Sugata Mitra – Education and Empire

Famed for his “Hole in the Wall” experiments with children and computers in slum districts in India, winner of the $1 million TED Prize, proponent of emergent learning theory and advocate of self organising learning environments (SOLE), Sugata Mitra has successfully challenged what many of us think we know about learning and technology. Not for him, the suggestion that we use technology to simply reinforce the teaching practices of the last century nor should it be used to simply replace the teaching profession. Mitra seeks a complete rebooting of our educational systems to reflect the information infrastructure that todays children are born into.


On the day of the launch of the Learning {Re}imagined book I wanted to share this excerpt from my interview with him where in 5 minutes he succinctly describes how we arrived at where we are and why we need nothing less than a total transformation in the way we approach learning, teaching and assessment.


He tells me:


Coming back to technology. Now paper becomes cheap, pencils become really cheap, so now you can have all that in the hands of children. Books become really cheap. You can give them to children. The teacher’s role starts to change. Then comes technology and to my surprise, technology was allowed inside the examination hall. You were allowed to use paper. You were allowed to use pencils. You were allowed to use rulers, straight edge, set squares, protractors, compass. Everything that the last generation used for solving real world problems were available to the person being examined.


Somewhere along the line, we seemed to have lost sight of it. We have come to this ridiculous situation of saying, only the past technology is allowed still, but nothing more than that. We went up to the point where we said, logarithm tables and slide rules are allowed, but then we stopped. We stopped at the calculator most of the time and when it came to the Internet, we said, not at all. I wonder sometimes if I were to go back a hundred years to the Victorians and show them our world, what if those same Victorians were to say, well why on earth aren’t you allowing all this inside the examination hall? How are you going to test them for their real world skills?”


gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.


When the tablets don’t work

One of the conclusions you’ll read about in my book is that the transformative impact of digital technology in teaching and learning is contextual. It is context rather than content that is king when we consider what is a truly transformative intervention.


In rural Ghana, where the cost of distributing printed books restricted availability, an intervention based around the most basic Kindle e-reader was a transformative experience for children as well as homes that had no access to books.


A journey to rural India in the state of Bihar, some 6 hours road trip from Patna, we visited a village where a gas fuelled generator to power a single electric light and charge the most basic mobile phone was a luxury. Yet here we found an example of one of the world’s largest deployments of mobile learning that has been implemented throughout Bihar by BBC Media Action to facilitate awareness and learning about maternal health to a population that is poor, illiterate and “media dark”.


To be honest it’s only when you’re there right in the middle of it that what had been an intellectualisation of a challenge became a reality made of real people in real circumstances, a reality that is normal for a substantial number of our population. It was here that the technosolutionist fantasy of low cost computing and click to fix apps designed in Palo Alto just aren’t going to do the job.


You can find out more in the book, of course, but I wanted to share with you an excerpt from an interview that I made with Sara Chamberlain, Head of Technology for BBC Media Action. I asked Sara why they weren’t using the kind of low cost tablets and smartphones that are now being suggested as solutions for digital access amongst the least affluent communities. She told me that:


What we’ve discovered in Bihar is that people don’t know how to use that technology. We did a very large piece of both quantitative and qualitative research in Bihar before we developed our services to understand people’s mobile usage habits, and what we discovered is that only 9% had ever sent an SMS. The reason that only 9% had ever sent an SMS is because the majority of the phones that they have are used second-hand, very poor quality, sort of brick phones, not even feature phones. Those phones are grey market. They’re copy cat. So Nokya and Simsung, that are coming in over the border and are in foreign languages. They don’t support the local Hindi font, so they might be in English or Chinese or Arabic, but they’re not in Hindi. Essentially people have a very basic piece of technology in their hands that’s in a foreign language, which is really limiting their ability to actually use it for anything other than a voice call.


It’s a really basic, old-school kind of technology. We decided to use that because it could be accessed from the most basic handset, and thus we got around the problem of people not being able to use their phones for anything other than a voice call. Essentially 70% of women in rural Bihar are illiterate anyway, so they can only understand audio information.


You see people inventing these apps in Silicon Valley and in other places and bringing those apps over, saying oh, let’s do a pilot or let’s launch a mobile education service here with these apps, with these videos, with this, that and the other, and then they discover, lo and behold, the target population doesn’t have the handsets to support the app, and couldn’t use the app anyway even if they had the handsets.



gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.



By the time you read this we’ll be leaving China from Chengdu and heading to India via Kathmandu.


I’ll be updating you on who we visited, what we saw and what we learned during our stay in China in the next post but for now let me tell you what’s next in our global adventure to find innovation in learning as we travel around India.


India, touted by many as a future superpower alongside the USA and China, is characterised by poverty and chaos on the one hand whilst being a global leader in high technology on the other. It is the worlds leading weapons importer and is also advancing its space programme which includes a mission to Mars. With a population reaching 1.27 billion this year India is the 2nd most populous country in the world and is expected to exceed China by 2030. That’s a lot of people to feed and educate in the worlds largest democracy.


XSEEDOur first stop is New Delhi where we’ll be meeting with the principals of iDiscoveri and learning about their XSEED programme. iDiscoveri is a leadership organisation whose CEO, Ashish Rajpal, we’ll be meeting. His iDiscoveri Education group describes itself as “an education innovation company focused on learning and leadership”. It has developed a programme called XSEED which is based around a proprietary curriculum, training and assessment capability designed to improve learning and teaching capability. The programme has already scaled to more than 700 schools in India with 2-3 times improvement in academic improvement within pilot studies. Of course, this raises questions over what is being assessed and how but with what appears to be such an impressive track record we wanted to learn more and will report back.


After visiting iDiscoveri we’ll be travelling down to Chennai to visit a school that has adopted the XSEED program to see for ourselves.


BBC Media ActionAlso in New Delhi we’ll be meeting with BBC Media Action a charitable organisation via the British Broadcasting Corporation that uses media and communication as a force for positive social change. BBC Media Action in India has been using media to improve health, rights and resilience since 2001 with a strong focus on maternal and child health. Their innovative projects in the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha help to increase knowledge and improve the health of mothers and children using a combination of TV, radio, online, street theatre, outdoor advertising and mobile phones.


We will be visiting sites in Patna, Baadh and Bhaktiyarpur to meet with frontline health workers, beneficiaries and correspondents related to this vital initiative.


Follow our activities on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – see you there!