Learning Without a School? Why Educators Should Pay Attention to Experiments in “Self-Organized Learning”


1.26.11 | There was buzz on the blogs this week about the latest project from Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. Mitra is known for his “Hole in the Wall” experiments that place internet-enabled computer kiosks in public spaces and schools in poor neighborhoods of India, Cambodia and Africa for children to use without supervised training.

Left to their own devices, Mitra finds that street children use their natural curiosity to teach themselves and each other, even when most of the web content they’re accessing is in English. He calls this “self-organized” learning. (“Hole in the Wall” recently won a 2010 Digital Media and Learning Competition award).

Mitra hypothesized that with encouragement from adults, these children may do even better. And he’s employed a whole team of cheering grandmothers from across the globe to prove his point.

Designed with the idea that only grandmas can do what grandmas do best—watch from behind and exclaim in wonder at how well the children are doing—the Granny Cloud project uses technology to do exactly that.

Mitra and his team have employed volunteers from the UK to chat with children in Indian classrooms via Skype once a week, particularly in classrooms where there is a shortage of teachers. The volunteers talk with children, tell stories and provide new ideas and plain old encouragement. 

Mitra hopes to see a 25-percent increase in educational attainment from these relationships, reports educational technology expert Ewan McIntosh.

Writing on his blog, McIntosh says these experiments should be inspiration for educators to allow true student-led learning to take place in their classrooms. 

And, like the grandmas, McIntosh says teachers should more often be taking on the role of guide instead of expert. He says the experiment “throws into question the assumption that we always need a specialist teacher in front of kids in order that they learn.”

When students are given free reign to develop their own questions and seek answers on their own, often with the aid of technology, McIntosh says, more deep learning can take place.

He also raises some important questions about the role technology might play in developing countries in the future, especially in places with large and growing populations of children and not enough skilled teachers.

For more, watch the BBC’s coverage of the Granny Cloud Project below:


Picture of Lisa Osborne
Lisa Osborne (Los Angeles)


Interesting piece, but one copy-editing note: Africa is not a country. If you’re going to list India and Cambodia, then please list the specific countries in Africa where Mr. Mitra has done his experiment. You do all of us a disservice by treating such a diverse continent as if it were a single culture or government. A small misstep, but one I see so frequently, that I had to say something.

Picture of Sarah Jackson
Sarah Jackson


Thanks for calling this to our attention Lisa. From what has been reported elsewhere, “Hole in the Wall” currently has projects going on in Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique, Zambia, Swaziland, Botswana and Nigeria. Indeed a diverse group. We hope to continue cover their work on Spotlight as it develops.


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