New Systems for Children's Learning: Changes Required in Education

New Systems for Children's Learning: Changes Required in Education

Sugata Mitra
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3053-4.ch002
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The chapter describes the author's work on self-organizing systems in children's education and what lessons can be learned from this for a possible future for education. Starting from the ‘hole in the wall' experiments of 1999, the work goes on to describe the development of “Self-Organized Learning Environments” (SOLEs) that can be created in schools and the role they can play in unsupervised learning by children. The role of the Internet in children's education is described and extrapolated to a future where “knowing” itself may have a different meaning and role. The chapter contains a question and answer section where the author's views on frequently asked questions are contained.
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Learning: In Another Time

Children, given access to the Internet in groups, can learn anything by themselves. Indeed, ‘learning’ itself may no longer be as important as it used to be. I knew nothing of this when I did an experiment with children and a computer connected to the Internet embedded in a wall of a slum in New Delhi in 1999.

Children began to surf and teach each other to surf in about eight hours. There was nobody to show them anything. They learnt how to play games, paint and finally how to look for information. They learnt some crude but workable English to enable them to do all this. We, admiring adults, were astounded. The press called it the ‘hole in the wall’ (Mitra, 2003; Inamdar, 2004; Education Guardian 2000).

We (my research colleagues and I), funded by the World Bank, ICICI bank and the Government of Delhi, repeated the experiment many times over in the slums and villages of India. The results were always the same – digital literacy out of nowhere. The Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, gifted five such units to Cambodia. We made those and the results were the same. The Government of South Africa repeated the experiment in two places in South Africa. The results were the same (Mitra et al., 2005).

The children began to use the Internet for their homework. They copied down things from websites and took them to their astounded teachers. ‘This is not learning’, everyone admonished me. They, and I, had missed a vital point, a mistake that would cost me several years. The children were, almost always, copying the right things down. How did they find the websites that were relevant? How did they find the right answers? (Mitra & Rana, 2001).

We continued with several years of experiments until it was clear that children in groups do have an understanding that is much greater than that of each individual. It was this collective ‘hive’ mind that was working like an efficient teacher. I had seen nothing like this before and it took me years to realise that what we were witnessing at the ‘holes in the walls’ was an example of a self organising system – where spontaneous order appears out of nowhere (Frontline World, 2002).

I brought the results to England in 2006. There, with the help of a teacher, we created the hole in the wall inside the classroom. We called it a Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE) (Mitra & Crawley, 2014; Mitra & Quiroga, 2012). It consisted of a mildly chaotic situation caused by a few Internet connections and a number of children present. The children formed groups and milled around, much as they did in the Indian experiments. They began to answer questions years beyond their time. We admired them – they laughed and went still further (Dolan et al., 2013).

I made a ‘Granny Cloud’ for children in India, consisting of people who had the time and inclination to talk to children over Skype. These children were in places, where good teachers did not, or could not go there. The teachers didn't teach, but encouraged the children to learn by themselves and have conversations with them.

In 2013, using the TED prize, I built seven experimental ‘Schools in the Cloud’. Five of them in India (ranging from the remote Sunderbans villages to urban, middle class Maharashtra) and two in England inside an urban and a middle class school. ‘Schools in the Cloud’ are spaces where SOLEs and the Granny Cloud come together. The results are not yet fully analysed, but we do find significant improvements in English reading comprehension, conversation, self confidence and, of course, Internet usage and searching skills. A ‘School in the Cloud’ is easier to make and maintain inside a regular school, rather than a stand-alone facility in the community. At least that is what I feel at the moment.

How is all this relevant to education?

Key Terms in this Chapter

Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE): When the Hole in the Wall approach is created inside schools and children are allowed to learn almost anything by themselves, using search engines is called “Self Organised Learning Environment”. It has been shown that in both cases the process is helped by the presence of a friendly, but not necessarily knowledgeable, mediator and children's reading comprehension, searching skills and self-confidence improve quickly.

The Hole in the Wall: It is a term derived from an experiment in India indicating that children in unsupervised and self-organised groups can learn to use the Internet to search and find answers to questions that interest them or for their own purpose.

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