Thursday, September 9, 2010

Self-organised learning

"Good teachers don't go to the places they're needed most."

An excellent quote from this talk by Professor Sugata Mitra at a recent TED conference on his fascinating experiments with self-organised learning among children in underprivileged areas of India and south-east Asia. This impressive work is known as the hole-in-the-wall method. What he has done is to place computers out in the streets of slum areas and let the children just use them as they please. Without instruction or adult intervention the children collaborated and learned how to access games, record themselves, write and find information. This occurred even if the information was mostly in English, a language that few, if any, understood. In all cases the children clearly showed that they had learnt by helping each other.

The effect was evidently even more impressive with the help of the so-called "grandmother method" whereby the children had access to an older woman, often via Skype, who would simply encourage them, ask questions and generally admire them. The experiments have been repeated in several countries and on a large scale and the results have been consistently impressive. As professor at the University of Newcastle Mitra has also been working with children in local schools giving them tasks to work out in small groups sharing a computer but without teacher assistance. The results mirror those in India.

He has coined the term Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE) to describe a small room with computer and screen where children in schoolless areas can gain access to learning under the benevolent guidance of the virtual grannies. With relatively small investment it could make a big difference to a lot of people.

Does this mean that schools and teachers are not needed? Of course not but it raises some important issues about how education works. We probably grossly underestimate children's (and adults') ability to learn and collaborate and we probably overestimate the power of the traditional classroom model of teaching. Mitra's work shows that children are able to learn very effectively in groups with the help of a computer but also that the presence of a mentor figure to guide and encourage them has a very positive effect.

This ties in with a lot of the ideas behind connectivism and collaborative learning. Interestingly Mitra points out that the effects are not so impressive if the children all have computers; group work is the crucial factor. Learning is a social process. The question is whether all this research and positive results can seriously influence our attitudes to education.

Read more about Professor Mitra's work at Hole-in-the-Wall.

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