Hole in the Wall – Can kids learn computer literacy by themselves?

In India, several foundations are working together to build Playground Learning Centers – computers built for the sole purpose of providing Minimally Invasive Education (MIE) opportunities for poor children.

Minimally Invasive Education is defined as a pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher.
Hole-in-the-Wall website

MIE was defined and extensively researched by Dr. Sugata Mitra, in an amazing project called, “The Hole in the Wall.” This experiment began in 1999 with a single computer literally placed in a hole in a wall between the New Delhi office of NIIT (a computer training school) and the slum outside. The computer was accessible to children and became an instant hit. Local children, many of whom did not attend school regularly, quickly picked up how to use the computer tools, including word processing software and graphics programs and learned to surf the Internet. Some progressed to more complex skills. All of this without understanding a word of English or being able to read at all, even though all the programs and interfaces were in English.

Researchers and newspapers from around the world have documented the success of this first installation, and many more have followed, all with similar results. The impact on many impoverished children has been life-changing. The PBS show Frontline did a story, “One boy in particular, Rajinder, has become a computer whiz and a celebrity in India. “Mainly I go to the Disney site,” Rajinder tells FRONTLINE/World, but he also regularly visits news sites and likes to use computer paint tools. His teacher says that Rajinder is a much better student now: “He has become quite bold and expressive. I’ve got great hopes for this child.”

Computer in the wall

Articles, videos and research online

What about the usual worries? Security, inappropriate access, testing…
From the Christian Science Monitor:

  • In five years, across all locations, [Mitra] says, Hole-in-the-Wall computers have experienced “less than 0.5 percent pornographic access,” adding that the computers “are clearly visible to passing adults.” The fact that both boys and girls have access “completely eliminates pornographic or other undesirable access,” he says.
  • Despite this unconventional, unstructured setting, Mitra claims that, in the past five years, participants have been tested in controlled studies “many times,” and passed the government board examination with no other assistance, with the results documented in scholarly journals like the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.
  • Hole-in-the-Wall has awakened new aspirations in some participants, who have gone on to take courses in preparation for high-tech careers, Mitra says. Many have changed their goals from say, rickshaw driver to engineer, and most now want to go to college.

Classroom Implications
Far from being a repudiation of classroom learning or an insult to teachers, the research on MIE shows that unstructured learning strengthens behavior that translates to classroom success.

Learning Dynamics

This doesn’t mean that teachers don’t teach, but can look for opportunities to leverage unstructured success into more structured academic success. By asking an interesting question or by providing a clue to a frustrated student, teachers can scaffold student learning more than by direct instruction. Allowing unstructured learning opportunities frees the teacher up from teaching basic skills to focus on the big picture and give individual help as needed.

“If computer literacy is defined as turning a computer on and off and doing the basic functions, then this method allows that kind of computer literacy to be achieved with no formal instruction. Therefore any formal instruction for that kind of education is a waste of time and money. You can use that time and money to have a teacher teach something else that children cannot learn on their own.” -Dr. Mitra

Many veteran Generation YES teachers tell us that their best experiences come when they “let go” and let students take the lead in the classroom.

In many new Generation YES schools, teachers want to spend time teaching application features to students with the the thought that once learned, students will be better able to tackle projects of interest.

From more veteran Generation YES teachers, however, we often hear that it’s better to do a quick intro and then jump immediately into project work, allowing for student collaboration and discovery. Rather than being chaotic and out of control, teachers report to us that it creates a unique classroom laboratory, where students share discoveries and go further, faster.

For some teachers, this is a leap of faith that students will gain the necessary skills for the long run. A peak through this “hole in the wall” might be convincing!


5 Replies to “Hole in the Wall – Can kids learn computer literacy by themselves?”

  1. I like the way you link the hole in the wall findings to the varying approaches of the Gen YES teachers, that the more experienced ones are less invasive, more “just in time”

    Papert said, in The Childrens Machine, that, “… the goal is to teach in such as way as to produce the most learning for the least teaching” (139), ie. that instruction still has importance but to explore ways to minimise it

    When I wrote about the hole in the wall experiment I linked it to the OLPC and Alan Kay’s list of non universals – what do we know that we have to teach about because it doesn’t arise spontaneously

  2. Dr. Mitra,
    Thanks for dropping in! I hope your work is recognized more here in the US. We need to understand better that we can’t always “see” the learning happening and accept that adult intervention often makes things worse, yet still believe there is a very important place for teachers to lead students to greater understanding.

    I did see your post and (of course) Papert and Kay have the right ideas. Gary Stager also wrote an article about the Hole in the Wall project after speaking on a panel with Dr. Mitra in India in 2004. (Let Them Eat Tech Standards. http://www.districtadministration.com/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=526 )

    Gary makes yet another distinct point about the Hole in the Wall project. There’s so much here to talk about!

  3. Can kids learn computer literacy by themselves?

    The evidence is in: tens of millions of kids have already achieved computer literacy by themselves. That’s why they know more about computing than most teachers and parents.

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