“Any teacher that could be replaced by a machine, should be!”
Arthur Clarke, 1980
Sugata Mitra was working in a school in India, where privileged children received education from the best trained teachers available. Year by year he saw every new generation all the more familiar with the new technologies and their parents telling him their offspring were the most brilliant and gifted in the Indian society. So, he made a question to himself: “Why are the rich people’s children more gifted?” Are the poor doing something wrong?
In 1999 he set out to give an answer to that question by placing a small computer in a hole in the wall of an underdeveloped village 300 miles outside Delhi. He wanted to see if, with no trainers or knowledge of English, without the ideal conditions of an elitist school, with only the minimum facilities (this one small computer), the children would manage to obtain access and utilize the enormous information bank that is available to all of us. Two months later he returned to find children playing games; and they asked for a faster processor and a better mouse.
When he asked them how they managed to use a computer in a language they could not speak, they answered that they had to learn on their own. Within nine months they had already reached the education level of someone with secretarial skills in the West.
Then, Mitra thought that they would surely not be able to learn, on their own, complicated notions of mathematics, biology, physics etc. He chose biology to test his new hypothesis. So, he placed a computer filled with every kind of information on biology in another village. He gave absolutely no information to the locals and simply waited to see the results. After two months he returned to ask the children whether they understood “what the computer does”. The children replied “We didn’t understand anything”. “And how much time did it take you to know you don’t understand anything?”, Mitra asked, to get the answer that they continued to try every day, since they were stuck in a problem they could not solve. As a 12 year old girl told him, “Other than the errors in the copying of DNA molecules creating genetic anomalies, we didn’t understand anything else”!
Mitra, realizing that he had hit the spot, expanded his experiment in other countries, like Cambodia, with similar results. Later, he started a program called SOLE, which runs in schools but encourages self-education of children. The way, he says, to let children impress you with their self-educating abilities, is to present them with a problem in an engaging manner, and then leave them alone. If, for example, we want them to learn about the tangent, we pose the question “If a meteor approaches Earth, how do we know whether it will hit us or not?” We also mention the “magic word” tangent and we let them find the answer on their own. We make a question, and then marvel at the answer.
Now he tries to create a school in the cloud, where students will connect to find information and answer his questions or those put to them by “teachers” who only play a mediatory role. The only help they need, he thinks, is a guiding voice, a “teacher-grandma” as he called the these teachers, who will encourage and praise them.
Nicholas Negroponte has tried something similar, through his program “one laptop per child”. Negroponte sent laptops to an Ethiopian village and, without any intervention, he waited to see the results. As in Mitra’s original Hole in the Wall program, within a month the children had formed hierarchies where one child, which self-proclaimed the others’ teacher, showed the rest how to use the computer. In five months they had hacked the Android operating system.
The program has been presented with many problems, mainly in the maintenance of the computer, as the users almost never have the ability to acquire a spare part or software support in case of a virus or some other problem. Many times the laptops are left in a corner never to be used again. The program seems to have reached to an end, with many support offices closing down and no way of replacing the computers that are now becoming obsolete. The program received accusations of adopting a tactic of ‘I drop the machine and leave’, a superficial and irresponsible practice that can only have rather dubious results. Negroponte has already moved on to the educational branch of XPrize, a foundation which promotes international problem solutions through technology and innovation.
No one can doubt the efficiency of these programs concerning the education of weak social groups, since the children they were addressed to indeed gained knowledge they would not otherwise have access to and learnt to solve problems in everyday life with hardly any help, and with the sole motives of their curiosity and cooperation. Technology is a proven tool towards this direction with funding being the only apparent problem, since these programs depend greatly on volunteering and function through non profit organizations.
These programs have been applied in developed countries as well, in parallel with schooling, but children often ignored their free laptops as they usually already had a better PC at home. In Greece, there had been some interest for such a program for classes of refugee and immigrant children or abused children, with the financial crisis canceling any serious effort to materialize the plan.
Moreover, if this kind of learning completely depends on the children’s curiosity and interests, how easy would it be for them to gain the discipline to learn a plethora of lessons and concepts without supervision, when gaming is such an easy and easily available alternative use of a computer?
Far from talking about replacing teachers with machines, perhaps we should see this use of technology as a supplement to promote collaboration and learning about general concepts that give answers to problems of everyday experience. Perhaps it’s possible for a 10 year old to be “forced” to learn what a lever is and how it works by asking an imaginative question, such as “How long should a shovel be, to use it to move the planet Earth?”, but it doesn’t seem obvious how to make him self-educate on calculus or the mathematical handling of imaginary numbers.
The evaluation of these efforts probably lies between a lost opportunity and a technological utopia. “Education through teachers”, says Negroponte, “is one, but not the only way to learn”.