The Hole In The Wall
Children, using the Internet in groups, can learn anything by themselves. Indeed, ‘learning’ itself may no longer be as important as it used to be.
I knew nothing of this when I did an experiment with children and a computer connected to the Internet embedded in a wall of a slum in New Delhi (1999).
Children, who in those days had not seen a computer or heard of the internet, began to surf within hours, by themselves. They learnt to play games, paint and to look for information. They learnt a little English. We, admiring adults, were astounded. The press called it the ‘hole in the wall’.
Funded by the World Bank, ICICI bank and the Government of Delhi, we repeated the experiment all over India. The results were always the same – digital literacy out of nowhere.
Children began to use the Internet for their homework. They copied from websites and showed their astounded teachers. ‘This is not learning’, everyone admonished me. They, and I, had missed a vital point, a mistake that would cost me several years. The children were copying the right things. How did they find the websites that were relevant? How did they find the right answers?
Children in groups have an understanding that is greater than that of each individual. It was this collective ‘hive’ mind that was working as an efficient teacher. It took me years to realise that we were witnessing a self-organising system – where spontaneous order appears out of nowhere.
Self-Organised Learning Environments
I brought the results to England in 2006. There, with the help of a teacher, we created the “hole in the wall” inside classrooms. We called it a Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE). It consisted of a mildly chaotic situation caused by a few Internet connections, about a quarter of the number of children present. The children formed groups, much as they did in the Indian experiments. They began to answer questions years beyond their time. We admired them – they laughed and went farther.
I made a ‘Granny Cloud’ for children, consisting of people talking to children over Skype. They don’t teach, they encourage children to learn by themselves.
In 2013, using the TED prize, I built seven ‘Schools in the Cloud’. Five of them are in India ranging from the remote Sunderbans to urban Maharashtra. Three of the five were in communities and two inside schools. Then we built two in England inside urban schools. A year or so later, I added two more – one in Harlem, USA and the other in Dasghara, West Bengal, both inside primary schools.
We found significant improvements in English reading comprehension, conversation, self-confidence, Internet usage and searching skills.
A ‘School in the Cloud’ doesn’t work outside schools. The facilities built outside schools all closed down within months of the funding running out. On the other hand, the facilities built inside schools all survived, except one.
The virus stopped examinations and made education confront its obsolescence.
Most school curricula are from the last century. The examination system requires learners to answer questions on paper, using handwriting. The learner must not use any assistive technology.
In order to cater to the needs of such examination systems, teachers, good or bad, need to use teaching methods from the 19th century consisting of rote learning and negative reinforcement.
After the school years, in the real world, the learner is expected to solve problems using the Internet, collaborate with others and use assistive technology whenever possible. In other words, the learner is asked to do the opposite of what she did in school.
The examination system needs to be changed to include collaborative problem solving using assistive technology. This will cause a global change in education.
This has to happen. There is a generation that uses assistive technology, particularly smartphones, all the time, except when they are in school. They learn continuously from these devices.
Fortunately, teachers understand this. Since 2014, and particularly during the pandemic, teachers worldwide were creating SOLEs in their schools. Collectively, they are changing the nature of education.
When automobiles took over from horse-drawn carriages, the coachmen disappeared and passengers became drivers. Eventually, cars will drive themselves and ‘driving’ will become an obsolete skill. A child, 20 years from now, will ask, ‘what does ‘driving’ mean?’
When the Internet takes over from ‘taught’ schools, the learners become their own teachers. Until the immense network drives all learning and makes ‘learning’ itself obsolete.
A child, 50 years from now, may well ask ‘what does ‘learning’ mean?’