New Experiments in Self-Teaching: Sugata Mitra (Full Transcript)

Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra – Education scientist

Well, that’s kind of an obvious statement up there. I started with that sentence about 12 years ago, and I started in the context of developing countries, but you’re sitting here from every corner of the world.

So if you think of a map of your country, I think you’ll realize that for every country on Earth, you could draw little circles to say, “These are places where good teachers won’t go.” On top of that, those are the places from where trouble comes. So we have an ironic problem — good teachers don’t want to go to just those places where they’re needed the most.

I started in 1999 to try and address this problem with an experiment, which was a very simple experiment in New Delhi. I basically embedded a computer into a wall of a slum in New Delhi. The children barely went to school, they didn’t know any English — they’d never seen a computer before, and they didn’t know what the internet was. I connected high speed internet to it — it’s about three feet off the ground — turned it on and left it there.

After this, we noticed a couple of interesting things, which you’ll see. But I repeated this all over India and then through a large part of the world and noticed that children will learn to do what they want to learn to do. This is the first experiment that we did — eight year-old boy on your right teaching his student, a six year-old girl, and he was teaching her how to browse.

This boy here in the middle of central India — this is in a Rajasthan village, where the children recorded their own music and then played it back to each other and in the process, they’ve enjoyed themselves thoroughly. They did all of this in four hours after seeing the computer for the first time.

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In another South Indian village, these boys here had assembled a video camera and were trying to take the photograph of a bumble bee. They downloaded it from Disney.com, or one of these websites, 14 days after putting the computer in their village.

So at the end of it, we concluded that groups of children can learn to use computers and the internet on their own, irrespective of who or where they were. At that point, I became a little more ambitious and decided to see what else could children do with a computer. We started off with an experiment in Hyderabad, India, where I gave a group of children — they spoke English with a very strong Telugu accent. I gave them a computer with a speech-to-text interface, which you now get free with Windows, and asked them to speak into it. So when they spoke into it, the computer typed out gibberish, so they said, “Well, it doesn’t understand anything of what we are saying.”

So I said, “Yeah, I’ll leave it here for two months. Make yourself understood to the computer.” So the children said, “How do we do that” And I said, “I don’t know, actually.” And I left.

Two months later — and this is now documented in the Information Technology for International Development journal — that accents had changed and were remarkably close to the neutral British accent in which I had trained the speech-to-text synthesizer. In other words, they were all speaking like James Tooley. So they could do that on their own. After that, I started to experiment with various other things that they might learn to do on their own.

I got an interesting phone call once from Colombo, from the late Arthur C Clarke, who said, “I want to see what’s going on.” And he couldn’t travel, so I went over there. He said two interesting things, “A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.” The second thing he said was that, “If children have interest, then education happens.” And I was doing that in the field, so every time I would watch it and think of him.

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