LIFT07: minimally invasive education



I was a LIFT these past few days even though a bad flu meant a lot of time in my hotel room (thankfully a nice room at Les Armures).  For great coverage check out Bruno Giussani.  Of what I did see, I was fascinated by the extraordinary educational experiments of Prof. Sugata Mitra of HIWEL.

Dr. Sugata Mitra, Chief Scientist at NIIT, is credited with the discovery of Hole-in-the-Wall. As early as 1982, he had been toying with the idea of unsupervised learning and computers. Finally, in 1999, he decided to test his ideas in the field. On 26th January, Dr. Mitra’s team carved a “hole in the wall” that separated the NIIT premises from the adjoining slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. Through this hole, a freely accessible computer was put up for use. This computer proved to be an instant hit among the slum dwellers, especially the children. With no prior experience, the children learnt to use the computer on their own.

The original “hole in the wall” being installed

In a nutshell, this is what happens:

  • a hole in the walll computer is installed in a village or slum
  • within 10 minutes, some entrepreprising child has taught himself to surf
  • within hours, a collaborative surfing experience is under way
  • in months, children teach themselves IM, email, gaming, online music and video, general surfing, English
  • like any good grassroots network, this is one is self-organisational and so efficient because it does not impose a way of functioning on its members

Children teach themselves collaboratively with minimum outside intervention, hence the term minimally invasive education.  Skills picked up include problem solving, collaboration, sharing.  In remote areas where no English was spoken, children would teach themselves basic English (badly pronounced but correctly conceptualised) from using the computer.

It also seems that as a complement to traditional educaction, the programme has a real impact on a child’s academic results, as you can see in detail here.

It’s really fascinating stuff.  The interaction between the children is best appreciated by watching the HIWEL videos, but unfortunately I could not locate any on the web.  Some of the great moments include the boy who learns to surf in a few minutes, the little girl who teaches the older boy (she has knowledge that he cannot “take” from her, so collaboration is the only way for him to progress) and the formation of “circles of knowledge” (3 kids operating the PC, another circle of 8 kids providing expert comments, another circle 16 kids providing completely useless comments, all learning from each other).

Chanchal (Girl, 12): “I love solving Maths problems. I find that very interesting. I have learnt it from my sister Raj. I have taught my friend Shilpa.”

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4 Responses to LIFT07: minimally invasive education

  1. Shefaly says:

    Fred, NIIT is interested in learning about and understanding learning mechanisms, as they are a huge provider of technical and language training services in India and elsewhere. (My sister, who is a certifiably bigger nerd than I am despite my engineering degree, was a ‘graduate’ of NIIT and worked in telecomms software, which is harder work than enterprise technologies. That is how I got to watch their methods more closely than I might have otherwise done.)

    To some extent, the success of Dr Mitra’s experiment is an indicator of the ‘intuitive’ element of design in modern-day PCs. Perhaps a control experiment needs be run with green-text screens, no mouse etc to verify or reject this sub-hypothesis.

    Some familiarity with technology – any kind – may have helped the kids too. Which is why my friend’s 7-year old knows more about their complicated set-up involving a TV, a DVD player, a Sky box and a Bose music system than she does. Their living in slums does not mean that the kids in the experiment have never seen or operated a TV or a video player. The collaborative/ shared element is also common to their general environment in which they or their community may be watching news or films.

    Several things interestingly differentiate this experiment from corporate environments that struggle with managing learning and knowledge. Some of which may be:
    * These children do not have an agenda to advance by not sharing information or knowledge.
    * They do not ‘own’ the resource or the power to share or allocate it; that needs to be sorted using emerging networks of power and influence derived mostly, in this context, from knowledge and information.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing it here with so many people.

  2. Max Niederhofer says:

    I sincerely hope that you didn’t catch that flu from me!

  3. Fred, what a great story! I am putting a link on my blog.

  4. Fred, what a great story! I am putting a link on my blog.