentation, Dr. Mitra injected some humor when he shared a short anecdote with the audience .

He said after a couple months of using the computer, the kids told him, “We want a faster processor and a better mouse.” Astonished, Dr. Mitra asked the kids, “How on earth do you know all this?” One child irritatingly responded, “You’ve given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it.”

Dr. Mitra said his many observations and studies showed, with minimum intervention, children were able to pick up the skills and carry out the tasks needed to operate a computer by developing their own learning environment.

Because of the success of this and other learning experiments, the government of Delhi, in 2000, established 30 learning stations in a relocation settlement.

In 2001, Hole-in-the-Wall Education Limited (HiWEL) launched 23 new learning stations throughout rural India.

These hole-in-the-wall computer stations became very popular.

In a recent New York Times interview, Dr. Mitra said, “I found that if you left them alone, working in groups, they [children] could learn almost anything once they’ve gotten used to the fact that you can research on the Internet.”

Dr. Mitra is not suggesting we no longer need teachers.

“We need teachers to do different things. The teacher has to ask the question, and tell the children what they have learned,” he said.

Speaking this year at a Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference, Dr. Mitra expressed his desire of creating an environment where children can explore and learn on their own and teach one another using resources and mentors, from “the worldwide cloud.”

He envisions a “school of clouds” where children from all five continents can partake in a future of learning, using the Internet and mentors with interactive webcams.

“My wish is that we design the future of learning,” said Dr. Mitra.

Dr. Mitra’s wish was well received by those in the audience.

During this year’s TED Prize awards ceremony in Long Beach, CA, Dr. Mitra was awarded $1 million to create an online, interactive learning test center.

This center will further develop his idea of a learning environment where teachers would supervise children teaching themselves, as they work and learn independently at their own computer station, connected to the “learning cloud.”

Dr. Mitra’s presentation, “Build a School in the Cloud” given during last months TED conference, can be watched at http://tinyurl.com/cdosp9c.

The HiWEL website is http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com.


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