Slumdog Millionaire Inspired by IT?

Date: Wednesday 16 Sep 2009
Time: 18:30 – Tea 18:00
Speaker: Dr Sugata Mitra – Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University
Location: AS124 Coventry University Armstrong Siddely block


Are you one of the millions who’ve seen the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’? It is based on the book ‘Q&A’ by Vikas Swarup; who has acknowledged as his inspiration the extraordinary research begun in Delhi in 1999 by Dr Sugata Mitra whilst Chief Scientist at NIIT Technologies.

A brief report of the meeting is given below.

20090916 poster colour

Was Slumdog Millionaire inspired by IT?
Dr Sugata Mitra – Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University
A personal report by the Branch Secretary.

The speaker did not believe the book was.   However, some of his students highlighted that at the back of the book, Slumdog Millionaire, the author -Vikas Swarup – stated he was inspired by the “Hole in the Wall” project.

Can children self-organise for learning?
The answer appears to be Yes. In fact, they operate better without the presence of a technically competent “moderator”. However it was also found that a middle-aged non-technical moderator served to enable the learning process better because the children learned whilst demonstrating the computer to the “idiot” grandma.

Why is this important?

  • There are places in the world where good teachers will not go; perhaps it is difficult to live there? Teachers tend to congregate in better areas.
  • Not all children who go to school will have the same opportunities: this is so in both developed and under-developed societies.    Therefore, certain students will have better access to education than others.
  • Good Software Developers do not [need to] teach software.
  • Conversely , it has been demonstrated that software teachers are often poor software developers;
    (this clearly does not apply to all those hard working teachers who are helping teams to enter the Branch website competition!)

So what is the “Hole in the Wall” project?
Dr. Sugata Mitra told us that he sold this project on the basis that he wanted to test the theory that if a computer was left for children they would destroy it; he also wanted to test how long it would take and how they would do it. (However, he also indicated that he did not really believe that would be the outcome.)

At a previous talk he has also advised that his task was to test the robustness of a prototype PC being developed to survive extreme conditions. Realistically, it’s just not feasible to leave a computer on a table in the middle of a slum; it would be at the mercy of the weather and there would problems with getting the electricity to it safely. Even battery powered it would soon require a power supply.

However, within the chosen test location there was an industrial technology unit bordering the slum, with a substantial dirty wall separating the slum area from the technology area. The solution was to cut two holes in the wall; one for the monitor/computer, the other for the touch-pad. The computer screen was mounted in one hole, with a glass pane protecting it, facing into the slum area. Likewise the touch pad was mounted to allow access from the “dirty side” of the wall. The start-up screen (this is in the 1990s) was Alta-Vista.

To his surprise within a few days children were actively browsing… one of their favorite sites was “the Rat Game” (the Disney site). His peers advised that clearly the children had asked friends in the technology area how to use the computer… but he was not so sure.

So the experiment was repeated in a pure slum with no possible outside influence, only this time the equipment was filmed. The answer was that a curious child would see the screen and play with the touch pad, eventually noticing that the pointer on the screen moved with the movements on the touch pad (you had to see the video clip to appreciate this). The next stage was the accidental “clicking” of the touch pad when the cursor was on a hot link; which resulted in the loading of the linked page, i.e. the children intially learned by trial and error, however once one child grapsed the idiom, they then taught it to a group of children.

As the children became profficient they sought sites which would teach them English as there were few Indian sites; those that were, were quickly discarded. Those that pronounced the letters and words were particularly sought and were then frequently visited.

Sugata advised us that the typical child in India can recognise English alphabet symbols however usually cannot string them together to make words or to read them; however likewise with Indian. Those that could, often mis-pronounced the words anyway.

However, the children widely recognised the need to learn English in order to use the computer; unlike “educated” adults who would say that they could not use the computer because they could not read English… As Sugata said, it is sad that somewhere we teach children this mindset, i.e. you can’t use something unless you have been given the training…

Sugata asked the children what they had learned however, as one girl said, “English is coming to me”, i.e. she felt she was acquiring it not learning it. Often a child who had attained some standing in their peer group educated themselves to maintain their standing, they could then act as teacher to the others.

It was found that the prescence of adults inhibited the learning process; this was most often due to the learning style; each child in the group had their own preferences and arguments would ensue; the resolution of which led to learning and fixing of information into memory and the child’s understanding. To maintain discipline initially one child was assigned to “keep the group in order” (with minimal violence!!!) however as they became engrossed in their tasks quite often this became unnecessary.

However, there were occasions when the children just could not find out answers, hence the answer was hit upon to use technically non-savvy grandmothers and middle-aged women; a large resource was located by advertising in the Guardian: retired teachers who still enjoyed teaching. However, they could not be transported to India, so Skype video links were installed and the children were given the opportunity to interact with a selection of “grandmothers” in the UK, depending on who was online at the time, their logos were displayed on the wall and the children could select an available “Grandmother” as needed.

Again, you had to see the video clips to appreciate how well this could work. In order to learn a language, total immersion is often recommended: however this can now be achieved by technology.

The role of the teacher in this is not diminished, just changed. Whilst they are definitly not required to be a part of the learning process, their necessity arises from the need to ask the right questions to get the children off thinking, arguing, researching and subsequently learning. Of course, you also need the teacher to confirm they have the “right” answer and to lavish praise.

Of course this is a very short synopsis of a very interesting talk; I probably missed as much as I have captured. Sugata presented slides of test results to support the conclusions that children were actually learning, and could even learn biotechnology in English starting from knowing very little English, and would display an apparent understanding of the subject.

See what happens when you don’t come to a meeting.

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