Physicist encourages change in the use of technology in education

Mitra believes the most effective way to educate students is in “unsupervised, heterogeneous groups, accessing the internet through large, visible screens, in a safe and public space.” (Arianna Davidson)

Newcastle University Professor Sugata Mitra discussed the need for a change in the way technology is used to educate children in the forum address on March 26.

Mitra said he believes the most effective way to educate students is in “unsupervised, heterogeneous groups, accessing the internet through large, visible screens, in a safe and public space.” 

Mitra has no formal training in education but is a world-renowned researcher of learning and technology. He earned a Ph.D. in Physics and worked as a computer programmer until he started teaching others how to program.

“I came into education somewhat accidentally,” Mitra said. “I had so many questions that I could not but try to answer.”

“Computers cannot replace good teachers but they can get high-standard education in schools where they are needed most,” Mitra said.

Mitra became well-known for his experiment titled “Hole in the Wall” in 1999, where he embedded a computer into the wall of an Indian slum to prove that children could learn to use computers without instruction.

After putting this computer into the wall, Mitra would stand beside the children and observing their reactions.

According to Mitra, the kids did absolutely nothing when someone was looking over their shoulder observing, but immediately after leaving the children by themselves with the computer, they went crazy.

By the end of the experiment, the children had learned how to play games that weren’t originally downloaded on the computer.

“I just discovered that the absence of a teacher is a learning tool!” Mitra said to a colleague.

This is when Mitra began his journey to create Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE). TED granted him $1 million to use in implementing these programs around the world.

Mitra was able to create eight different SOLE’s, five of them in India, two in Great Britain and one in the United States.

According to Mitra, the teachers’ only job in the SOLE’s, is to open and close the doors. Nothing else. 

There is no instruction given to these students by teachers, but instead elementary and middle school-aged children come into a room filled with computers and peers and they sit down and work together to solve problems using the internet.

Mitra measured three things: reading comprehension, internet searching skills and self-esteem. All of which rose after being in a SOLE, with the exception of self-esteem which was already extraordinarily high to begin with, according to Mitra. 

“We are not guides,” Mitra said. “We are not supervisors. We are not mentors. We are friends and we will go together.”

Mitra said he believes there should be four changes implemented in education. The first two would be to introduce the Internet and Complex Dynamical Systems into the formal curriculum of schools. 

“Third, divide existing curriculum into three parts: necessary for life, feels good to know, and only for exams,” Mitra said. “Fourth, allow the use of the Internet during examinations because you don’t need to know how to tell the time without looking at a watch.”


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