A funny thing happened to me while in India (besides losing my luggage, teaching for three days on three hours sleep and confronting an elephant in traffic). While speaking at a conference, I encountered another educator whose work blew my mind. Such an experience is a rarity at the dozen or so educational conferences I attend each year across America.
Sugata Mitra, a physicist from Indian think-tank NIIT, embodies the best features of a scientist, educator, tinkerer and dreamer. His social conscience led him to invent a novel approach to learning technology. The scientist in him designed controlled experiments to explain the remarkable phenomena he observed.
India is a populace nation with staggering poverty and majority illiteracy. Politics, religion and tradition conspire to create millions of poor people and slums unfit for the stray dogs who compete for food. Wealth and great poverty coexist side by side like two nations with diplomatic relations.
Mitra's own campus was separated from the "other India" by a wall. He often sensed that the poor children watched his research community with the cell phones attached to their ears and funny bags hanging from their bodies disappear into a mysterious fortress.
Mitra inserted a PC monitor into the wall behind a pane of glass and alongside a touch screen. The computer had a high-speed Internet connection and was on nearly all of the time. No other intervention occurred. Before long, this "hole in the wall" attracted children from the community and a great educational experiment had begun.
A video camera trained on the children using the kiosk and computerized logs of what was done on the computer create a record of the children's activities. Within a short period of time, children who speak one of India's thousand languages other than English and who had never received any instruction in technology use were surfing the Web. More over, groups of children played online games and painted pictures with MS Paint. After being shown MP3 software, some children even managed to find music in Hindi to play.
The success of the first "Hole in the Wall" inspired Mitra to replicate the experience with kiosks across the economic, cultural and geographic diversity of India. Children in every case were able to demonstrate what we might call computer literacy without any curriculum, formal teaching or adult intervention. The "Hole in the Wall" children discovered and taught each other amazing things. Young children stand on the shoulders of others and direct the action. The hundreds of shortcuts often left on a kiosk computer offered evidence of such expertise. Mitra found that kiosk users managed to learn hundreds of English words and used their native language to describe computer functions. Most users were 6 to 12 years old. Adults did not make any attempt to use the kiosk.
Mitra describes his learning theory as minimally invasive education--a hypothesis that even in totally unfamiliar situations, children in groups will learn on their own with little or no input from others, provided the learning environment induces an adequate level of curiosity. Like in minimally invasive surgery there should be no more expert intervention than absolutely necessary.
This work proves that when provided with access to a computer in a social context, all children will become computer literate with or without a traditional teacher. Mitra's careful experiments confirm the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. Most of all, "The Hole in the Wall," offers a glimmer of hope for concerned global citizens who do not know where to begin in increasing educational opportunity in the developing world. The "Hole in the Wall" project is a testament to the competency and capacity of children to construct their own knowledge in a community of practice. Internet access can connect children to each other and the 21st century.
Does your school really need that computer literacy class? Can your teachers celebrate the technological fluency of your students and build upon it in the design of richer tasks and more imaginative curricula? American schools are blessed with advantages most of the world cannot even ponder. The "Hole in the Wall" project demands that we do better by our students and do our part to change the world.
Gary Stager is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Univ.