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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Hole in the Wall Project and the Power of Self-Organized Learning

Sugata Mitra

Professor of Education Technology, Newcastle University

In early 1999, some colleagues and I sunk a computer into the opening of a wall near our office in Kalkaji, New Delhi. The area was located in an expansive slum, with desperately poor people struggling to survive. The screen was visible from the street, and the PC was available to anyone who passed by. The computer had online access and a number of programs that could be used, but no instructions were given for its use.

What happened next astonished us. Children came running out of the nearest slum and glued themselves to the computer. They couldn't get enough. They began to click and explore. They began to learn how to use this strange thing. A few hours later, a visibly surprised Vivek said the children were actually surfing the Web.

View Sugata Mitra's TED Talk

We left the PC where it was, available to everyone on the street, and within six months the children of the neighborhood had learned all the mouse operations, could open and close programs, and were going online to download games, music and videos. We asked them how they had learned all of these sophisticated maneuvers, and each time they told us they had taught themselves.

Interestingly, they described the computer in their own terms, often coining words to indicate what they saw on the screen. For instance, the children's word for the hourglass symbol that appears when a program is "thinking" was "damru," the name of a small wooden drum shaped like an hourglass that is a symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. The mouse cursor was called "sui," a Hindi word for needle, or "teer," which means arrow.

We repeated the experiment in two other locations: in the city of Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh (Digvijay Singh, a prominent politician, was interested in our research), and in a village called Madantusi in Uttar Pradesh. Both of these experiments showed the same result as the Kalkaji experiment: The children seemed to learn to use the computer without any assistance. Language did not matter, and neither did education.

Over the next decade we did extensive research in self-directed learning, in many places and through many cultures. Each time, the children were able to develop deep learning by teaching themselves. I decided to call the method of instruction we had developed Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The rest of the world continues to call it the Hole in the Wall.

Certain common observations from our experiments emerged, suggesting the following learning process occurs when children self-instruct in computer usage:

1. Discoveries tend to happen in one of two ways: When one child in a group already knows something about computers, he or she shows off those skills to the others. Or, while the others watch, one child explores randomly in the GUI (Graphical User Interface) environment until an accidental discovery is made. For example, the child may discover that the cursor changes to a hand shape at certain places on the screen.

2. Several children repeat the discovery for themselves by asking the first child to let them try it.

3. While in Step 2, one or more children make more accidental or incidental discoveries.

4. All the children repeat all the discoveries made and, in the process, make more discoveries. They soon start to create a vocabulary to describe their experiences.

5. The vocabulary encourages them to perceive generalizations, such as, "When you click on a hand-shaped cursor, it changes to the hourglass shape for a while and a new page comes up."

6. They memorize entire procedures for doing something, such as how to open a painting program and retrieve a saved picture. Whenever a child finds a shorter procedure, he or she teaches it to the others. They discuss, hold small conferences, make their own timetables and research plans. It is important not to underestimate them.

7. The group divides itself into the "knows" and the "know-nots," much as they might divide themselves into "haves" and "have-nots" with regard to their possessions. However, a child that knows will share that knowledge in return for friendship and reciprocity of information, unlike with the ownership of physical things, where they can use force to get what they do not have. When you "take" information, the donor doesn't "lose" it!

8. A stage is reached when no further discoveries are being made and the children occupy themselves with practicing what they have already learned. At this point, intervention is required to plant a new seed for discovery, such as, "Did you know that computers could play music? Here, let me play a song for you." In the Hole in the Wall computers, such minimal intervention happens accidentally from passing adults or just by accidental discoveries. Usually, a spiral of discoveries follows and another self-instructional cycle begins.

When working in groups, children do not need to be "taught" how to use computers. They can teach themselves. Their ability to do so seems to be independent of educational background, literacy level, social or economic status, ethnicity and place of origin, gender, geographic location (i.e., city, town or village, or intelligence.

Using the Hole in the Wall setup with a single PC, children can learn to do most or all of the following tasks in approximately three months:

1. basic computer navigation functions, such as click, drag, open, close, resize, minimize and menu selection

2. drawing and painting pictures on the computer

3. loading and saving files

4. downloading and playing games

5. running educational software and other programs

6. playing music and videos, and viewing photos and pictures

7. surfing the Internet, if a broadband connection is available

8. setting up email accounts

9. sending and receiving email

10. using social networking programs, such as chat rooms (AIM, Google Chat, etc.), Skype and Facebook

11. simple troubleshooting, such as fixing speakers that aren't playing sound

12. downloading and playing streaming media

In addition, local teachers and field observers noted that the children demonstrated improvements in enrollment, attendance and performance on school examinations, particularly in subjects that deal with computing skills; English vocabulary and usage; concentration, attention span and problem-solving skills; and working cooperatively and self-regulation.

I believe that MLE should be an important part of every school's curricula.

Sugata Mitra

Professor of Education Technology, Newcastle University
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