Sometimes, a hole-in-the-wall is all you need to get a deep insight into education and — attain worldwide recognition. When Prof. Sugata Mitra installed a computer in a slum in Kalkaji, Delhi, in 1999 in what came to be known as a “hole-in-the-wall” experiment, it led to a fundamental reappraisal on his part of the formal education system. Surreptitious monitoring of what followed showed the power of what he would later call “Minimally Invasive Education.” Left to themselves, kids anywhere, from any background, even without knowing English, seamlessly learn to use computers and the internet. Particularly if they are working in groups, they can figure out complex subjects such as DNA sequencing, trigonometry, and avionics, as Dr Mitra found in similar experiments he has conducted across the world.
For his revolutionary work in this area, TED, the multidisciplinary conference of brainiacs, on Tuesday awarded him its $ 1 million prize at its annual mindfest here in Long Beach, California. Cheered with gusto by the cream of world intelligentsia and geek power, Dr Mitra later told ToI that the prize money would go to further research in non-formal, minimally invasive education “that should rid us of a system that is fast becoming obsolete.” Previous winners of the annual TED prize of $ 100,000 before it was bumped up to $ 1 million this year include the singer Bono, former President Bill Clinton, the naturalist E.O.Wilson, tech-savant Larry Brilliant, and the writer-historian Karen Armstrong. In experiments from Karaikal in Pondicherry to Villa Mercedes in Argentina, Dr Mitra has found that left to their own devices (literally), children easily forgo what he mocks as TCPIP education, the abbreviation denoting an Internet Protocol that merely carries data without comprehension. Such learning by rote, he says, is a legacy of both Victorian and Brahmanical values, furthered by the East India Company to produced an army of clerks and accountants for the Empire. Independent India has not challenged that model; instead, it has nourished it.
In the Pondicherry experiment, Dr Mitra left a computer with some DNA Replication software amid slum children who did not know any English. Yet they managed to figure out within days that improper replication of DNA causes disease. Similarly, kids in a remote South American village grappled with theology and geometry in understanding why human beings are born with five fingers on a limb. The best results were when children worked in groups and there was minimal adult supervision, although informal mentoring helps. ”The results broke every learning hypothesis in my mind,” said Dr Mitra, adding that such alternatives could have happened only at this time with the arrival of computers, internet, and broadband. “There is no need to carry data in our head as if it is a pen drive, because information is available at our fingertips. Instead, children should be challenged to understand and express ideas and concepts.” Dr Mitra has since expanded on his findings and created a “granny cloud” — online moderators of retired teachers — who could Skype into learning centers and encourage children with questions and assignments. He now wants to build a “School in the Cloud,” a learning lab in India, “where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online.” He is particularly keen on schools and teachers NOT depriving children of smartphones, laptops, and other connected devices in the classroom.