Creating Technology for Social Change

Is Education Obsolete? Sugata Mitra at the MIT Media Lab

Today, we are hearing from Sugata Mitra, visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab and Professor of Educational Technology at the school of education at Newcastle University (blog here). Mitra is best known for the “Hole in the Wall” computer learning systems in India (TED Talk) and the related educational philosophy, “Minimally Invasive Education.” ¬†My Media Lab colleage¬†Sayamindu Dasgupta helped me blog Mitra’s talk.

It’s fashionable right now to say that schools are terrible. Mitra agrees. He gives us a tour through education history: from the Phoenicians to ancient Greece and Plato’s academy. He points out that Aristotle trained Alexander: what can be more efficient than producing a conqueror? Mitra then tells us about the Gurukul system in India, and Chanakya, whose student Chandragupta was a contemporary of Alexander. Mitra highlights the connection between education and conquest, drawing a connection to the Victorian system of education which which prevailed throughout the British empire. He argues that industrial education was focused on producing “identical people.” But the world no longer needs identical people. At the moment, most governments are asking if we can take non-hierarchical technology and put it into the mold of victorian-style classrooms.

Technology has changed that picture. If computers stop being physical objects, what does that do to things like examinations? What would it mean if examinees were allowed to access the Internet? He asks us to extend the idea: what happens if you eliminate teaching entirely and just administer the test to people with access to the Internet?

“With broadband access to Google, you can pretend to be educated.” Mitra imagines a scene in which someone with google glasses pretends to be a doctor. That person might know nothing about medecine, but might be able to figure out a diagnosis process entirely with Internet information. Now let’s imagine that this person does it repeatedly. If that psuedo-GP’s performance after a year is equal or above the national average, might we let that person practice medecine? By the third year of pretending to be a GP, has the person actually become one? When Mitra posted this question to his Facebook page, he heard from an accountant and an investment banker who claim to have done just that.

Is this pretense?

Why should we create education without teachers? Mitra shows us a graph which suggests that Indian students do better on tests if they live closer to an urban center. Might it be that teacher satisfaction also correlates to closeness to Delhi. Teachers appear less happy and students perform more poorly the further away they are (study here). He points us at another graph correlating UK GCSE scores to density of council housing. Visiting nearby schools, he found much the same; teachers wanted to work elsewhere (study here). Training more teachers won’t help. In India, when the government funded teacher training programmes, it enabled them to move closer to Delhi.

Mitra shares the hole in the wall project as an example of education without teachers. In the 1990s, he used to develop curriculum for computer programming education for a private sector company in India (NIIT). He was trying to produce the best quality software developers at the lowest possible cost. Then he looked outside in the neighboring slum. Just outside his office was a cluster of playing young people; what might they be capable of? Mitra embedded a computer in concrete and put it outside.

Mitra was astonished with the result. Although they couldn’t read the material the children did develop an ability to use the computer interface. When Mitra watched them use the computer, they were using it to record songs (for these kids, singing was play, as “it did not cost money”) and play them back — even though he hadn’t shown them how to use it (paper here). They also learned how to find and download games. How did this happen? They found someone who knew English to show them.

Mitra shows us the results of computer literacy tests that were issued to the users of the Hole in the Wall. In 9 months, these children taught themselves to use the computer to a similar level as the average secretary. They could use email, word processing, spreadsheets, and social networks. Quite simply, these children taught themselves how to use computers. He describes a conversation he had with Arthur C Clarke about the film 2001: A Space Oddysey. In the film, humanity discovers a large black monolith and tries to understand what it means. People become obsessed with understanding the object. Mitra compares the Hole in the Wall to Clarke’s monolith. When the two met, Clarke shared two ideas that have stuck with Mitra:

  • A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.
  • When learners have interest, education happens.

Just how far can this go? Mitra set himself a challenge: can Tamil speaking children from a village in India teach themselves the biotechnology of DNA replication, in English, from a streetside computer, on their own?

Mitra entered biotech information into a system in the village of Kalikuppam in Tamil Nadu in India. He explained to the children that the topic was very current and challenging. When he came back 2 months later, they were still stuck. However they were revisiting the article and the diagrams everyday. A participant told him – “apart from the fact that the improper replication of DNA can cause genetic diseases, we haven’t understood anything”. After 2 months, the children had achieved 30% scores on the tests. That wasn’t good enough. So Mitra found a friend of theirs, an NGO staff member, and encouraged her to play the role of the grandmother, giving them encouragement and asking them how they did something. After 2 more months, their scores jumped to 50%, matching the quality of a control group of students who had received training from a biology teacher.

For those communities without a helpful, encouraging NGO staff member, Mitra proposes “The Granny Cloud,” a group of people who offer remote encouragement and support. If a school gets stuck, you beam a granny onto the wall via a projector. Cloud grannies don’t teach; they just ask questions and admire the learners. The schools that need the grannies hate them; the teachers feel threatened. Not the children. “You can’t beat students with a stick over Skype.”

The Granny Cloud is one feature of Mitra’s Self Organised Learning Environment, which replicates the hole in the wall environment in a class. Step one is to take away computers– so there is one computer for every four or five people (Mitra describes it as the magic number, an equilibrium of participants). One child operates the device, another child advises. The third child takes notes, keeping a log of what they found interesting. The fourth child’s job is to disturb the other three. He shows us a video from a Granny Cloud school in Gateshead:

Carefully selected content is another part of the Self Organised learning environment. Recently, Mitra has been concerned that kids take their role models coming from entertainment. He showed them TED videos and asked them to research the people in the video. The children changed their aspirations to match the inspiration they gained from TED.

Mitra’s current model of Emergent Learning looks like this:

  • 4 or more groups of 4-5 children
  • 1 or more “police officers” (elected by the children) — Police officers are told to “maintain law and order” without using force.
  • 1 computer for each group
  • The “Granny Cloud” if required
  • Discussion, movement, play allowed
  • One BIG question and 45 minutes

The best big questions are topics where adults may not know the answers, questions like “Can trees think?” or “How does an iPhone know where it is?” These questions are well suited for the new primary curriculum which Mitra imagines: Reading comprehension, information search and retrieval, and a rational system of belief.

Can children learn to read by themselves? It’s a question which Nicholas Negroponte posed before inviting him to be a visiting professora at the Media Lab. If so, it would turn the entire system of education upside down. Mitra cites anecdotal evidence that children can teach themselves the alphabet using Android phones. But that’s not comprehension. To answer this, we need to answer two question: firstly, can they learn to read? Secondly, can they improve their comprehension, understanding, and belief? A group at the Media Lab is trying to answer the first question; Mitra is working on the second. Studies are happening right now in Kanha and rural West Bengal.

To close, Mitra shares a list of provocations with us:

  • How do we examine a connected student ?
  • Is it necessary to learn new languages at all? Maybe machines will translate.
  • Is arithmetic obsolete ? Very few store clerks need this anymore, and we now have computing devices. Indians used to consider astrology a life skill, but it’s now obsolete. Self defense with a sword and horse riding used to be basic life skills, but they’re now obsolete.
  • Is vocational training meaningless ? Why go to culinary school when you can watch a cooking video on YouTube?
  • Is the absence of a teacher a pedagogic tool ?
  • Can cheating improve learning? If you allow some people to use the INternet in exams, might the cheaters learn over time?

Mitra asks, Is education obsolete ? Might the connections we get from the cloud make education as obsolete as horsemanship and swordplay? In 300 years, might people say, “there was a time that people used to believe that education was very important.”


Mitchell Resnick agrees with Mitra that questions with a right answer don’t need teachers. What about those questions that don’t have right answers, like issues of design and politics?

Mitra thinks that the Internet has great information, except for religion and politics. He thinks the Internet doesn’t do a good job in those areas. For more creative questions, Mitra doesn’t have an answer. He would love to figure out how to offer opportunities to develop beliefs without access to teachers.

Eliot Hedman tells a story about teaching in a rainforest, with a society that had rejected Internet connections. Are we making too ambitious guesses about culture?
Mitra tells a story about an experiment he ran in Bhutan. The children didn’t use the computer and played marbles in front of it instead. He worries about people who are too satisfied to experience curiosity.

Nicholas thinks that education isn’t obsolete. Knowing, he says, is what’s obsolete– understanding won’t go away.

An audience member asks Mitra how content creators can develop materials which work well for emergent learners. Mitra believes that we don’t have to worry about that The best content will emerge on the Internet, and we need to focus that people have equal access.