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Educational Insights from a Hole in the Wall

Posted in Knerds on August 27, 2010 by

Andy Huang is a Content Developer at Knewton.

Every good discovery begins with a good question, and Sugata Mitra had a great one.

After studying the quality of education in remote areas of India,  Sugata realized that what was lacking was not infrastructure or resources, but qualified teachers. The further a teacher is from an urban center, the more likely that teacher is to want to move towards the urban center. If a teacher doesn’t want to stay in a rural area, how can one expect him or her to teach effectively there? Therein lies the dilemma.

There must be another way to give children access to high-quality education, Mitra thought. And this was his question:

What would happen if children living in poverty in rural India, without any English skills, suddenly gained access to a powerful computer with high speed internet?

If I’d been asked the same question, my initial answer would have been that the children would be fascinated by the new toy for a while, but would eventually become frustrated by their inability to use the machine and abandon it. Sugatra Mitra thought otherwise.

In 1999, as the instigator of the Hole in the Wall (HIW) experiment, Mitra placed an Internet-connected computer into a kiosk created in a wall of an Indian slum in Delhi. The experiment was later repeated all over rural Indian. Mitra had no idea what to expect, but what he discovered was nothing short of remarkable.

The following video shows the results from his experiment.

What is so amazing is how much these children who did not know the language on the computer screens were able to learn on their own from a machine they had never used–or likely even seen. There were no teachers to guide them, no lessons to follow, and no way of knowing if they were wrong. All they had was the desire to learn, a piece of technology, and the power of the internet. This not only speaks volumes of children’s natural ability to learn, but also of the power of social networks in learning.

Now, what happens when children living in poverty not only have access to a computer, but can use that computer to access the best teachers the world has to offer and the Knewton adaptive learning engine all at the same time?

Just imagine how much more they will be able to learn, how much their communities will benefit, and how much change they will be able to bring to the world.

That in a nutshell, is the vision that we have here at Knewton. While we are able to deliver great instruction and provide high quality content to people in developed countries, the biggest change we as an organization can make is in countries and areas where access to quality education is limited. This could be the great equalizer that ensures that no matter where you are born and to what socioeconomic class you belong, you can still get a high quality education and access to the opportunities necessary to succeed in life.