When I first started my ed tech program last semester and became curious about ed tech in other countries, one of the first subjects I came across was Sugata Mitra and his famous Hole-in-the-Wall experiments. It seemed really exciting and interesting, so I briefly blogged about it and made a mental note to look into it more deeply later.
My Twitter feed regularly features posts praising him — like this article from last week’s EduTech conference (where he got a “rockstar welcome”), and this article about Microsoft’s new “Work Wonders” series, depicting his collaboration with fellow education celebrity Adam Braun. Yesterday’s article about him included a casual mention of critics and cynics at the very end, but otherwise was very positive, using the word “remarkable” four times to describe Mitra’s findings.
It is clear Mitra is a charismatic speaker and innovative thinker with good intentions, and can get people excited about his radical proposals — after all, who wouldn’t want to find an affordable, easy way of educating children in developing countries who otherwise lack good teachers or schools? But I also quickly realized in my search for more information that there were some very important critiques that needed more attention. For example, is money (like the $1 million TED prize he won last year) being spent on methods that result in measurably improved outcomes for students?
Mitra’s statement that “there are places all over the world where it is difficult or impossible to build schools” or “where good teachers cannot, or do not, wish to go” is the keystone of all his ed tech ideas. Whereas some NGOs might focus on building schools in hard-to-reach areas or providing more teacher training in a particular region, he forms completely new theories about what would work best in those situations and tries different experiments — starting with Hole-in-the-Wall (HiWEL) and Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs), and now to the “School in the Cloud” and the “Granny Cloud” (English-speaking adults interacting with, but not teaching, children via Skype). Certainly there is nothing wrong with trying out new ideas in education, but what evidence has been shown so far?
The main criticism around Mitra’s work seems to be around whether he has produced enough proof (such as actual data in peer-reviewed journals) that his ideas are successful and sustainable. Some point out infrastructure problems, while others are suspicious of his successful self-reports. Donald Clark’s blog post starts by showing two photos of HiWEL projects in India – both abandoned and vandalized, “literally just…holes in a wall.” Mostly relying on information from a “scathing” TEDx talk given by Payal Arora (who also published a paper looking at why HiWEL failed in two Indian communities), Clark outlines seven doubts he has about HiWEL, from funding sources to lack of independent research into effectiveness and outcomes. Like many who wonder if technology is the best solution to issues in developing countries, he writes “Are we being asked to believe that the solution to the lack of opportunities in third world education are computers in walls? Are we really going to dangerously divert funding from rural schools into these schemes?”
One commenter from India agrees, replying “To those actually engaged in trying to bring about real change in (Indian) education, Mitra’s work totally fails to take into account the context and the needs on the ground. […] There is insufficient reason to believe that merely the provision of hardware and software (without the humanware in the form of teachers, supportive relationships, a high degree of engagement, reflection and application that a teacher would generate) would help children overcome the cumulative disadvantage that follows them to school.”
Janelle Ward interviews Payal Arora about HiWEL, who says “There is theory and there is reality. I actually question the underlying assumptions of this idea … I question the quick abandoning of ‘schooling’ as an institution. For instance, a few children usually dominate the kiosk; these are usually boys. Schools on the other hand ensure equity of access.”
Adding to Clark’s photos and doubts and Arora’s experience, Michael Trucano’s post for the World Bank’s EduTech blog is helpful because it provides an informal, “impressionistic,” on-the-ground look at two of Mitra’s HiWEL installations in Delhi, India. He goes to observe these because “One thing that seems to get lost (or to be blunt, often ignored) in policy-level discussions around educational technologies is a contemplation of actual usage scenarios.” He discovered, through talks with staff from the organization that implemented HiWEL, that “minimally invasive education” was somewhat misleading, as a “site coordinator” from the local community had to be present for successful uptake and use of the computers. Without that, some people simply didn’t understand the point of having them, or didn’t want to let their daughters use them. He also pointed out that “a good deal of effort had gone into developing compelling education content – mostly in the form of game-like formats” – i.e., it wasn’t simply children browsing the Internet looking for information, something Mitra advocates through SOLEs. He also spoke with a local schoolteacher who said his school did have computers, but that they had been locked up for the last two years due to lack of trained teachers to use them.
The latter issue is an interesting problem for ICT4E initiatives – on the one hand, ICT is assumed to be necessary for children’s education, to the point of providing them free HiWEL computers so that they can create SOLEs under “minimally invasive” circumstances. On the other hand, there are already computers present in a school, but no teachers able to use them for directed educational purposes. Where would money best be spent in this situation? Which ICT investment would lead to the best educational and development outcomes?
Michelle Sowey’s blog post starts out discussing the benefits and similarities between Mitra’s ideas and “curiosity-driven, collaborative enterprises” in primary school classes. However, she says minimally invasive education differs from successful philosophical enquiry methods because it “(1) features the internet as a principal learning medium and (2) it renounces the guidance of qualified teachers or practitioners.” The primary problem is highlighted in Mitra’s SOLE Toolkit, where his “showcase example of children’s work in a SOLE betrays not only factual errors but also egregious failures of reasoning.” (emphasis mine) After discussing this example, she argues that “it’s not plausible that children in SOLEs can self-organise their way into an expanded repertoire of thinking skills.”
Hugh Dellar’s blog post is more openly angry than others, but voices similar frustrations about Mitra’s evidence. As a teacher and author who spoke onstage at an ed tech conference immediately after Mitra, he attacks the education profession’s unquestioning adulation of a “snake-oil seller” who “holds teachers in contempt.”
“The fact that Mitra sees fit to make such anecdotal claims – without specifying what level of English they supposedly reached, how this was tested, what a control group of similar kids studying a similar period with an actual teacher might have achieved and so on – clearly places him into the realm of magic bullet fantasists and undermines trust in much of the rest of his pseudo-research-based claims.”
The repeated concern over whether SOLEs are effective learning tools is a valid and important starting point when discussing education in developing countries and which ICT4E (if any) initiatives should be implemented. In his defense, Mitra does point out in his blog that the TED Prize money will go towards researching questions such as whether his Schools in the Cloud can improve reading comprehension. He also gave an update to TED about his research in March this year, although it appears to have been more about having set up several learning labs rather than having any measurable results to report.
Hopefully the TED prize will result in research that either confirms Mitra’s ideas, or allows him to come up with more effective plans for providing students in developing countries with affordable, quality education. In the end, most people want the same goal, and some educational experiments may be tried with the best intentions but not prove feasible for whatever reason. However, questions about an ICT4E initiative’s effectiveness are an absolutely critical part of this process, and rigorous research and evaluation should be done where possible.