The saying goes it takes a village to raise a kid.

But what if you leave a computer in the village?

That’s more or less what the idea Mitra has been developping for many years, as part of an experiment aiming at testing the principles that Mitra named Minimally invasive education.

The project started in 1999 (20+ years ago).

Kalkaji, New Delhi

The story is best told by Mitra himself in one of his many TED talks, but the TLDR version is pretty simple:

They have set up a computer designed for public use by kids, in places where there are no computers, nor really tech litteracy (especially at the time of the experiment) and then they observed how the kids interacted with the machine, what sort of new skills they grew out of their own curiosity.

Results were quite surprising at the time. Of course, Kids taught themselves how to use the machine, helping each others on the way (the group dynamics are important), but they also managed to teach themselves english, both reading and speaking, and later experiments also showed kids can teach themselves more advance topic.

Worth watching a couple of this talks:

Let the learning happen

2011, presentation at Google:

The future of Learning

2018, Newcastle

SUgata Mitra life’s work has been centered around understanding how kids can make use of technology to free the learning process and allow the young generation to be better prepared to the world we live in.

He is probably one of most well-known researcher in the field of education and technology, and the point he is making are resonating with a large audience.

Yet, what we see there is a long way between what Mitra is presenting and its direct application to the schools.

Here would be a good way to talk about a few of his critics, and there are a few, mostly pointing at holes (pun intended) in the story, mostly critizing the effectiveness of the method.

I think this article of Donald Clark is making some interesting points by describing what didn’t work, which is probably as important as what did work.

So what didn’t work:

  • the technology wasn’t always working (broken internet line, broken hardware)
  • the collaboration between the children was not always present
  • Kids used the computer to mostly play

While these are valid points, ie. kids will be kids and technology won’t change that, the whole experiment’s conclusion still hold: learning behaviour will emmerge in unsupervided groups of children if provided the environment with access to technology (or more correctly access to internet or any other searchable source of knowledge).

Nobody said it should replace entirely the schools, but clearly there are points to be made.

This said, I would like to add, based on my own experience of working with various educational system and teachers, the main problem that need solving is the content.

Mitra mention it in a few of his talks: how the exercices are set up, and how the story telling and narrative is engaging for the kids, will determine a lot about the success of the process.

Kids can figure out how to learn just about anything, just like grown up actually, learning is a very fundamental human skill.

Creating an environment where learning happen is the hard part.

Technology can help but it will not solve it all.