Monday, February 23, 2009

The "Hole in the Wall" Experiment: Bridging the Digital Divide

What most people don't know about the 8 time Oscar winning movie Slumdog Millionaire is that it was inspired by a nearly 10 year old experiment dubbed the "Hole in the Wall." Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat, several years ago heard about this experiment and was so inspired that he wrote Q and A, the novel that later became the film.

So what was this "hole in the wall"? It was a study into how children of the slums could manage to teach themselves, with absolutely no instruction, how to use the web and eventually learn from it. After the brilliant Sugata Mitra installed a computer screen with a simple roll wheel mouse and click button facing the slums near his office, he observed that children all of the sudden started to figure out the rules of the device. Soon they were accessing websites, learning English, and using the computer to play games and read the news. While it sounds too good to be true, especially considering the fact that most of these children lacked any formal education or basic literacy, Mitra verified the results across dozens of different slums over the last 10 years. For a quick background on the project see Frontline's short piece (8 minutes) on the the results here.

While most would have just written off the discovery as little more than a curiosity, the polymath Mitra began to study the self organizing behavior of the children to understand how exactly they could manage to teach themselves. The result was a fascinating analysis of how several tiers of learning would result based on the child's proximity to the computer screen, where those in each tier would learn through differing ratios of participating vs. watching - depending on how far away from the screen they were (see minute 17 of the video above for a more precise description of how Mitra thinks this works).

By Mitra's analysis, about 300 children can learn basic computer literacy from 1 computer in just 6 months. His conclusion is a bold one, that children have the capacity to learn on their own and where necessary (because of a lack of teaching resources) tools such as the computer should be used to replace the broken educational system. Combine this assumption with Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child campaign and a potentially explosive combination could soon hit the developing world. I expect we should be begin to see the first success stories of self taught students in the coming few years if in fact Mitra and Negroponte's view, that all you need to do is give a child a computer, is correct.

For more information see the the Hole in the Wall Website here.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And the British thought that they had killed off all remnants of initiative, leadership, and ambition. Another piece that can turn any miserable old mis-anthrop into a wide-eyed optimist. This goes to show you that it seldom ever is a question of money; that the best solutions only require a non-conformist angle and an inspired process of though.