MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and Inverted (or Flipped) Classrooms have been attracting a lot of attention in education and training circles, but two recent experiments performed far from the rarified heights of North American campuses and training centers, are causing many to stop and reassess what it means to learn and, more importantly, what it means to learn when we are devoid of formal structure. If you have ever spent time wondering how humans learn naturally or informally you might be obliged to spend some time musing over these findings. I refer specifically to the “Hole In The Wall” experiments of Sugata Mitra and to Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child’s adventure with solar-powered tablet computers in Ethiopia.
In the case if Mitra, Wikipedia provides a summary of the “Hole In The
“In an experiment conducted first in 1999, known as Hole in the Wall (HIW) experiments in children’s learning … a computer was placed in a kiosk created within a wall in a slum at Kalkaji, Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely. The experiment aimed at proving that kids could be taught by computers very easily without any formal training. Sugata termed this as Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The experiment has since been repeated at many places, HIW has more than 23 kiosks in rural India. In 2004 the experiment was also carried on in Cambodia.” -Wikipedia
More to the point, perhaps:
“This work demonstrated that groups of children, irrespective of who or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own using public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds, even without knowing English.” -Wikipedia
Mitra has a couple talks at TED (see below) where he describes the experiment and some of the results. They are worthwhile viewing if for no other reason than the sidebar comments from Mitra on what the kids learned, the degree to which they took the experience and the feedback he got from them on the technology.
More recently Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child organization (OLPC) have published results of what they see as a promising experiment in Ethiopia where solar-powered tablet computers were delivered to remote villages, preloaded with programs, and left to uncover what kids do with them. The main point in this instance is that there is no teacher, curriculum, or syllabus, just some software and a device to run it. The goal is to see if illiterate children will/can use the device to learn to read.
The articles referenced below give background to the experiment and preliminary conclusions to what was observed. The gist of it is:
“Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. ‘I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,’ Negroponte said. ‘Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.’ ” -MIT Technology Review
The results might seem astounding to anyone steeped in the dogmatic lock-step pedagogy of the classroom. Comparing results of earlier (some say failed) experiments by OLPC, a notable variation in this case is the conspicuous absence of a “teacher” in the process, leading many to wonder whether the secret rests in preparing the environment, creating opportunities to learn, and then simply getting out of the way:
“I believe the second experiment is working because nobody is there trying hard to figure out how the new technology should fit into the old model of teaching and learning.
And nobody is trying to frame the learning experience through superficial content that the kids just don’t care about.
…It’s letting the kids discover what’s in the boxes. And how to get it out of the boxes. And why the boxes even matter in the first place.
It’s setting a goal, establishing an environment to realize the goal, and trusting in the capacity of human potential. Student potential.
And sometimes, it’s just getting out of their way.” -Ben Grey, The Edge of Tomorrow
None of this calls for the elimination of teachers per se. It does comment on the overall design of a process many in teaching and training take as a given, and the role of the “teacher” in that process.
Wikipedia: Sugata Mitra
TED: The Child-Driven Education
TED: How Kids Teach Themselves
Wikipedia: One Laptop Per Child
Wikipedia: Massive Open Online Course
NYT: The Year of the MOOC – Massive Open Online Courses are Multiplying at a Rapid Pace
Feldstein, M., “Everybody Wants to MOOC the World”
MIT Technology Review: “Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves”
Doctorow, Cory, “Illiterate kids given sealed boxes with tablets figure out how to use, master, and hack them”
Wikipedia: Minimally Invasive Education
OLPC News: “Who is to Blame for OLPC Peru’s Failure? An OLPC Intern Viewpoint”
Grey, Ben, “We need to think very, very seriously about this“