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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
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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.

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Sugata Mitra

Professor of Education Technology, Newcastle University

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John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

My wife and I are proud to proclaim that our five grandchildren are the greatest five children in the world - as all grandparents similarly believe. To them, ANYTHING that captures their attention and is new is going to be explored. When the riding lawn mower became "available"to the oldest (under supervision of course), the push for access by the others was controlled by them based upon age - satisfying to Papa. AND when they reached comparable ages to when the oldest gained access, the grandchildren themselves developed learning permits, driving lessons, driving tests, and licenses on their own. As the chief oversight person, my job was very simple!

Closer to the Hole in the Wall or MIE: any new electronics in the family - theirs or mine - becomes, with permission, an opportunity to explore. With my new iPad, they have shown me probably as many features as I have discovered; they have asked for as many appropriate apps to be installed as I've found of interest to me. And it works exactly as described - showing each other and sharing among themselves - even showing us adults. When any of them are visiting, with my permission, my iPad passes from one to another grandchild or group of them.

During part of my career, I coordinated the first year engineering course sequence - starting with a complete overhaul of the approach, to one with lots of group work in and out of class related to a series of project assignments. Rather than teach skills such as programming and computer-aided design, we assigned projects needing such skills and provided complementary philosophy and interpretation of outcomes discussions in class; THEY WILLINGLY LEARNED THE SKILLS ON THEIR OWN!

In that case, the key was the real-world project assignments as yours was the new seed of discovery as you labeled them. Our students were motivated and engaged. When we introduced the new pedagogy, we kept half of the sections using the previously used lecture / homework approach. At the end of the year, surveys were completed by all students. In spite of the significantly increased work outside of class for then new approach, when asked if they were overworked in the course, far more students following the previous approach said they were overworked than did the students following the new approach (who were expected to do more work remember!); because they were doing something they wanted to do, extra demands were not a problem!

Thanks for this posting.

Laura V Rhinehart's picture

Last year, I had a lot of special education students in my classroom (most of them had Specific Learning Disabilities). Although many of them struggled with literacy, they were excellent at navigating the internet. I was surprised that most of them even knew how to break the school's firewall (to login to facebook and youtube). It seemed like their disabilities did not hinder their ability to access information on the computer the same way it did in the traditional classroom.

Roxie Butkus's picture

I loved reading this blog! Isn't it exciting that students in this digital age have access to so many wonderful tools and information and can use it intuitively? Our school uses the MIE approach in our computer lab and I have, just this year, seen my students learn many computer programs (iMovie, Pixie, etc) on their own and probably faster this way than having an adult instruct them! I think this same approach can be used for many valuable learning experiences... whether it is called self directed learning, MIE, or inquiry learning- it is a very motivational technique.

Creative Marbles Consultancy's picture

We often overlook a student's agency in the learning process, assuming their lack of experience means a lack of knowledge. Professor Mitra's example challenges this assumption and provides that "Hmmm..." pause to consider if we, as educators, need to reconsider our teaching methods and assumptions.

Eshi's picture

Hi I just joined this blog.
I was just wondering if there a difference between Self-Organized and Self-directed learning?



Roseanne Madden's picture
Roseanne Madden
Director of Student Learning

A recent study on digital literacy of independent schools in Melbourne highlighted that 100% of teachers recognised that using digital tools in the classroom was important yet only approximately 30% of the students surveyed said their teachers did due these tools. So why the disparity? Teachers recognise the importance and yet are not harnessing these tools nor empowering their students to do so. I know that some of the teachers I have spoken to are fearful...fearful that they don't know enough...fearful that they will make mistakes. This study resonates as it illustrates the power of students learning with and from each other and teachers learning with and from each other. We need to let go of our fears and 'try' new technologies and as Prensky describes empower our students to try "doing new things in new ways."

Felton Square's picture

I love the projects Sugata Mitra creates changeling education's status-quo.

In every station I've been in, when the learning was self-organized, I learnt faster and retained the information, like on the job training.

Remember the playground where you learnt a new game, a song/rhyme , or a sports skill.

Even in the classroom when the teacher would come down to your level and become part of the learning process and not dictate the process, it broke down the fear of making mistakes or being wrong so there was no fear to learn.

Our American kids have access; even our so call poor kids have access to technology, but are they literate to the use of what they can learn using technology tools to enhance their quality of life, even most adults are not digital formation literate and are afraid of the internet.

Lest build an actual playground with computers, "(technology with pedagogy that is digital, automatic, fault-tolerant, minimally invasive, connected, and self-organized" ...Sugata Mitra) , just like a swing-set the toys on a playground.

Hopscotch boards made of displays connected to computers, where you pick a category and have to get the questions right to jump forward.

Computers in a wall where educational information can only be access where kids can explore the universe, large computers displays where kid can let their imagination run free with digital paint and chalk.

Pilar Quezzaire's picture
Pilar Quezzaire
Curriculum Manager of Online Learning at International Baccalaureate

The situation you've described was first codified in 1961, and was called "discovery learning." Several iterations later, it was learned such learning models rarely yielded lasting learning outcomes. It was also discovered that Mitra's claims were seriously exaggerated -- why didn't Edutopia catch the broken computers, vandalism, and infighting over devices that characterized this project? It seems irresponsible to praise Hole in the Wall without a serious examination of its actual impact.

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