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Groups and Grandma: Home Computer Use Boosters

Wayan Vota

In both the Romania and North Carolina studies, either researchers or readers of the reports have drawn the conclusion that children will not focus on school work if given unfiltered and undirected access to computers and Internet access. Yet Professor Sugata Mitra, famous for his “Hole in the Wall” experiment – where a computer was placed in a kiosk in an Indian slum and children learned how to use it by themselves – may have found two simple ways to give children direction.

At a recent TedTalk, Professor Mitra expanded on his Hole in the Wall experiment by asking “Who is the Teacher?” In this set of experiments he found two ways to direct student learning without the need for a formal educator,

Put Students into Groups

What the Romania and North Carolina studies may have actually found is that children in the absence of peers may lack focus, as Professor Mitra found that once in a group, children with even very simple or overly complex tasks can achieve wonders.


As reported by the BBC, First he gathered 26 children who did not understand English and gave them computers preloaded with information in English.

“I wanted to test the limits of this system,” he said. “I set myself an impossible target: can Tamil speaking 12-year-olds in south India teach themselves biotechnology in English on their own? I told them: ‘there is some very difficult stuff on this computer, I won’t be surprised if you don’t understand anything’.”

Two months later, he returned. Initially the children said they had not learnt anything, despite the fact that they used the computers everyday.

“Then a 12-year-old girl raised her hand and said ‘apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA contributes to genetic disease – we’ve understood nothing else’.”

Where previously, these students scored 0 on a biotechnology exam, after this two month session, they scored 30 – “an educational impossibility” according to Professor Mitra.

Get Grandmothers Involved

While we cannot expect teachers to go home with children, and the Romania and North Carolina studies might suggest that parents are too busy to direct child usage of computers and Internet access, there is a group of people who may have the time and the care to guide the next generation’s usage of technology: grandparents. Here is Professor Mitra’s experiment as recorded by Ethan Zuckerman:

He asked one of the best students [in the biotechnology experiment] to teach the others and improve their schools. She asked how she could possibly teach them, and Mitra suggested “the grandmother method” – stand behind, admire, act fascinated and praise. After two months, the class score was up to 50.

He’s got a great new idea – the granny cloud. He’s recruited hundreds of British grandmothers who donate their time over online video connections and answer questions for children. In both India and the UK, he’s teaching children using groups, Google and the granny cloud.

Integrating Groups and Grannys into Education

Building on his experiments, Professor Mitra has developed “Self Organised Learning Environments” (SOLE) in 10 schools in India.

Typically, a SOLE is a ‘room’ located in the school premises with 9 computers in clusters of 3 which facilitates 4 children per computer interacting with the other 2 computer terminal groups as well within their group. These children are connected to a “mediator” via Skype, who reads stories, converses, sings, and generally participates with the children.

It will be interesting to see what the SOLE experiments in schools achieve, vs. the informal learning environments that Professor Mitra has worked in before. Can the self-directed learning be replicated in the structure of an educational system – or even should it? Or is the best usage of the SOLE concept to empower children at home to increase educational outcomes with technology?

Regardless, Professor Mitra is very clear on one concept: “It doesn’t work if you give them each a computer individually.”


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4 Responses to “Groups and Grandma: Home Computer Use Boosters”

  1. According to the NY times story from "Do Computers and Internet Access at Home Reduce Student Test Scores?", the children in the hole-in-the-wall study were wasting their time.

    They must have spend so much time on trying to understand biotechnology that their grades in Math and Tamil (Hindi) must have dropped down.

    Which proves that computers are bad for school grades.



  2. Human collaboration to enhance learning is nothing new. Adult learning theory, Project Based Learning theory and the failure of one to one eLearning, not mention just handing laptops to children without guidance is nothing new. Groups of people make learning relevant and emotionally acceptable. The issue of the clash between unfiltered media and school work fails to analyze is that education is reality based to achieve a positive concrete outcome with living people while commercial gaming and TV is the complete reverse. Both condition the child to opposing value systems. TV is filled with class-ism, teasing, violence, rule breaking and zero consequences. We win commercial gaming by: killing, magic, cheating and breaking rules again with again zero consequence’s. No one needs a Ph D to figure out there is a conflict here. Academics need to spend some time working in poverty listening to teen music and watching what they watch. Kids are not all watching PBS… We really need to wake up here. Educational media is trying to push child forward socially while commercial media is pushing them backward socially. Education is telling them to be do be good citizens while Sony and Microsoft are teaching them to kill everyone for fun. Why is our head in the academic muck on this one. Whether you are into NLP, Skinner or Values Clarification you have to see the mixed messages the child is getting and the research must also grasp the cultural issues around it. India’s culture on parenting on education is different than main stream American media baby sitting. When a child watches more hours of TV and Gaming that school there will be a conflict inside of them. Perhaps the Home schools get this more than we do. This is not a debate on technology. It is a debate on content and guidance. They are very different issues. Technology is just an empty glass. Whether we give our child milk or hemlock in it is another thing. Debate that.

  3. Really a great article and its easy to see that you didnt just copy it!


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