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Issue 16 May 2009   Monday, May 11, 2009

ISSN 1748-3603

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The man behind the hole in the wall
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The man behind the hole in the wall
by Peter Robinson

The Wikipedia entry for Sugata Mitra said, on 11 May 2009, that

"Since the 1970s, Professor Mitra’s publications and work have resulted in training and development of perhaps a million young Indians, amongst them some of the poorest children in the world. The resultant changes in the lives of people and the economy of the country can only be guessed at".

He is best known for the ‘hole in the wall’ experiments. Although the research has been mainly done with schoolchildren it raises important questions about learning and ICT in general. Recently Peter Robinson had the pleasure of hearing Sugata Mitra talk and interviewed him about the 'hole in the wall' experiments.

The first hole in the wall
"In 1999 we started the hole in the wall experiments. I had an office in those days in Kalkaji, a suburb of New Delhi, India which bordered an urban slum. On our side of the boundary wall there were all these rich, high-powered software professionals and on the other there was a large sprawling slum. We cut a hole in the wall and installed a PC connected to broadband and the internet, and there was a touchpad. We covered it with a glass sheet, so the monitor glowed out on the other side. What we did then was pretty simple. We watched. As you can imagine children looked at the glass with something glowing inside it, instead of a dirty wall. This is what happened after about 8 hours: an 8 year old boy, who happened to be the son of the tobacco seller in the road outside our office, was browsing the internet and then was able to teach his student, a little 6 year old girl, to browse. We found that most of the slum children were able to use the computer to browse, play games, create documents and paint pictures within a few days. What we saw provoked many questions: Is it real? Does the language matter? Would the computer last, or would they break it or steal it? Did anyone teach them? People said, chances are that friends on the other side of the wall must have popped their heads over and showed them how to navigate and that is how they knew about it."

Did anyone teach them?
"So we visited a small town in central India in a backward area where there were no computers and no one was going to teach computing. I buried another computer in the wall and we recorded the results. A 15 year old drop out began fiddling about with the touchpad. He quickly noticed that his finger points moved things around on the screen. When he tapped the touchpad, the Internet Explorer changed page. He had done his first click. This was after 6 minutes; 8 minutes later he was going from website to website and coming back. He was browsing. When that happened he started to call other children. By the end of the evening 70 children were browsing the internet. This showed me that children, in groups, can teach themselves to use a computer and the internet."

The English factor
"At this time the main question being asked of me was what about English? People said to me, 'you are being very unfair; it is amazing that they are able to do what they are doing. You are confronting them with a machine they have never seen, language that they don’t know and then expecting them to do something; it can’t work.' I decided to check the role of English and repeated the experiment on 30 June 2000 in a rural village where nobody spoke English. More girls came to this than boys, unlike in my previous experiments. I did not have a good quality connection to the internet, so I left them with a load of CDs. I came back after 3 months. A 10 year old boy and 12 year old girl were playing a Microsoft game. The moment they saw me they said they needed a faster processor and a better mouse. I asked what they had learnt and the reply was an anatomy lesson, the skeleton structure of a hand. The boy asked me in Hindi, 'Do you know how many bones there are in a human hand?' I said I didn’t know. He said there are 32 and in English with a very strong American accent he started telling me about them. We found that the children had acquired a vocabulary of about 200 words in English, words like exit, stop, file and save. When they want to learn children do not find language a barrier."

General findings
"We needed to know how far does it go? We could not understand how this happened. It took us five years of measurements across the Indian subcontinent to verify the results amongst 40,000 of the world’s poorest children. We found that children given unsupervised access to computers mainly located in a government school playground or in similar safe, public areas, would become:

  1. computer literate – in their own way, with their own vocabulary, but highly effective nevertheless;
  2. better at maths and English – I do not know why, maybe because they learn to analyze and solve problems in groups;
  3. more social and cooperative – because they learn that knowledge, unlike material objects, grows with sharing;
  4. more interested in school – if the computer is near or in the school premises;
  5. less likely to drop out of school – because they want access to their computer;
  6. less interested in petty crime – mostly because all their free time is spent at the computer;
  7. viewed with more local goodwill – parents and others like the idea that the child is learning something and not creating trouble at home.

The measured outcomes showed:

  • acquisition of functional computer literacy;
  • improvement in academic performance;
  • increase in confidence and self esteem;
  • increased collaborative behaviour.

Apart from these measured findings, there is consistent anecdotal evidence of large-scale impacts on school enrolment, retention, concentration, attention span and problem-solving ability. Teachers have been very positive about the whole thing because of the children’s increased interest in learning, higher enrolments, and their concentration on higher level tasks like mentoring other students and leading class discussions."

What the children cannot teach themselves?
"We wanted to see what the limits were of self learning in groups. We wanted to see what children could not solve in order to test the boundaries of this form of learning. So we set up an experiment. In 2006 we went to a little village in Kalikuppam in Southern India, a place that had been hit by the tsunami and where illiterate fisherman lived. If Tamil-speaking children could teach themselves biotechnology in English, on their own, how far could we go?

I downloaded some difficult material on biotechnology, all in English, a language foreign to the children. We put this into the hole in the wall computer that NIIT had installed there. After 2½ months I went back and asked the question, have you learnt anything? As expected they said, 'Nothing, it is very hard as it is all in English and it is something we do not know anything about.' 'Did you use it?' 'Yes we used it every day.' 'What were you doing with it?' The young girl said, 'Well, it’s OK if you wanted to learn that DNA replicates and that defects in DNA cause disease, but apart from that, nothing.' I investigated a bit more and she showed me the things she knew – she showed me material on Alzheimer’s disease, and, when I asked what it was, she said, 'It’s complicated, but it’s why old people forget.' So, even when I made things as difficult as I could for these very young children, they found ways to make learning happen. The girl in this story was particularly interesting – she had started out with a couple of boys, but the boys had said to her 'We’ll do this. You’re only a girl, you won’t understand.' So she had said to them, 'I’ll come back when you’re gone then.' And she did return, determined to prove them wrong."

"Overall we found that children who had started with a score of zero had taught themselves basic biotechnology on their own to reach a test score of 30% in just two months. We did many experiments looking at what children learn by themselves. Here is another example. In Hyderabad, groups of children showed significant improvement in English pronunciation on their own with only a few hours of practice. They used a computer and a speech to text programme that had been trained in a native English accent. The published results ( show that speech to text engines can be used for self-regulated improvements in pronunciation."

Professor Mitra is now at Newcastle, and has been working in the neighbourhood there. He was invited to a primary school in Gateshead. "At a primary school in Gateshead, UK – the remotest of the remote places I have been to – a class of children, aged around 10, had a laptop each, but their school performance did not seem to have changed much. I set up a challenge. I devised six GCSE level questions on science, the environment and such issues, and told the children there was only one rule – they had to work in groups of four and there was one laptop per group. All but one of the groups solved the problems, the first in 20 minutes and the rest all within an hour. The group that didn’t succeed consisted of one girl and three boys. As soon as the exercise began, the boys all went to the toilet and did not come back. The girl tried on her own but was unable to make progress. So here we saw that ten-year olds working in groups could answer in less than 20 minutes GCSE questions they would encounter six years later. I asked them if they could have done this in less time if they had not shared a computer in groups but had worked on their own laptops, alone. They said they could not have done it that way at all."

What can we learn from the 'hole in the wall' experiments?
The materials and findings from the 'hole in the wall' experiments are fascinating and one could describe them forever. Sugata Mitra spent some time discussing with me the implications for adult learners in the UK. Here are some conclusions.

  • The 'hole in the wall' experiments suggest an alternative, inexpensive and reliable method for bringing computer literacy to those areas where the ICT provision is inadequate. “Such facilities are not meant to replace schools and teachers, they are meant to supplement and complement and to be a stand-by for those areas of the earth where good schools and goodteachers are, for whatever reason, absent.”
  • In the context of education in the UK, teachers in classrooms may need to be reminded that many learners, and not just children, are learning about and using ICT outside the formal learning environment.
  • Working in self-organised groups and helping each other, the children typically achieve basic computer literacy within three months, and by nine months have achieved the proficiency level equivalent to the skills of most modern office workers.
  • One does not have to learn just by doing. Watching and discussing is very important. A noticeable finding from the 'hole in the wall' experiments was that only a small group would be actively involved in working the machine or making suggestions from close by, but that a larger group standing by but contributing relatively little also gained knowledge and expertise.
  • In effect, in the 'hole in the wall' experiments, every learner was a teacher and vice-versa. 'child teachers' emerged at each of the experimental sites – typically, talented 6–8 year old girls and boys who took on the 'teacher' role and taught 3 or 4 'generations' of children to use the computers. It may be that the phenomenon of peer learning and teaching is not just confined to children.
  • The projects were not set up to look at learning by older people. As Sugata Mitra says, “I am not suggesting that older people learn in the same way as children. But I suspect that many older people will learn about things when they need to and want to. Take pornography for example. It is unlikely that the users would learn about video format and file technologies in a classroom. Adults are able to do quite complicated things when they want to.”
  • Learning works well when self directed and much better when done in groups. Learners learn best in groups, because learning is a social activity. Groups function better than individuals. Of course many in adult learning as well as primary education already know this. It is why, in organisations and business, we often have so many meetings. That is why we don’t sit in rows like in classrooms. We learn from testing out ideas and discussions. Learning is fundamentally a social process.

This article originally appeared in ICT Skills Briefing

Peter Robinson


  1. Sugata Mitra is now Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, UK. He is a physicist by background. He has taught and researched computer applications for over 25 years. He was until recently Chief Scientist with NIIT Limited in New Delhi.

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