Updated: added extra bullet-point from Sugata Mitra - 11/10/2009; dates clarified - 25/10/2009.
Last Monday I had the pleasure of hearing Sugata Mitra give a jaw-dropping talk about his "Hole in the wall experiments", at a 157 Group / Becta event at Google's London office that I had had a bit part in organising. (Becta is the UK Government's agency to promote and support the effective use of ICT in education, and singled out on Thursday 7 October by David Cameron, in his pre-election speech to the Conservative Party Conference. The 157 Group is a group of England's big and most successful further education colleges.)
Sugata is Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University and he will be one of the three keynote speakers at the 2010 ALT Conference between 7 and 9 September 2010. [Disclosure - I work for ALT part time.] Since the late 1990s Sugata Mitra he has been running empirical experiments to see what happens when children are able to use an Internet connected PC, usually in a public space, and always on the basis of several sharing the PC, usually in groups involving a wide age range. Most but not all of his experiments have been in areas of poverty, with much of the research having taken place in impoverished areas of India.
Here are some of Sugata's findings, some of which are covered in Remote Presence: Technologies for ‘Beaming’ Teachers Where They Cannot Go, from the August 2009 issue of the Journal of Emerging Technologies in Web Intelligence [680 kB PDF], as well as in the 2007 TED talk at the foot of this piece. What follows is a lightly and probably too quickly cleaned up version of the notes I took during Sugata's talk.
- Groups of children can learn to use computers and the Internet, without the support of adults.
- Over 300 children can become computer literate in 3 months with 1 public access computer.
- The computer needs to be in a safe public place that the children associate with safety, free time, and play.
- Children will self-organise their learning. Mitra "does not know how this happens".
- Alongside becoming computer literate, the children improve their maths and english, improve their social values, get better at collaborating, improve their school attendance, reduce their drop out rates.
- Depending on how the computer is set up, and the software and content it has, Mitra has observed and tested children doing various things including teaching themselves functional English, algebra, biotechnology, and improving their pronunciation of English.
These results are replicable, in many different parts of the world where "hole in the wall" experiments have been carried out; and such "learning stations" can be provided in countries like India at an all in cost of around 0.03USD per child per day.
Some readers will be asking themselves "is this relevant to education in countries like the UK?". Yes, according to Sugata, describing a February 2008 experiment he conducted in Gateshead, in the North East of England, where ten year old children (who each had a laptop, but who seemed not to be benefiting) were put in groups of four, with one laptop per group, and with ground rules encouraging them to reach consensus and to listen out for progress on neighbouring tables, and to claim it as their own. (Sugata quipped "that is how scientific research works...") In 20 minutes (45 for the slowest) the children had solved several questions from the GCSE chemistry examination (normally taken by a minority learners of 16), by collaborative learning using Google, Wikipedia, Ask Jeeves, Ask, Answerbag, etc.
Tests of these children several months later showed that their learning (but their understanding?) was retained. Why? According to Sugata, having to learn collaboratively and to reach consensus is the key to the success of this approach.
Sugata moved on to:
i) a description of an experiment at Longbenton School, where children set tasks requiring them to watch TED talks with leading figures in art and science talking about their work had their career aspirations altered from "footballer, model, chat-show host" to "scientist, architect, thinker". (A side-line riff in Mitra's talk was the poverty of role models provided by the BBC and others.)
ii) a discussion on "self-organised learning environments" (SOLE), on which he is currently experimenting, in which remote learners, study GCSE questions (to ensure teachers, parents etc approve) of the experiment, despite the poverty of many of the questions....).
One finding so far is the value of encouragement from a friendly but not knowledgeable mentor (a "granny", Sugata explained); to test this further currently 200 UK based retired teachers - the grannies - are involved in an experiment providing remote support to children teaching themselves English in Hyderabad.
Sugata ended his talk - with too little time to discuss any of these in detail - with his view of the future of effective learning:
- subsidised Internet access and electricity in every school;
- self organised fault tolerant technology;
- support for self organised learning environments as part of teacher training;
- "clouds" of mediators as part of the teaching workforce;
- self-organised learning sessions as a part of school timetables;
- a curriculum based on questions not content;
- self organised assessment systems.
In retrospect I am pleased - because it has helped me focus on why I feel so uncomfortable at the direction that British politics seems to be moving - that I heard the talk at an excellent Becta-organised event at the offices of a game-changing ICT business, in the company of people leading some of England's most successful FE colleges, 4 days before David Cameron chose to identify Becta as being part of the problem in England's education system:
"So when I see Ed Balls blow hundreds of millions on so-called “curriculum development” on consultancies, on quangos like the QCDA and BECTA like every other parent with a child at a state school I want to say:
This is my child, it's my money, give it to my headteacher instead of wasting it in Whitehall.
But it’s not just about money. It’s about values. We know that discipline is vital but we overrule head teachers when they exclude a disruptive pupil.
We know that every child has different abilities and different needs but too often we put them all in the same class so the brightest aren’t stretched and those who are struggling fall behind.
We know that competitive sport is important but we’ve had minister after minister promising it and nothing ever happens.
Discipline. Setting by ability. Regular sport.
These are all things you find in a private school. Not because the Government tells them to do it, but because it’s what parents want. Why can’t parents in state schools always get what they want?
With us, they will, because our reforms will create more good schools and more school places. Yes, our plans will increase competition – and no, that is not a dirty word. It means that when a good new school opens down the road, the other ones around it will want to improve. Big government has totally failed in state education and with Michael Gove we will get the radical change we need."