Monday, March 04, 2013

Sugata Mitra: Slum chic? 7 reasons for doubt

This is a Sigatra Mitra ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ site in India. Literally just three holes in a wall. That’s because it failed. The community, as verified by Payal Arora, can barely remember why they were installed or what happened. They do remember that they were vandalised (a known problem with unsupervised children?).
Here’s another, set in a school playground, the computers long gone. “What we see is the idea of free learning going into free fall” said Payal Arora. When Arora came across these two ‘hole-in-the-wall’ sites (Almora and Hawalbagh in northern India), she discovered not the positive tales of self-directed learning but failure. One was vandalised and closed down within two months, the other abandoned and, apparently, had been mostly used by boys to play games. A real problem was sustainability, as no one seemed responsible for the electricity and maintenance bills.
My own research into a hole-in-the-wall project uncovered the same story - empty holes in the wall, resentful teachers and testimonies that claimed the whole project was a faulure from start to finish. Peoeple arrived at their school. knocked holes in theiw walls, inserted computers and left. They felt violated. The computers rarely worked, as the DSL line was often down, and when it did work, the larger boys domiated them, playing games.
My own doubts arose when I gave a TEDx talk and the speaker after me was an academic from Mitra’s department at Newcastle University. She was well versed in Indian education, and went on to talk at length about feckless third world teachers and state schools, but she was also scathing about the hole-in-the-wall research, not only the research methods and conclusions. This made me more than a little curious. Sugata Mitra is treated by the educational world as some sort of saint. Otherwise smart and reasonable people go gaga for Mitra. Hailed as the ‘hole-in-the-wall hero’, few question his questionable research or even more questionable recommendations. Academics, who would go to the wall to defend the ‘lecture’, will hail the idea of replacing schools with hole-in-the-wall computers, not of course in their own institutions but certainly for poor people. Now I’ve spent the whole of my adult life creating and evangelising online learning but even I draw a line at his utopian vision. Here’s why I have doubts.

1. Funding.
Few realise that hole-in-the-wall funding came originally from from NIIT then the International Finance Corporation, a commercial Indian e-learning company and the for-profit side of the World Bank. I know them well and believe me, this is no charitable institution. As Arora (2010) points out, there is little real independent evidence, other than that provided by HiWEL itself and one must always question research funded by those who would benefit from a positive outcome. The lack of independent research on the sites is astonishing, something noted by Mark Warschauer, one of the few critics who have actually visited a site.

2. Holes in the research
Arora, although not totally unsympathetic to the Hole-in-the-wall project, exposed a glaring weakness in the design of the experiment. The 75 days of learning (with a mediator) was compared to the same period in the local school but like was not being compared to like, so the comparison was meaningless. It was not comparing the amount of time spent on the hole-in-the-wall material with the same or similar amount of time in school. This is also true of Mitra's compadre at MIT Negroponte in his Ethiopian work. As De Bruyckere et al. say in Urban Myths: Learning and Education (2015), the lack of serious research is puzzling. Most of it comes from Mitra himself, or those in his team, almost all from one Journal. Control groups were given questionnaires at the start and end of the period, but those in the experimental group were tested every month. The obvious problem here is the polluting effect of effect the regular assessments. Indeed, as De Bruyckere et al. (2015) say, there is ample research, from Reedier & Karpicke and others on the positive effect of testing.

3. School in disguise?
Schools are obsolete” said Mitra – oh yeah? Far from being sited in open places, HiWEL sites are now invariably in school compounds. By being in the school it is difficult to do research that isolates the experience from the school, difficult to disentangle the role of the school (teachers, books etc.) and the hole-in-the-wall computers. Indeed, as HiWEL has explained, they involve ‘teachers’ in their implementation and mediation, making it almost impossible to isolate the causes of educational improvement. One could say, with Arora, that this has become “self-defeating”. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ has become the ‘computer-in-the-school’. This is a subtle switch - evangelise on one premise, deliver on another.

4. Mediators
As HiWEL makes extensive use of mediators (teachers), the real lesson of the hole in the wall experiments is that teachers, or at least mediators, seem to be a necessary condition for learning to combat exclusion, mediate learning and avoid the vagaries of child-centred behaviour. Yet this is not what the TED talks and hole-in-the-wall evangelism suggests. Another problem is that by seeing teachers as ‘invasive’, such initiatives can antagonise teachers and educators, leading to poor-support.  I found this in my research in Africa, where the teachers were resentful. Arora concludes are that these experiments do not work when not linked to the local schools and that, far from being self-directed, the children need mediation by adults. Arora goes further and claims that disassociating learning from adult guidance can lead to uncritical acceptance of bad content and bad learning habits.

5. Low level learning
Warschauer (2003) is even more critical than Arora. He claims that “overall the project was not very effective”, with low level learning and not challenging. In addition, he found that some of the many problems were the fact that the internet rarely functioned, no content was provided in Hindi, the only language the children knew, and many parents thought that the paucity of relevant content rendered it irrelevant and criticised the kiosks as distracting the children from their homework. Sure they learned how to use menus, drag and drop but most of the time they were “using paint programs or playing games”. This is hardly surprising and seems to confirm the rather banal conclusion that when you give kids shiny new things, they play with them. 

6. Peer pressure
Notice two things about this image – no girls and big boys at the screen. You get an odd skew in the data based on the fact that the few successes tell you nothing about the absent children, that got nowhere near the kiosks – these missing children turn out to be the many, not the few, and lot of girls. We should be careful about saying, like Mitra, that schools are obsolete, as they are our best bet in providing universal access and participation. Unmediated peer learning among children can be difficult as “self-organising children” are rarely optimal learning groups. Indeed, they are more commonly, narrowly defined peer groups, built around class, background, locale, a musical style, fashion, even power. The school playground is a competitive space that many children fear. It is, for many, a place of social isolation and exclusion. Most teachers and parents have experienced the evils of self-organised ‘peer groups’ not just on terms of pressure but also of exclusion and bullying. Indeed Arora (2005) has evidence that boys playing games was the real net outcome in Andhra Pradesh.

7. Educational colonialism. Mitra has been criticised for a form of educational colonialism. Who among you in the developed world would abandon all teaching and install ‘hole-in-the-wall’ learning for your own children? We are 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? Is this poorly designed research and exaggerated conclusions, from an educational department in a European University, used to justify an approach to education that no parent, even in impoverished countries, would consider for one minute? If Mitra has children, I wonder if he’s allowing them to learn in this way?

Conclusion - a little learning is indeed a dangerous thing
Based on scanty evidence, funded by parties who have a lot to gain then shifted away from hole-in-the-wall to computers-in-schools. Like Slumdog Millionaire, the movie inspired by Mitra’s work, it beggars belief. There’s no silver bullet here and we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking this is the answer. The real danger is that we get carried away by under-researched ‘feelgood’ initiatives. Slumdog Millionaire is typical of the utopian nonsense that can emerge. An overly romanticised, rags to riches, Bollywood Cinderella story that is an assault on probability. Is Mitra’s story also one of ‘Slum chic’? Perhaps the most disgustingly contrived moment of the film is when Jamal says 'You wanted to see the real India' and the US tourist, hands him a $100 note saying ‘Now we'll show you the real America'. This, for me, was reminiscent of the TED Prize.

For more research and my research visit to a failed hole-in-wall site see here
For a critique of SOLE see here

Arora, P. (2010), Hope-in-the-Wall? A digital promise for free learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41: 689–702.
Koseoglu, S. (2011). The hole in the wall experiments: Learning from self-organizing systems. Retrieved from
Mitra, S., & Rana, V. (2001). Children and the Internet: Experiments with minimally invasive education in India. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32 (2), 221-232.
Mitra, S. (2003). Minimally invasive education: A progress report on the ‘Hole-in-the-wall’ experiments. The British Journal of Educational Technology, 34 (3), 367-371.
Mitra, S. (2005). Self organising systems for mass computer literacy: Findings from the 'hole in the wall' experiments.  International Journal of Development Issues, 4 (1), 71-81.
Mitra, S. (2006). The Hole in the Wall: Self-organising systems in education. Noida, UP: TataMcGraw Hill.
Mitra, S. (2009). Remote presence: ‘Beaming’ teachers where they cannot go. Journal of  Emerging Technology and Web Intelligence, 1 (1), 55-59.
Mitra, S., Dangwal, R., & Thadani, L. (2008). Effects of remoteness on the quality of education:A case study from North Indian schools. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24 (2), 168-180.
Mitra, S., & Dangwal, R. (2010). Limits to self-organising systems of learning - The Kalikuppamexperiment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41 (5), 672-688.
Roediger H.L. & Karpicke J.D. (2006) Test enhanced Learning, Psychological Science
Warschauer, M. 2003. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Warschauer, M. 2009. ‘Digital literacy studies: Progress and prospects’. In The Future of Literacy Studies, edited by Baynham, M; Prinsloo, M. London: Palgrave Macmillan: 123–140.


andy tedd said...

I think you should at least acknowledge your own, mildly utopian, post of March 3 2009 on this very topic? (although search will probably do that for you ;) )

He got a TED for trying something different to do with learning and technology - I can't think what else a TED award is for?

TED as a concept is hopelessly utopian and has big emancipatory ideals - it should take risks, promote the radical and celebrate epic failure - it's not the DfES.

Donald Clark said...

Sort of agree with this which is why I haven't really had a go at TED and the prize - maybe a small dig ta the end. But we have to be careful with TED evangelism if it selects 'celebrity' researchers and not research. Then again, It ain't a University, so you have a good point.

Ibrar said...

Interesting article. Thanks. Warschauer's argument for an 'ideological model of digital literacy' comes to mind; one which takes into account the widest contexts and worldwide hegemonic structures, namely capitalism (discussed in his 2009 chapter in Baynham and Prinsloo's volume).

Also, btw, I don't think Mitra's work inspired the making of that movie 'Slumdog...'. Imagine if it had? That'd be worth an award in itself, talk about research having 'impact'! :-)


Ibrar Bhatt

Donald Clark said...

The autor of the novel Q&A upon which the movie was based has said many times that the hole-in-the-wall project inspired him to write the book. I agree - CONTEXT is important.

Scott Grimmwise said...

The magic of the Hole in the Wall project was that kids found a mysterious object, and they loved trying to figure out what it could do. What is the "mysterious object" in a SOLE project (Mitra's new you-can-do-it-yourself idea of implementing Self-Organized-Learning-Environments)? What is revolutionary about adults giving kids questions to think about in a structured format, while they observe and collect data (that Mitra would like you to send to him)?

Here are some troubling passages from the SOLE Toolkit:

"When launching a SOLE, it is important for educators to model a spirit of wonder to set the tone." (page 9). Sounds like a lot of organizing. And adults faking it until they make it. Ugh.

"Even though it may be tempting to ask questions with seemingly easy answers, it is important to ask big picture questions that promote deeper and longer conversations." (page 9) Why do adults choose the questions? Isn't that totally against the idea of the thing?

From the "Tips for handling challenges" (page 14):

Problem: "An entire group is not working on the task at hand"
Solution: "Remind the group of the SOLE agreements..."

Problem: "Kids complain that there is nothing to do because someone else is using the computer"
Solution: "Ask them about how they felt about sharing computers during the review..."

The Hole in the Wall took place in an unsupervised, "free-range" context. SOLEs take place as activities planned by adults, often in institutional settings monitored by adults.

According to what I've read, in hunter-gatherer societies children spend most of the day gallivanting around, unsupervised by adults, learning from one another. They share, demonstrate, teach amongst themselves...even "toilet training" is done amongst kids and not something adults have to spend time on. That's not an obsolete system in the 21st Century just because we're not hunter-gatherers. It's not possible in our society as it's currently constructed because we are not willing to give up institutionalization (which cannot support gallivanting around).

Ibrar said...

Hey so it was. My error.
Also, when it comes to what actually happens when machines get used for educational purposes, I think there's more explanation required, over and above the current body of work in the field of Ed Tech. I don't think it's enough to say that such and such technology has an 'affordance' and that students who employ it will exploit that to their educational gain.

In my research on Literacies, one of the things I'm discovering is that students are able to mobilise 'literacies' (that would otherwise have no place in the classroom) as resources to get work done, often through cyberspace activities. We could say, then, that technologies are 'irruptive' (in that a whole new bunch of social actors are allowed to irrupt and literacy practices can flow in) as well as the often stated 'disruptive'.

Nice blog btw, and I will follow our updates.


Donald Clark said...

I agree. I have outlines some of those literacies in a series of posts in the blog on MOOPs For example

Ian@Yacapaca said...

I am a huge fan of Sugata Mitra, and very much align with the 'hunter gatherer' argument above. Which is why I am especially grateful to you for this very coherent compilation of critical views. Much needed.

Bob Harrison said...

I have listened to Sugata's presentation several times in person and always find it inspiring. I shared my feelings with some colleagues at Stanford University last year.

Whilst,like me,they were impressed with the stage show and TED talks they were less kind about the academic rigour of the data behind the presentations.

Mik van Es said...

Thanks for writing this down. Great stuff. It makes my day.

dustproduction said...

Is there disagreement that children learn when they are encouraged to? Is there disagreement that these are children without opportunities such as teachers and schools?
While we can ask for more research and a better understanding of what is being observed in Mitra's model we must also admit that he is following a thread that the religion of the Western education model would otherwise ask us to ignore.

Donald Clark said...

Far from being something teh West ignores, it is something that originated in the West with Rousseau and through Papert and others resulted in the educational colonialism that is the 'hole in the wall' and OLPC projects in Ethiopia. There is disagreement around these issues, that's why we need proper research not feelgood projects.

Torn Halves said...

Amidst all the tweets linking to Mitra's talk appending adjectives like "awesome", "inspiring" etc. we found a link to this post and are happy to see some healthy critical reflection about something in the TED arena where it sometimes seems as if debate is taboo, and where the phrase "ideas worth sharing" doesn't necessarily mean "thinking worth sharing" or even "scholarship worth sharing".

We have written a post which, in effect, expands on the ideas you mention in the section about colonialism. Mitra's reference to empire in his February TED talk was very provocative, and we thought it was worth a closer look:

Unknown said...

Unknown said...

I am relieved to have found your article. Although I am a sucker for feel good presentations, Mitra did not account for any failures in his presentation, which should lead anyone to be skeptical.

Now if there was a new learning strategy that could teach kids, or people in general, how to discern fact from bias, I would go bananas.

Donald Clark said...

Exactly Gordon. I'm not against all of Mitra's work but I do resent the weak research methods and unalloyed positive presentation. In fact, he would do better to be more honest.

labrs said...

There are people with vision, and there are critics juxtaposed with abstract intelligence. Its better at any day to do some research(shallow it may be) than a hollow criticism which aims nothing, changes nothing brings a stale perspective of being a sole critics. I guess we have laws of reflection better suited for mirrors !

Donald Clark said...

labrs - and there we have it. Blog - but don't critique anything. Watch TED talks - but don't dare say anything contrary to their views. I've spent my whole life implementing technology in education projects and one thing I have learnt - research only WORKS if other people are free to examine the results. Why is reasoned criticism unwarranted? Read the tweets and responses. There are plenty of people out there who don't buy this approach to learning. What's the point of 'shallow' research .

Unknown said...

Great post donald, i saw mitra at ALT-C.. Perhaps you have a point about the validity of his research methods, i'm not a researcher and you're right that if there are no problems reported in presentations it should be suspicious... I'm a big believer education is politics tho and i think this type of work is akin to activism (did freire teach EVERYONE how to read??)... It is not a panacea though, and your comments about electricity, internet access and the role of girls is all too believable. But whilst freire made a difference to the lives of some of his learners who wouldn't have otherwise had the opportunity, he didn't transform the political or educational landscape overall.. Mitra is taking e-learning to stage 1 - access to information. Perhaps some of his hole in the walls allowed girls to autonomously access information that they wouldn't have had otherwise.. (i accept these are not his claims...) it reminds me of plan ceibal in uruguay. Utopian ideals with vague outcomes. i dont think we will see the societal benefits of universal access to the internet for a few years but long journeys start with tiny steps... Mitra is an educational activist in my mind, and even a modest success should be lauded considering how offbeat his ideas are - compare with the capture/ playback and good luck pedagogy of MOOCs - the other panacea to universal education.

Donald Clark said...

Interesting argument and I can see the attraction of reframing Mitra as an activist but that begs the question of what sort of activist. If it means money going into Rousseau-type initiatives that promote Educational Colonialism (see my post on Negroponte) with developing countries spending large sums on solutions that won't work, then the activism will be counterproductive. I've seen some wonderful work done in developing countries not led by academics like Mitra and Negroponte, people who really do make a difference - look at the recent WISE winners. You may, however, be right in the long term in that Mitra is at least opening eyes to the possibilities of more radical solutions. Made me think - thanks.

Sugata Mitra said...

I try to publish in peer reviwed journals in the hope that they will point out deficiencies in my work. The above tirade made me really depressed. Maybe all my work is rubbish and I should let experts improve education for poor children, as they have done for hundreds of years in the past.

Joel H Josephson said...

On Facebook just now Sugata Mitra has written, 'Maybe it's all rubbish after all?' with a link to this blog.
Thee are a growing number of sycophantic comments about criticism being akin to praise.

I would be very interested in reading Professor Mitra's rebuttal of the above arguments?

Vikram said...

It's as simple as that - "If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much."

Donald Clark said...

Sugata - This response strikes me as symptomatic of the problem. Academics who see anyone outside of their own world as unworthy of comment. Honestly, there's some aspect of your work I admire. The 'hole-in-the-wall' project is just not one of them. I am not alone and have quoted others who have similar doubts. Indeed, I have been flooded by people who have similar problems with the project. It would have been more fruitful, I feel, to have answered some of my doubts.

Donald Clark said...

Joel. I agree. Astounding that any criticism is treated with contempt. Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them.

jake said...

In Defense of Sugata

I have noticed that Sugata Mitra has been getting bashed about recently over the TED prize. I, for one, am a believer and use his ideas in my classroom.

First, it is so easy to misunderstand writing. It lacks visual cues, tones of voice, etc. I am not trying to antagonize.

Education is so tricky. Everyone has an opinion on how it should best be done. I am no exception. The only difference is that I practice it everyday in my classroom and it affords me some insight into the massive changes undergoing education right now.

I have to agree with Edward De Bono, that debate is a crude instrument in which to explore a problem. Donald, I have watched your TED Glasgow and it seems to me that we are all on the same side - trying to change the world for the better and give kids the best damn education possible. Instead of debating, how about collaborating? There are many similarities that we are all talking about.

I have put Sugata's ideas of MIE (minimally invasive education) into my classroom. I teach digital media in a First Nation school in BC, Canada. I teach K - 12. I teach challenged learners. While I do not follow Sugata's approach to the T, I do use a lot of his core concepts and combine it with ideas from Roger Shank, Ewen McIntosh, Seth Godin and Johny Seely Brown.

For example, we rarely let kids try to figure it out on their own first. Why do we do that? Why do we give detailed instructions to do something and everyone has to do the same thing? Instead, I introduce a problem like figuring out a new piece of software and step back. See if you can figure it out. Help each other. Collaborate. Some students figure it out fast and help the others. If they really can't get it, that is when I step in and show them the way - up to a point - then they have to figure it out again. Step by step.

This is largely based off of Sugata's idea that learning is an emergent phenomenon and students can learn anything together with an internet connection. I find that so profound, don't you? Based on my practice and experiments of these ideas, I would say that yes, this is true. The engagement is sky high in my class. Students are producing and not just passively consuming. Is this not what we all want and need for our children in 2013 and beyond?

Sugata is trying to build a cloud where students can access people and learn from them as they need. I find that so revolutionary and inspiring. Based on my educational experiments, what I would add to Sugata's approach is having a teacher/mentor/facilitator right there with the students. The cloud is great, but there is still something about having that face to face that the students need in order to learn important skills like discipline and motivation. We can all immediately recall a great teacher or mentor, and I believe having one in the classroom is still of vital importance. What is not important any longer is the old, industrial approach of delivering content. That is so toast. Instead, I use Sugata's MIE to facilitate problem finding and solving.

You are more than welcome to check out what I am up to here:

I personally see a great deal of optimism in education of the future. Thank you both for your dedication to changing the status quo. Keep rocking it!

Sarah said...

It's not actually correct to say that Sugata Mitra suggests we don't need schools at all and I think this is a key point.

What he does point out in his research, is that there will unfortunately always be places in the world where good teachers are not able, or prepared, to teach, which is significantly different.

In these situations, this new approach to e-learning comes into the fore.

Before anyone looks me up and then suggests I am being sneaky or bias, I will say that I do work for Newcastle University and have spent many years working with Sugata.

I have found him to be an inspirational person who at the end of the day will freely admit to having human faults just like the rest of us.

So, some aspects of what he does might not be perfect, but what is? At least he is trying to make a difference in the world and is prepared to stand up for what he believes in.

Donald Clark said...

Sarah. Why then did Mitra use the phrase "Schools are obsolete"? His tirade against schooling in his TED talk and in print is at odds with your claim. I too think that SOME of Mitra's work is worth reading but not the 'hole-in-the-wall' experiments. However, I suppose my main concern is the lack of response to my points. Rather than saying "So, some aspects of what he does might not be perfect, but what is?" I'd prefer some reason and debate. I am genuinely puzzled by academic responses that simply say "trust him, he's a good guy". This is about a fundamental argument in education that goes back to Rousseau. I have put forward a number of reasons for doubt, none seem to have been addressed.

Donald Clark said...

Jake - I have no problem with student centred learning, I just don't think it was invented by Sugata Mitra. You need to go back to Rousseau, even Socrates for a more sophisticated debate on the subject. I suppose your experience backs up what I said in the post. My reasons for doubt were based upon the isolated 'hole-in-the-wall' experiments and I stated that these had morphed into school-based, mediated activities, such as you recommend. This is a sleigt of hand that many do not understand. Most people think of Mitra's work as isolated HITW experiments, not 'school-based learning'. He himself sells the idea that "schools are obsolete".

Sugata Mitra said...

I notice my rebuttal is asked for. It is all there in my last response on this page. I know it is less than as literal as it should be, but then I am oriental, you know, we try to pack as much in as little as possible :)
I said Victorian schooling is obsolete and corrected immediately to 'outdated'. No one noticed?
I asked if peer reviewed papers in international journals are to be considered flawed. No one said anything.
NIIT did not fund my research, the World Bank did. Anyone noticed?
Lastly, it took me 30 minutes to think about and write this response. I would have spent the time on planning a new project for very poor children. Would someone, perhaps Donald, like to take the responsibility for this wastage and the resultant loss to them?.
Please do carry on with your armchair debate in the comfort of the age of empires money that is, finally, mercifully drying up.
I will work with the victims, use the methods I know, publish and one day reverse the wrongs.
Enough rebuttal :)

Donald Clark said...

Well that's that then! Is no one allowed to question your work? Is that what academia has come to? Of course I don't think that peer reviewed journals are flawed (although sometimes they clearly are)that's why I put citations to your papers at the end of the post. All I'm saying is that the messages and evidence don't stack up and that there is a paucity of critiques and flaws in the methodology - that's how academic debate progresses.I was thinking that academia was about critical debate.;)
PS Accusing me of being some sort of 'age of empires' racist is odd as I do notice that you're not unwilling to draw substantial salaries, research grants and prizes from 'age of empires' institutions in the UK and US.

Torn Halves said...

Donald, there are interesting tensions both in your line of criticism and in Mitra's defense of himself. If I am not mistaken, you are primarily criticising Mitra's scientific credentials. In reply, Mitra wants to insist that he is devoted to serious fieldwork and has no time for what appears to him to be idle theory.

Perhaps the problem, though, is with the idea of a science of education. For instance, you point out how Mitra in his public talks does not acknowledge how the ideas he is working with have a long tradition, not in science, but in philosophy. Furthermore, Mitra has made it big, not because of his science, but because of a number of myths that he has helped to spin - the myth of the obsolescence of school, the myth of the essential goodness of children and of the hope for a brave new world if we just let the children spontaneously come together and help each other, and the myth that what will open the door to this brave new world is the right use of digital technology. These are not hypotheses that would be worth testing in double-blind experiments. They are myths that are not idle armchair thinking, but myths that animate the lives of quite a few people.

Mitra's own blog reveals a man who is as interested in armchair mythology as any of us.

Perhaps the priority now is to have a more philosophical critique of that mythology.

Donald Clark said...

Tom Good points. I agree that we need philosophial analysis of the ideas that lie behind Mitra's work. I've made some attempt at this myself - see the 50 learning theorists posts in this blog. However, I also think that funded work in the real world needs to be independently evaluated and do think that clear hypotheses can be constructed. This means being clear about what the experiment is meant to achieve, what variable(s) are being tested and what conclusions can be drawn from the data. I think that the work of Mitra and Negroponte are woeful in this regard. Worse, it is a distraction from the real hard work on the ground that has to be done to solve these problems. There are no silver bullets, except in the world of TED talks and conference circuits.

Sugata Mitra said...

David: The academic from Newcastle whose scathing remarks you refer to in your first post tells me -

'I said that we needed more research in order to consider how children learned using the idea of self organised learning and therefore needed to find more funding....
He has used our meeting to fit in with his blog and has mis-used me...'

I find this academically despicable and ethically unacceptable. The rest of what you say does not really matter in view of this, does it?

Donald Clark said...

Sugata – First, my name is Donald not David – that’s OK to err is human.
First, I am very clear about that conversation. She was very critical of your work, as are many others in academia and beyond. This is really OK, as it’s the way research works. I’m not surprised that she’s has had a Damascene Conversion, as you clearly brook no dissent.
The academic in question, went on to explain why private schools, not hole in the wall, or self-organised learning, are the answers to third word educational deficit. Her solution is not self-organised learning, it is teachers and highly structured schooling. At slum sites in India and Africa, her “great news story” was self-organised capitalism through low cost private schools. She castigated teachers in state schools where, “typically in a government school teachers don’t turn up.. … they’ve been found to be eating peanuts reading a book …drunk outside the classroom or even … sleeping. This is endemic within the government schools.” What struck me at the time about this was the word “typically’ followed by a string of anecdotes. At this point, I really was suspicious about the whole idea of objective research in education at the University of Newcastle. In any case, the idea that she was in favour of self-organised learning, in any form is completely at odds with her research and beliefs aired on YouTube.
You surely, as an academic, have to accept the fact that not everyone agrees with you. This is not a weakness, it is a strength. Good work (and I think some of your work is excellent, just not the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ projects) should induce a critical response. This is fundamental to the idea of academic research. Read the earlier comment on my post , “I shared my feelings with some colleagues at Stanford University last year. Whilst, like me, they were impressed with the stage show and TED talks they were less kind about the academic rigour of the data behind the presentations.” These people are not being disloyal, they merely, like me, have rational doubts.

Unknown said...

He seems a tad touchy. I can't put my finger on it exactly but I'm reminded of the NLP exchanges that took place here a while back.

Anonymous said...

Donald Clark, have you read any of John Taylor Gatto's work? Please check out "The Underground History of American Education".

I'll be interested in your blog post after you've read it.

Paul Bevis said...

Highly unusual to find the post blog commentary as challenging and interesting as the initial post. Thank you to all.

I am now n my 40th year of work in education and still learning and debating. It is clear that too often teachers, for all the right reasons, get involved too often too quickly, or feel the need to fill the learning environment. Like the teaching of reading, a one club approach(phonics), to use a golf analogy will never be as successful as intelligent and reflective use of a range of methods to help, guide, support and allow learning. Children will explore, collaborate, problem solve, learn and take intellectual risks if we provide the right landscape and challenge.

It is inspiring to read and hear of initiatives and experiments, even those that shine brightly for only a limited period - it still moves our thinking on, and causes us to reflect and challenge our own practice.

Thank you all again

Anonymous said...

Hi Donald,

Do your really know anything of the hopelesness of modern, American education. You must, you're educated right? But, something tells me you just don't get it--that you're lost in some strange little world where it is hard for you to see past the end of your nose. If you really knew what you were doing, and cared, you wouldn't be wasting your time on this blog (btw this is my first time commenting on a blog post). Would you? Or, maybe you feel like this blog is the best way you can contribute to humanity? Or, maybe its a good place to hide so that you don't really have to 'do' anything (except talk about Rousseau--my god it's true, you really have no idea). I'm sure (if you allow this to post) you will have a snappy, well-researched and cited rebuttal. Let's face it, we don't know how to fix education or even if there is a solution to the problems that face education. One thing is clear, it is an utter distaster. Why don't you go out there and do something, anything (at least try) and make a change that we can feel. Stop hiding behind your academic credentials and angelic intentions. Do something! Feel free to correct my spelling.

Donald Clark said...

Well anonymous. 1) I'm not an academic. 2) I have spent 30 years doing real ICT projects in the real world, all over the world. If you don't like blogs, don't read and comment on them. If you do,make some real points.

Anonymous said...

To the last post by 'Anonymous', I must say:

a) You say that education in the modern world is a disaster. Is that really true? Over the last century, mankind has progressed more than in all the previous ones combined. The modern education system has also come into existence around this time. It may not be perfect, but it is certainly effective.

b) If you must counter Donald's arguments, do so using logic, not rhetoric. Your entire post seems more like a rant rather than an argument.

c) Unless it can show some impact, how is Sugata's project any different from the hundreds of government schemes in India/developing countries that have all the right intentions and aims but that fail to deliver? They are trying to change the world for the better too, yet they earn a bad name. Why should hole in the wall be treated differently just because Sugata made a TED presentation on it?

Again, my point is not to support Donald in the least or Sugata for that matter. Let a question be met by an answer, not a witch-hunt for the one asking the question. At the end of the day, that is the very first principle of education, is it not?

Finally, let my post not be construed as an effort to stop the setting up of hole-in-the-wall kiosks anywhere. My point is just that we should evaluate better if the money being spent can be diverted to more effective alternative education methods. If it can be, so be it. If not, so be it.

I think that hole-in-the-wall is a wonderful social experiment. It probably provides rural kids the sort of access to information that they can only dream of otherwise. It is fine to do this as a social initiative, even a corporate or government initiative. What we need to do as rational individuals and educators is evaluate whether the experiment is having the sort of impact that it says it is and not be overly pretensive or dismissive of dissent on that aspect.

Subir Shukla said...

Mitra seems to be taken more seriously in the West than in India. 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. Given the little attention that marginalized children get in school, and the fact that slum and rural environments offer any number of learning opportunities, children are already in an MIE. In fact if you observe them spending their time outside, you might find they are also in SOLE.

However, not only does this not add up to education, 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. (Follow up research cited on Hole-in-the-wall sites would indicate this to be the case.)

In essence Mitra's work is not addressing the 'real' problems behind dysfunctional schools (such as poor governance or the heavy discrimination faced by many) but is trying to work its way around these by getting rid of the teacher/the school (and by extension, the education system itself). As Mitra should say:'That's fine in theory, but would it work in practice?' It is ironic that Mitra finds others sitting on 'armchairs' when he hasn't moved from one himself.

The problem in education is not just one of how children learn but how systems themselves learn. A 'solution' for a few isolated spots is not an answer to the needs of millions. I believe Mitra's work is, at best, a minor distraction from the real task of changing (Indian) education for the better.

Hardik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donald Clark said...

Hardik - I genuinely have no idea what you're talking about here. If you are suggesting that my argument contains a non sequitur then let's look at the detail. I claim, rightly that Mitra's work is unsustainable, hence the literal holes in the walls. I have also criticised Negroponte's parallel work in Ethiopa. The onus is on those who claim to have silver bullet solutions to show that they're sustainable solutions, I am therefore fair to criticise them until the evidence proves me wrong. This is called 'science'. Can I suggest, turning your own argument against me (short-coming in my education) on yourself, that your 40k degree was indeed lacking in logical rigour.

Hardik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donald Clark said...

You seem to be under the illusion that everyone has to do their own experiments to prove any scientific hypothesis. I gave a full bibliography, including papers critical of the 'hole in the wall' experiments. This is the way science and knowledge progress,through critical effort - read Popper. By the way, Einstein's theory of relativity has ample evidence, that's why it has been widely accepted in physics. Gravitational red shift and so on - check it out on Google! I fear your 40k was, by your own admission, somewhat wasted.

Roma Mukherjee said...

Sorry, I don't agree.

Donald Clark said...

I agree that you don't agree! ???

Hans Gutbrod said...

great debate, and I thought the photo was interesting -- I have seen little evidence to suggest that problems of power and hierarchy disappear if you leave children to themselves. Thus this issue really matters.

In terms of the debate, I think it is absolutely the right thing to ask Sugata Mitra by which criteria to verify (or falsify, if you will) the long-term impact of his intervention. This is the minimum standard for good exchange. Donald, if I may say so, I thought you did a great and balanced job in making good debate possible on this issue. Looking forward to following your blog in the future.

Unknown said...

SOLES can work anywhere. However, if members are unable to be moderated, then leaders emerge who dominate..such a males dominating in the photos. However, I do like to possibility of introducing these concept, which are not ALL schools. PS Schools are not going away!

Dina said...

As a Montessori preschool teacher, I was more interested in the larger statement, not in the details (As I listened, I wondered if these hole in the wall computers would be taken over by the largest and the strongest, instead of being shared--so it went from people with money getting the education to people who are biggest and strongest). Regardless of what actually happened at these sites, the concept that children learn better by discovery and self teaching, than by the classical style of teaching whereby a teacher stands at the front and everyone sits in desks, is a more natural and effect way to learn. The optimal situation is self teaching opportunity that is guided.
A video on Montessori (if you want to learn more about Montessori methods of teaching, google it)

Unknown said...

Even if Dr. Mitra had his own children learn from the box they would have the benefit of having him around to bounce thoughts off of. The purpose of institutional education is to either educate well, train well, or to provide neither education or training.
Children learn rapidly to adapt the mode of their respective societies. If the computer stations were set up in poor urban areas in America they would most likely meet fates similar to the results in India. Exclusion would occur and opportunistic thinking would result in killing the golden goose for the immediate egg. These are byproducts of competitive societies.

Donald Clark said...

Not sure what your point is here. I agree that the context matters. In the hole-in-the-wall stations I saw in Africa, where I spoke to the people in the school, their context ws 'the boys just played games and internet rarely worked'. The evidence from India is that girls and others were excluded.

Anonymous said...

Have been a science teacher in the Phila., Pa for more than ten years. Caught Sugatra's efforts on TED some years back.
He has talked about using nannies to encourage Indian kids through computer connections.
Why isn't he making local connections with teachers in India to improve education, like Teach for India. And making connections with the efforts at Kalinga Inst. Indians working with Indians rather than long distance nannies.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I found the comments particularly fascinating and revealing.

I’ve written my own critique of Dr Mitra’s educational approach in a post entitled ‘Can you kill a goat by staring at it? A critical look at minimally invasive education’, which has just been published as a guest post on the Philosophy Foundation’s blog at

In my post I pick up on some of the themes you’ve highlighted, particularly in relation to the need for mediators and the risk of low-level learning. I'd welcome any comments and look forward to further dialogue.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Michelle Excellent piece and I totally agree with the general argument about SOLE being an ill-guided concept if not backed up with mediated activity. Thanks - much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious. Do we know the actual facts as to why the computers are no longer there? Did funding run out? Was it in fact children that vandalized the sites? What is the real story and where is the proof?

It is good to think over, analyse and question new ideas. Nobody wants to be a sheep and follow blindly. But I feel that I got very different message from his work than what you seem to.

I thought the experiments with the hole in the wall gave us insight to how truly intelligent children are when they can learn things in their own way. Not all kids learn in the same way and this is what I believe he meant by saying that school is outdated - and he is right. Mitra has said on a few occasions that more research is needed, he also stated in a talk that females in the slums where not approaching the computers.... So why are those such strong points in your post? He has made those statements himself? Maybe your questions cannot yet be answered because he hasn't been able to do the full required research to explain his findings in the early experiments due to funding?...

On the kids playing with the paint program and games... Who is to say they were not learning anything? What kind of games where they? Was it improving their english, math or problem solving skills? Is the paint program not an important program to express creativity on? Can anyone verify this? Or are we just looking at it at face value?

Donald Clark said...

Anonymous: Verified by site visits and interviews by the named academics, with teachers, parents and students. I myself vistied a site this year. See other post...

Sugata Mitra said...

Sustainability was not what we were studying in these experiments. Reading the paper might help:

Donald Clark said...

When I visited the hole-in-the-wall experiment the teachers were neither consulted, nor told anything about the lifespan or purpose of the project. It didn't work when it was there and your experiment left four holes in the wall of their school. You need to think twice about experimenting with people's lives like this. In my view the hole-in-the-wall projects have done far more harm than good. It was a false promise that has prevented funds and sustainable projects from proceeding. Ask the following question - why have learning kiosks like this not taken off? It's an old education tale going back to Rousseau. Innovation is not innovation witout sustainability.

Santulan Chaubey said...

This is Santulan Chaubey (@santulanchaubey). I reached here following a link from Dr. Sugata Mitra's link at Twitter.

Government of Delhi sponsored this project by providing 5-6 locations and constructing a room at each location having "Holes in wall" in the slum areas of city and funding for management of equipments for approximately good 2 years. I was part of the "Hole-in-Wall" project in Delhi during 2001-2002 as coordinator of this project from Government of Delhi.

The pilot project could not be replicated as "Product". This was mainly because of (1) Absence of a "Business Model" and (2) Absence of career friendly contents .i.e Skill Orientation in contents.

However, the good aspects about the project were:-
The project could contain most of slum kids at one place playing games and learning little thus meeting criteria of "Bridging Digital Divide" in some sense.

At that time, automation of management of IT equipments (placing thermal sensors), contents
management was a good initiatives in terms of optimally using minimal manpower.

Minimally Invasive Education (MIE) could be very well included with other initiatives of Government like center for community mobilization, health care, Citizen Service Centers especially in slum areas. However, its sole existence as substitute of formal learning may be a point of argument. This is also true that there is acute gap in demand and supply of skilled teachers!
MIE has not come as complete solution so far.

Anonymous said...

Donald, I believe you did a great job at pointing out the holes of the Hole in the Wall experiments. What worries me is the fact that no one on this blog has offered to refute or celebrate Mitra’s research through research, neither have you suggested so. Therefore, based on your observations of Mitra’s observations you are refuting (without empirical evidence or without invitation to initiate research) his observations (Funny!). It also worries me that the word of the students doesn’t count here. Have you interviewed more than one group of students? Or even better, have you performed SOLE experiments yourself as part of the research you did to write this paper?
My only interest here is to point out the fact that children in Mitra’s experiments and the new School in the Cloud are using the computers beyond the games and the drawing pads. For instance, did you know that the two most searched questions of the children of the most remote School in the Cloud are in the line of finding a job for their fathers and finding a cure for a sick elder?
All I am saying: please don’t take this away from the kids by freely trashing Mitra’s work. You talk about deep learning, what did you actually learn from this research that provides a constructive critique for Mitra to continue his work and for the children to answer those emotionally charged questions?
In case you are wondering, I am researching SOLEs ☺

Donald Clark said...

1. Why remain anonymous?
2. I am not an academic and, like you, wonder why no one is challenging the poor research (provided only by HIW itself). The reason, I suspect, is that serious researchers see it as fatuous. Alternatively, the 'star effect of TED makes people accept the findings. Many people are surprised when they read my critique as they had no idea that there was another side to the story.
3. There is nothing to refute here. Give children shiny technology, they play around with it - so what. I've seen this in every city, town and country I've visited over the last decade.
4. What did I learn? Don't mistake slapdash technology experiments, that come and go, for real research. Be sensitive to the parents, teachers and students on the ground. Innovation is NOT innovation if it is unsustainable. The Mitra Myth ahs done real damage in Africa and elsewhere by diverting attention away from realistic and sustainable solutions, towards a liberal Western view of learning that goes back to Rousseau.
5. SOLE is neither a theory nor a set of coherent practices. It is loose heuristic.
6. If you really are a researcher then you should accept that critique and discussion is exactly what we need in this area, not attempts at censoring those who take the time to go to the sites, do the reading and contribute to the debate. see my visit report

Anonymous said...

Dear Donald, I apologise if I offended you by calling you a researcher or inviting you to do some research.
Just to clarify, SOLE is indeed a theory. It initiated within the theory of chaos to explain phenomena in physics, chemistry and biologist. And lately, it has been developed through Latour's theory of communities of practice (, more specifically by Lemke in meaning and motivation (
This might help. Cheers

Donald Clark said...

Still anonymous I see. Tell me you're joking. Although I think I'd stay anonymous if I had a half-baked series of category mistakes as my area of research. Take a scientific field (chaos theory), then, by way of metaphor shovel it into sociology and education. You'll be dragging up Black-Hole-in the-Wall theory next. As for Latour, Wenger etc. I don't buy it. Jay Lemke I've never heard of.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Suhotra
Odd way to engage in discussion and debate but I will
answer your questions.
If you had read the blog post you would have seen that I did visit a hole-in-the-wall site as have the other two researchers mentioned in the blog. Read to the end and click for my report.
My alternatives include innovative projects that are sustainable, not fly-by-night research projects. I will not repeat my arguments but HiW is NOT a solution, otherwise we would have seen the proliferation of such projects as an alternative to schooling. What we saw was the migration of the project to within schools or failure.
In fact, I would go further, and say that the HiW projects have done damage by promoting a hopelessly utopian view of learning, led, by a TED fairytale video.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to interrupt but Sir Donald, arent you the one who said in the article that " get a life, and not coach" Isnt that something similar to a better perspective in educational system. It is interesting to read this blog, but I must say that Sir Donald, have some faith. Read the book "The Secret"

Donald Clark said...

I wouldn't wipe my arse with The Secret. Here's my riposte.

Ruby Choy Ching Yee said...

The experiment and the work conducted by Sugata can be applied to how we think about the relationship between students, teachers, and technology. The big question of today: Can teachers be replaced by technology like laptops, mobile gadgets, and internet? Some educators go for technologies, and they believe computers and internet are far more efficient than human hands. Mctague (2014) reported that the Ark Schools - One of England’s biggest academy chains – will introduce a new blended learning model in 2016 which students will be taught over the internet. Schools in the US adopted similar approach, Rocketship operated nine schools in Milwaukee and San Jose with 5000 students spend 25% of their school day online. In these two examples, educators claimed that schools are able to reduce the number of teachers hired, and reallocated resources to reward better teachers.
However, as much innovation as digital devices and internet can bring to the classroom, many educators believe there are greater needs for teachers. Despite Sugata advocates the “minimally invasive” approach of education, he recognize the important role of teachers. As according to the equation of the Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) – broadband, collaboration, and encouragement - teachers serve the encouragement role but with a different name, they are referred as e-mediators. The setting up of the Granny Cloud aims to support the SOLE by recruiting e-mediators to stay in touch online with Indian students by reading stories, provide praise, and share about interesting things outside India. As reported by Wakefield (2012), Sugata sees huge potential for the recruitment of retired workforce to serve the role of the e-mediators, because retired workforce have great expertise to share. That is why many educators still believe, whatever word we choose - teacher, tutor, facilitator, mentor, or mediator – technology cannot replace the role of a human being who care.
In my point of view, good teachers are irreplaceable; they are leaders, role models, and facilitators who can help students to construct their own knowledge effectively. Instead of seeing technology as a replacement of teachers, a more constructive view is to explore how and what should be done that teachers can make use of technology to become good teachers.

Wakefield, J. (2012, April 30). Granny army helps India's school children via the cloud. BBC News. Retrieved from
Mctague, T. (2014, June 13). Computers to replace teachers in the classroom by 2016. Daily Mail Online. Retrieved from

Donald Clark said...

You should check Mitra's record on 'teachers'. He has repeatedly claimed that teachers, even schools are not a necessary conition for learning and backtracked when his hole in the wall projects failed and they began to pop up in schools. I think that Mitra's SOLE is a weak idea and certainly not backed up by any ofrm of real evidence but the idea that 'teaching' is always a necessary condition for learning is also, clearly flawed. There are many things in life that are learnt withiut the aid of a teacher. Indeed, I haven't had contact with a formal 'teacher' for 30 years. In my opinion, both arguments side with outdated learning theory.

Florin Baci said...

I was a fan of Sugata, but there seems to be all sort of questions regarding his work.

1. The few examples that Sugata provide as a success in one of his talks (I can't remember exactly witch one is, but he was mentioning that at one of his presentations there was one of the guys whom came in contact with the hole in the wall and was now a biochemist in the room, I hope that I don't screw this up), it's easy to come up with a short list of success stories, but I wonder what happened with those whom never got any real value out of this, besides drowning in paint and played some games and how big a share do they represent from the whole pool.

2. I guess they could install an app or something similar to keep track of the time spent on computers, for example on Chrome there are apps that track how much time you spend browsing and on witch websites. I think that this will be a useful tool to see what actually happens. And then add another tool to keep track of what they learn.

3. Like MOOC`s where the abandon is very high, I guess that this kind of alternative is even worst, because there is no one offering "real" support, so you have to self motivate most of the times.

Scott Meech said...

Why not counter his arguments? Can you not defend yourself except trying to make yourself a victim?

Scott Meech said...

That is a rebuttal? That took you 30 minutes? If that is the case, you must not have the talent you claim. The tone of this post comes across as if you view yourself as some sort of saviour or prophet.

Laptop Repair Experts said...

Very Nice Post...

We are having very interesting information regarding Laptop Repair Near Me

Mike Frolow said...

Inspiring writings and I greatly admired what you have to say , I hope you continue to provide new ideas for us . All the best and greetings success always for you. Keep update more information on Types of Sentences.Much simplified. Great work .