Self-Organizing Systems of Learning: A Hole-In-the-Wall Approach to Providing Better Education

With a computer and some encouragement, children can teach themselves complicated subjects such as molecular biology.

There are always places where good teachers don’t want to go. In fact, there are probably places where no teachers want to go, be it because of geographic isolation, impoverished conditions or real or perceived dangers. It is unfortunate that these are the places that undoubtedly need the access to education the most. So what if there was a way that children could work in groups using the internet and under the guidance of a friendly moderator to complete some part of their school work? What if I said that using this approach kids could increase their test scores up 40% in as little as 150 days? Sound too good to be true?? Then I challenge you to read on, and then watch the TED talk linked at the end of the article. In my opinion, it will change how you look at education.

It All Started with a Computer and a Hole in a Wall

The speaker in the talk is Sugata Mitra, a professor at Newcastle University. In 1999 he performed what he called the “hole-in-the-wall” experiments; he embedded computers with high-speed internet access intobrick walls overlooking a slum area in New Delhi. The area children where allowed to explore the computers with no oversight, and their behavior was recorded via video camera. Within a month the children had taught themselves to use the computers and had acquired some basic skills in math and English. Over the next six years, the experiment was repeated in a number of remote and disadvantaged areas throughout India. The results in all these cases were almost identical to those seen in New Delhi. Mitra and his colleagues concluded that children could and did form self-organizing learning systems to teach themselves how to use the computer on their own, irrespective of who they were, where they were from or what language they spoke.

Then They Got Ambitious

Given their success with the hole-in-the-wall computers, Mitra and his colleagues took on a new challenge, which they reported on in the British Journal of Educational Technology (1). Their question was: Could Tamil-speaking children in a remote Indian village learn basic molecular biology in English on their own using a computer with internet access?

They chose the subject matter because it is part of the government curriculum in India and is taught in all government schools; however, it was unlikely that there would be a local source of information. This way the researchers could be confident that anything the children learned came from using the computer. The test location was the village of Kalikuppam, a remote fishing village in Southern India. Most of the adults in the village are illiterate.

For the teaching materials, they identified quality instructional material on basic molecular biology that was available on the internet and downloaded it to the local computers the kids had access to (i.e., hole-in-the-wall computers). They designed tests based on the materials available on the computers, and administered one as a pre-test. Next they told the test group of children, ages 10 to 14, “There is some interesting new material on the computer. It is in English and may be a bit hard to understand, but will you take a look at it?” The children were never asked directly to do anything.

Tamil-Speaking Children Teach Themselves Molecular Biology in English

They left the children with the computer for 75 days, and then came back and administered another test as well as re-administering the first test. For a peer-to-peer comparison Mitra his colleagues gave the same tests to a random group of 10 to 14 year old students from a government-run school in a nearby town and an elite private school in New Delhi.

The results were quite striking. In 75 days, the Kalikuppam children increased their score from 7% to 30%. Although they still scored below their peers from the private school, they outperformed the students from the government school.

Mitra and his colleagues next enlisted the help of a young woman who worked for a local NGO to act as a mediator. She had no knowledge of molecular biology, but got along well with the students. As mediator, this young woman’s role was to make positive and encouraging remarks to the students about what they had learned and to encourage them to explore further. In his talk, Mitra describes this as the “Grandma method”. She did this for another 75 days and then the researchers came back and administered the tests again.

If the results after 75 days were striking, the results after the second 75 days were close to unbelievable. The Kalikuppam children’s scores on the two tests (the pre-test and post-test) were 52% and 51%, respectively. These results put them on par with their peers who attended the private school in New Dehli.

The children had learned a subject they knew nothing about in a language they were unfamiliar with and raised their scores from 7% to 52% in 150 days.

A New Approach to Better Education?

Mitra and his colleagues concluded that by working together under the guidance of a encouraging but not knowledgeable mediator, the children were able to raise their understanding of the subject matter to the same level as that of children receiving good formal schooling. There are children all over the world who do not have access to a good education. Building schools and placing good teachers in many of these areas is realistically not likely to happen. What Dr. Mitra and his colleagues have shown us is that these kids can do a lot for themselves with just a friendly face and a hole-in-the-wall computer.

Now go watch Sugata Mitra’s TED talk, and then come back and tell me if you still think of education the same way.


  1. Mitra, S and Dangwal, R. (2010) Limits of self-organized systems of learning— the Kalikuppam experiment. British Journal of Educational Technology 41, 672–88.
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Kelly Grooms

Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation
Kelly earned her B.S. in Genetics from Iowa State University in Ames, IA. Prior to coming to Promega, she worked for biotech companies in San Diego and Madison. Kelly lives just outside Madison with her husband, son and daughter. Kelly collects hobbies including jewelry artistry, reading, writing, photography and knitting. She would like to be an avid runner, as evidenced by her growing collection of running gear and her single half-marathon finishers t-shirt.

3 thoughts on “Self-Organizing Systems of Learning: A Hole-In-the-Wall Approach to Providing Better Education

  1. Amazing is the word! The potential of the human brain is far more than we realise. Thanks Kelly, for writing about such an interesting topic!

  2. Hi Karthik,
    I am glad that you liked my blog. Every time I hear Dr. Mitra speak I am more amazed. Then I get frustrated that more places aren’t putting these principles into practice. I wish every school no matter how big or small had a place where kids could hook into the “Grandma cloud”.

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