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Learners teach thyself

September 20, 2009

Remember the Hole in the wall project? Some of you might. This project drew a lot of attention some years ago. It short-lived in the spotlights again at the beginning of this year, with the hype around the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

The project was an indirect inspiration. The low budget movie turned out to be a total box office wipe-out and an award winning surprise. Blowing all other nominations away in one clean sweep. To be exact: 4 Golden Globes, 7 BAFTAs and 8 Oscars. Thus establishing its place in motion cinema history.

The project, on the other hand, fell back again into its normal everyday obscurity. This is such a shame, as there’s so much we can learn from it where collaborative learning is concerned.

Okay. Agreed. The project is set around groups of children in remote rural areas in India. Children who never in their lives set eyes on, let alone use a personal computer before. So, what can adults or an organisation (for that matter), based in the urban Western world, possibly learn from this project?

Sugata Mitra introduces the project

Sugata Mitra is the Educational Researcher responsible for the Hole in the Wall. In the video talk below, he elaborates on the origins of the project, its goals and its conclusions.

Mitra extensively shows how groups of children with no digital knowledge whatsoever in a short period of time teach themselves and their playmates the basics like: how to browse the Internet, use E-mail, play games online, chat and download music.

Much to the researcher’s surprise and delight, the children also taught themselves the English language and the digital jargon. On one of his routine project check-ups, the children approached him, demanding “a faster processor and a better mouse”. Mind you, the project is their first contact with the digital world.

How did they do it?

The children managed to become digital literates in a short period of time. How did they do this? Mitra assesses that there would usually be a one child operating the computer, with an inner circle of 3 to 4 children around him. Advising him what to do. Around them there’s another circle of about 16 children, also dispensing advice.

So, the children taught themselves by doing and by watching. More importantly, by helping each other out. In short, the learners explored, learned and shared. They did this in self organised groups. And as an effect of this collaborative learning, their knowledge effectively multiplied.

How can we use this?

My question is now: “How can we use this knowledge in setting up a smooth working (organisational) collaborative learning environment?”

For starters, we are dealing with a different type of learners. From the project we learn that the children are capable to support themselves, benefit from each other, but most of all they experience it as playful sharing.

The latter is very important. As (urban Western world) adults we tend to nit-pick when things don’t go exactly as planned. Then we nit-pick again, and again, and again… The children are a whole lot more flexible in that respect. And forgiving. I believe we should capture this.

We need to learn from mistakes. Then swiftly move on to the next learning obstacle. There is no point in clinging to what went wrong. It just hinders the learning process.

Secondly, I think we can drop the self-imposed (learning) restriction that come with the myth of the Western world digital youth, the Generation Y. The Millennial Generation, the Generation Next or whatever you want to call it. According to this urban myth, this is the generation who grew up with the Internet and the New Media. That’s why they are digital savvy and the rest of us have problems keeping up.

With this myth we quite easily choose to forget that the founding fathers of the Internet and All Things Digital (Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau) are well in their 60’s and 70’s. And still going strong. And with them, a league of respected digital savvy elders.

Becoming a digital literate is not hampered by your age, but by your attitude. Just be inquisitive, be fault-tolerant and be collaborative. And this will take you a long way.

The bottom line

One thing I find the Hole in the Wall project teaches us, is that there’s no such thing as a digital generation. It’s a myth. A hype. A rundown cliché. I quicker believe that we (adults) in the Western world are just self-declared technophobes. Maybe just a tad too reluctant to learn new things. Afraid of falling on our faces.

This project further proves that with a little playful curiosity and a lot of playful and forgiving collaboration, you can learn a lot. Even if you’ve never ever seen or touch a computer before.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 24, 2009 19:21

    Hi Evita,
    Based on your question about the Media Plaza seminar, I looked at your blog. I’m interested as well as impressed. I met Sugata Mitra 2 years ago in Berlin at the Online Educa.


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