Sugata Mitra, Hole in the Wall, Self Organising Systems in Education, and Instructional Robotics

Those were the topics covered by the keynote, Sugata Mitra, at the recent MadLat conference in Manitoba, in his keynote address (Self Organising Systems in Education) and his later session, Instructional Robotics. He began with a contentious statement: that the future of the world economy lies with raising the quality of education in the rural peripheries. He illustrated this by way of parable: western companies have long been installing call centres in cities like New Delhi, to take advantage of low-cost, english-speaking and educated workers. But, as wages slowly grew, the call centres got re-located further from the core. The workers there weren’t quite as well educated, but could do the job. The same pattern repeated, and the call centres moved further and further out – and the quality of english declined inexorably.

Mitra asked himself, why is the education in these remote places not providing decent results? He went out, and performed standardised tests on students at schools from 60 to 260 km distant from the urban core. His graph showed a steep drop the further out. Now why was that? he wondered. In his research, he showed that the strongest positive correlation with the poor results was the teachers’ own desire (or lack of) to be in that school. The poorest schools were not necessarily the most financially poor, but the ones where the teachers perceived that they were working in a remote undesirable area. Poor motivation = poor results.

Mitra found that ‘remoteness’ was not just geographical. In the UK, he performed the same study, and found that the presence of subsidised housing (council flats/estates) was as strong an indicator of teachers’ desire to be somewhere else – hence poor results at the school.

The future of the economy in the developing and developed world, Mitra suggested, is in improving the education of these ‘remote’ (whether geographically or socio-economically) areas, since these are the areas with the lowest labour costs. Technology can address this problem, but why do we always test new technologies in the city schools, where the results will be good anyway?, he asked.

His first presentation then was about the hole-in-the-wall computer experiment, where he provided computers to remote regions (setting them up so that they would run no matter what the environmental conditions). Typically, kids were on the machines within minutes of their installation, punching buttons and moving the mouse, exploring what would happen. These children had no English, but as they gathered around the computer, a kind of self-organising educational ecosystem would emerge, with rings of children discussing what was on the screen, offering suggestions of what to do next to the one or two children actually punching the buttons. Mitra installed one such computer, went away for three months, and when he came back, the children said, ‘Please sir, we need a faster processor and more RAM’! They were teaching themselves English so that they could play games and find out information.

(He suggested, incidentally, that as long as computers were in public places, kids wouldn’t get into the seamy side of the internet: no computers in kids’ bedrooms or you’re asking for trouble! Also, that schools that provide one computer per student were not going to get as good results as when there is one computer per 5 or 6 students. I wonder what the one-laptop-per-child people’d make of that?)

His second presentation addressed the problem of teachers not wanting to be in particular regions: “Is it possible for teachers to live in areas that they prefer and still be ‘present’ in schools where they do not, physically, wish to go?”.

This led to a discussion of ‘presence’- what is the main difference between in-class and online education? The presence of a teacher. So how can presence be effectively created for distance/online education? In experiments, Mitra has found that Skype could be used effectively under the following circumstances:

  • uninterrupted, reliable, >1 Mbps bandwidth at the teacher and student locations
  • a projection system at both ends providing near life size images of the teacher and learners (in his presentation, Mitra phoned up an English teacher in Argentina and showed the difference in ‘presence’ between mere voice, small-screen projection, and life-sized projection using Skype and the video projector – it was quite astonishing!)
  • a directional microphone, such as those on most camcorders, that doesn’t pick up feedback, at both locations,
  • good lighting

Mitra discussed some future experiments he is going to conduct, where he will try to emulate the physical environment – if it’s hot and humid in Bangalore, the heating & humidity control in the teacher’s office back in the UK should be ramped up appropriately…

He finished his presentation by discussing the ultimate iteration of telepresence: a physical machine, controlled by the remote teacher. Such things already exist, like the Mars Rover, or the deep-sea submersibles that took pictures of the Titanic. Mitra wants to hook up a Roomba-like robot to be controlled by the remote teacher. It will have a screen on it showing the teacher’s head, with directional audio and sound control… in this way, the teacher’s tele-presence can be remotely projected around the room as the robot goes wherever the teacher wants. No more cheating on distance ed exams!

I haven’t done justice, in this short report, to everything Mitra talked about, but I came away from his instructional robotics presentation convinced that this man is going to transform how distance ed is carried out. He’s current at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, so keep your eyes peeled for interesting things from that quarter.