By Tala Dowlatshahi
Imagine a new world of innovative, inexpensive and successful learning, where dusty streets in rural towns in developing countries are lined with self-powered computer kiosks, and children from poor neighborhoods have the same ability to work with new technology as children in richer areas do.
An Indian student in front of a Hole in the Wall education kiosk. The battery-powered computers are set up in playgrounds and neighborhoods to encourage children to use them without adult supervision.
That dynamic is the goal of new education policies put forth by the United Nations and others in the field. An examination of global education systems and ways to improve learning has topped the UN's agenda in recent years as schooling becomes more central to reducing poverty. The aim now is to tailor education to the needs of the individual through self-organizing online systems and to move from traditional learning to ways of harnessing the power of children to teach themselves and one another.
Dr. Sugata Mitra, an Indian, has led several such revolutionary initiatives, which he believes can change how we approach teaching. His country is saddled with untold problems that inhibit free learning and open thinking for the young. Of the one billion people or so who live in India, more than half are illiterate. Millions subsist on less than $1 a day.
A scholar of computer science, Dr. Mitra had been playing with the idea of unsupervised learning and interactive technology for years. He began his Hole in the Wall experiments in children's learning more than a decade ago in the slums of New Delhi. The project is sponsored by the National Institute of Information Technology in India, where Dr. Mitra is a chief scientist, and the World Bank's International Finance Corporation.
The trial studies encouraged children to use battery-operated computer kiosks set up in playgrounds and on neighborhood roads to spark their interest in self-teaching. The project gave children freedom to play with the technology, using educational software.
Children from across India, including rural villages, were quickly drawn to the kiosks. Dr. Mitra, who is also a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in Britain, explained that first the children were not sure they were allowed to touch the computers, but after a short while, they overcame their timidity and quickly learned to play the educational games.
Dr. Mitra has won many prizes, including a social innovation award from the Institute for Social Inventions in Britain (now part of Global Ideas Bank). Vikas Swarup, who wrote the novel Q & A, which was made into the Academy Award winning film Slumdog Millionaire, said he was inspired to write his novel partly by the resourcefulness of the Indian children whom he observed interacting with the Hole in the Wall computers.
In an interview via Skype, Dr. Mitra told me his group started as a single project for disadvantaged Indian children, but his minimally invasive education techniques, as he calls them, have worked so well he now has kiosks in Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America. Several UN agencies, including Unesco and the UN Development Program, have worked with Dr. Mitra's team to promote these online tools.
Dr. Mitra thinks that his success in expanding the use of the kiosks to countries outside India is based on the assumption that all children can educate themselves regardless of their class or cultural background, as long as they can do so in a familiar, pressure-free environment.
"What it showed is that children can teach themselves to use the Internet even if they have never seen or used a computer before," Dr. Mitra said. But, he added, they have to be in groups and they have to be unsupervised.
Dr. Mitra acknowledged that such strategies go against widely shared beliefs about what makes a good education. He pointed out, however, that teachers in many poor communities often work long hours with little or no access to resources, and his project seeks to ease some of their burdens and to supplement their efforts.
One of his students, considered to be a top beneficiary of the project, is 19-year-old Rubina, who apparently does not have a last name. She comes from a family of eight and her father runs a small vegetable shop. The project was first set up when she was 8 years old, near her house on the outskirts of New Delhi. On the first day, Rubina was encouraged to come out and take a look at the learning station.
"I was very intrigued by the computer and using it for the first time," she said in an interview. "Most of the material was mathematical and science videos. I was the first to learn to use it even though I was a girl."
Rubina did not have access to a classroom computer until ninth grade, but because she spent so much time at the learning kiosk, she had an advantage over most of the students in her class. She said her teacher was at first surprised by how much she knew and how quickly she learned new concepts.
"I found I could work alone without a teacher," Rubina said. "But it did not take away from teachers and having respect for teachers at school. But from what I learned, I wanted to become a teacher and to focus on computer teaching to show others what I learned at the station.
"Even now, at 19, I am unable to pull myself away from the learning station. I see the biggest problem in India is the public schools, and those schools are not good. Most of those students get low-paying jobs and a poor education. They live in poverty. They don't get a chance to talk about college or a better life. But my parents are so proud of me."
She said she was the first to learn the station and to teach the other children. "Once that happened, the local news started to pay attention to me and my parents started to notice me too. They started talking about how smart I was and that I should go to college. This never would have happened without the learning station."
Dr. Mitra's latest initiative, "the granny cloud," a project sponsored by Newcastle University, involves working with 200 retired teachers, mostly women, in Britain who are beamed into classrooms throughout India via Skype to guide the independent learning process. "You can have electronic mediation for free and it is a great win-win situation," he said.
Despite his critics, Dr. Mitra contended that he did not necessarily want to do away with teachers in the classroom. "As long as the current education system remains, we will need teachers. However, do we need teachers to stand in front of the classroom to deliver a lecture for half an hour? Couldn't the child get the same information from Google in five to 10 minutes?"
He has also been criticized for his ideas on the future of higher-learning institutions. "What will happen to the universities? Well, I think the undergraduate programs need to be looked at very carefully first, because they are under the biggest threat," he said.
"The great big classrooms and the huge halls, they will not be needed for too much longer," he added. "I don't know what will happen to them. Could it be that in 2022, you would pay $10 to enter the main building of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to see an exhibition of the history of education? Would they all become museums? Sounds funny, but it has happened before. And it will happen again, I think."
Although Svein Osttveit, the head of the executive committee education sector at Unesco, shares Dr. Mitra's enthusiasm for child-centered education, he does not think that universities are destined for extinction.
"Quite similar announcements have come before," Osttveit said in an interview. "Learners of all ages need facilitators' guidance. Sure, there should be a shift away from top-down traditional auditorium teaching, but there will have to be some sort of guidance. Most children need guidance. Many teachers could move behind cameras and computers, but I personally do not think teachers will not be necessary."
Their role and function and how they perform their job will change, he added.
Unesco has been working in other developing regions to support national education plans with a child-centered learning approach. "Technology has obviously for a long time been very important, especially in the last 10 years or so," Osttveit said. Unesco, he noted, is active in supporting mobile learning, teacher training and community learning centers set up with computer kiosks through its International Institute for Education Planning, with both the latest technology and computers, depending on electricity and Internet availability, including solar paneling.
As to whether culture can influence how well children adapt to the kiosk concept, Osttveit said, "A good learning-centered education would encourage teamwork and children to work together. Perhaps some cultures are centered on a collective approach but both have certain advantages. It is not as if anyone wants to see children sitting in isolation. It's a fine balance."
Note: Article first appeared on Passblue at the United Nations:
The internet's best stories, and interviews with the people who tell them. Learn more