Can Children Learn Without Teachers? Sugata Mitra Shows How

September 30, 2015 by Timothy Young

Research completed by Dr. Sugata Mitra over the last 16 years has changed the way we view the role of computers in education, considerably shaping the direction of Educational Technology. As an inventor with a Ph.D. in Physics, Dr. Mitra developed a number of inventions and patents in cognitive sciences and educational technology throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.

In 1999, Dr. Mitra began carrying out a number of experiments where he left children without any computer experience, alone with computers without any instructions. In the process, Dr. Mitra stumbled across the extraordinary ability of children to teach themselves to use technology in order to educate themselves on the computer's content. Dr. Mitra argues that this occurs as a result of children forming order out of chaos in order to self-direct their own learning and thus named these Self-Organising Learning Environments(SOLEs). His research provided compelling evidence that children will be able to teach themselves to develop literacy skills when left alone with a computer. He won the first TED prize for his work in 2013.

This student centred learning approach encourages children to follow their curiosity while empowering students and developing their self-management skills. Since teachers play a role as facilitators or are not used at all, Dr. Mitra has described SOLE’s as minimally invasive education.

In order to incorporate SOLE into a classroom, the idea was developed into an educational approach that involves a small group of children who find information by exploring the Internet as a group. In a number of empirical experiments, Dr. Mitra has demonstrated that children are able to learn almost anything by themselves when they are in a small community of learners, and when they have access to a huge amount of information, as is possible with the Internet. This was demonstrated when children in rural India taught themselves English in order to learn the information about DNA replication on a computer.

How are SOLEs More Relevant Today Than Traditional Western Schooling?

In today’s rapidly advancing and dynamic technological landscape, the most successful workers will be creative, able to work well with others when problem-solving, and be able to adapt to any changes in the workplace. SOLE allows students to work collaboratively and creatively on digital devices in order to solve problems. This technology also inspires students to ask ‘big’ questions, while empowering them to find the answer (and more questions). Considering the majority of human knowledge is accessible on the Internet, it is more important these days that students are able and willing to ask and pursue answers to big questions, as opposed to memorising facts. Interestingly, Dr. Mitra has also called for Internet access to be allowed in examinations, to reflect real-world scenarios.

One of the most important findings of Mitra’s research was that the students who spoke no English were able to teach themselves English, so they could use search engines to find information. The students even improved their English pronunciation on their own, after being part of a SOLE.

When involved in a SOLE, students are free to move around and share information between groups, allowing all students to collaborate with all other students during the exercise. This gives students a chance to experience negotiating with and learning about others from a different culture or background, as the groups formed tend to be heterogeneous in relation to culture and gender.

Outcomes and Implications

When children between the ages of 8-12 are able to access information to educate themselves, they are developing independent thinking skills as well as the ability to research and problem solve independently. When using a SOLE, students feel more empowered as they are encouraged to take ownership of their learning. By learning in a small-group when interacting face-to-face with other students, all students have increased opportunity to practice and develop better social skills, while being constantly exposed to other people’s perspectives. When it is affordable, having a learning facilitator help to move student discussion forward and invite further curiosity, helps to further improve learning outcomes.

Dr. Mitra’s research has demonstrated the potential for children in developing countries to spontaneously teach themselves accessible information. Considering the insurmountable cost of providing all children in the world with a teacher, the use of SOLEs opens new options for cost- effective education to be provided for the world’s poorest. If every child had access to a cheap tablet with open-source educational applications and solar power, we can drastically minimize poverty and inequality through education.


How Much Are Kids Online, and What Are They Doing?

May 2, 2015 by Timothy Young

Kids these days can be somewhat mysterious. With the Internet, computers, and mobile devices there are many more secrets to be had and places to hide. However, with good education around Internet safety, combined with parental knowledge around parental settings on the computer, there is no reason that experiences with the Internet have to be any more damaging than listening to Billy McDougal's stories in the playground.

In a world where mobile devices are everywhere, children interacting with these devices are getting younger and younger. In a survey on 370 low income parents with little formal education, it was found that 1 in 3 babies are exposed to smartphones and tablets before they can walk, with 1 in 7 1-year-old children using mobile devices for at least one hour a day. It is unclear whether the rate would be higher or lower for babies in higher income families, however there is an idea for older children. In 2011 there was a report done on EU Kids that analysed data from 25,000 children between the ages of 9-16 across 25 countries in Europe. The report found significant correlations between children from households with higher educational levels and the ability to access the Internet in more locations and platforms, with more private access and more sophisticated mobile access. Anyone with a teenager will know that they are on an electronic device at almost every possible minute. Since that is not going to change, it would be beneficial to and use that time to educate children.

As a nation, New Zealanders have high rates of smartphone and tablet ownership, with 90% of respondents (in a nationally representative telephone survey with 1003 participants) reporting owning or having access to a portable device (Research NZ, 2014). Of those that reported owning a smartphone, 88% said they used it ev-er-y day. Although respondents were 18 years or over, these statistics represent the culture and widespread use of the Internet and personal devices in a developed OECD country.

Okay so quite a lot of people use mobile devices these days, but how many people even use the Internet? The Internet is so last millennium, amirite?

Out of the entire human population, only 42.3% of us have access to the Internet. While North America has 87.7%, Africa only has 25.5% of people connected. New Zealand has a very high level of Internet connection at 94.6%.

To compare daily Internet usage of different aged children, here are the stats:

9-10 yrs - 58 mins
11-12 yrs - 74 mins
13-14 yrs - 97mins
15-16yrs - 118mins

It is important to note that these figures are for a report done four years ago, so it is likely that these numbers are different (probably higher) now.

Alright, so apparently mobile devices and the Internet are fairly popular. I don't mean to intrude, but what is it that people are doing when they are on the Internet?

The Research NZ report also showed that the activity the Internet was being used for the most on people’s devices is ‘looking for reference information’ (researching), as reported by 89% of laptop users and 83% of smartphone users. The next most performed Internet activity was online banking with 78% of laptop users and 63% of smartphone users. The use of devices to access social media was also popular, with 63% of laptop users and 71% of smartphone users accessing social media. Considering the options, I’m guessing this was the PG rated survey.

It turns out a lot of NZers with mobile devices use social media. Around 52.1% to 56.6% of New Zealand’s population is connected to Facebook. This may not be surprising, however research in Europe has also found that 49% of the 11 to 12-year-olds had their own social media website, with 23% of 11 to 12-year-olds reporting the effects of excessive use of the Internet. 

Since we are social beings who are rewarded with the nectar of dopamine whenever we interact with others, it is no surprise that everyone with the opportunity is utilising this amazing technology to communicate with more people than ever before. Socialising with many people on the Internet is so appealing that we even do it while communicating and interacting with people face-to-face.

The EU Kids report found 53% of children who responded to the survey would ordinarily use the Internet when they are with a friend at their home. The report concluded that online activities are becoming an increasing part of time spent interacting with peers, and stated that “The internet is relevant for socialising among peers in two ways: it supports forms of ‘perpetual contact’ that extend face-to-face encounters beyond physical proximity, and it is a resource for co-present interaction, when it is shared in face-to-face meetings with friends.”. In other words the Internet is an extension of a student’s typical social setting (daily interactions), as it allows discussion of daily events while at home, as well as providing events for the students to talk about at school.

Considering the amount of time young people spend socialising and communicating through the Internet such as with social media, it is expected that a vast amount of learning could also be done through social media. A fair amount of research has been done demonstrating social media increasingly being used effectively as an educational tool (Graves & Ziaeehezarjeribi, 2010; West, 2012; Moran et al., 2011). The amount social media influences learning depends on a number of factors, such as the amount of that time spent  doing useful activities such as researching or collaborating with friends and classmates, as opposed to time-wasting and distracting other students.

What should you do to protect your children from the negative aspects of the Internet, so they can benefit from the positive aspects?

The EU Kids report also collected data about parents who strictly restricted internet and social media use of their 11 to 12-year-olds, and a range of parental supervision techniques through to mediating safe use through supervision and education. The students who had restrictions placed on their internet use reported lower levels of harm (i.e. experiencing something on the Internet that bothered them). However the report also concluded that restrictive mediation (strict restriction) resulted in lower levels of online activity and development of skills in all age groups. This suggests that if you want to wrap your children in cotton wool to protect their pure little minds, you may do so at the expense of their ability to succeed in this online world.

The solution is to educate students about effective ways of using the Internet, ways of avoiding material that may cause harm, and ways of avoiding cyber bullying (which will be further discussed in a future blog post). It is also important to educate students on the dangers of social media, such as the link between excessive social media use and symptoms of depression and narcissism.

Considering the potential of the Internet to collect and distribute the wealth of human knowledge, the ability to connect people, and educational opportunities that the Internet provides; it is a crying shame that only 42.3% of human potential is tapping into this global village. It would be a benefit to all humanity if all the children on Earth had the opportunity to use the Internet as an educational tool, because as it stands everyone who does not have access to the Internet is being left behind. Perhaps this is the reason why the UN recently declared that access to the Internet is to be considered a basic human right. With no multinational government efforts to provide global Internet coverage, initiatives such as Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s, looks set to take the honour of providing this service to all of the people. I will further explore the idea of universal Internet in a later post.

Personally I use the Internet predominantly as a research tool, a finder of ‘instant karma’ videos, and as a way to raise my self-esteem by bullying random people on the Internet. As is true with all other forms of media and communication (radio, TV, magazines, novels, plays), it is not the medium that is responsible for how positive a person’s experience is with that medium, but rather the way each person decides to use it. For instance, watching TV is not necessarily bad for you or a waste of time because you are watching TV, what makes it a waste of time is when you decide to watch the Kardashian’s instead of Planet Earth, or when you decide to watch the first of eight Masterchef finals instead of cooking your family dinner. In the same respect, the Internet is only a negative environment for children if they are not doing it right. Going on a Wikipedia spree about the Roman collapse or the Manhattan Project should not be limited, while a YouTube spree on parkour fails probably should not last more than two and a half hours. It is probably not wise for me to set these standards, but I’m sure parents are handicapable of making those decisions. It is up to parents during home time and educators during school time to teach students safe ways to participate online in a way that will minimize harm and bullying.

Effective Education Engages Environment

April 15, 2015 by Timothy Young

I thought I would start by providing some insight about how much influence one’s environment can have on their educational experience. By the environment I mean interactions with peers, physical setting, and the medium they are learning in. Basically everything someone experiences that is not ‘in their head’, which may not seem like much for some students.

I think people generally expect that what they are thinking, are thoughts that they created from scratch by themselves. In reality almost everything people have thought and are thinking has been constructed from their past social interactions and past experiences with different environments and objects. Every thought someone has had has been hugely influenced by a combination of a lifetime of experiences with environmental factors including the language(s) they know and are currently using (TED articleLinguistic Society), the way they have been spoken to in different situations in the past (Dweck & Mueller, 1998), the amount they have been exposed to other people’s opinions (Asch, 1951), what they have learned by observing the actions of others (Kline, 2014), or information that has been placed on objects or symbols by themselves or others (Wood, Bruner, and Ross, 1976).

Objects or areas where information has been stored are called artefacts. This could be a book or website with written information, a to-do list, an audio recording, or even an inanimate object such as a jandle (flip-flop) you put on the door handle to remind yourself to put the medicine for worms in the dog’s food, and also to remind you to handle the jandle.

Salomon (1993) and others thought it was also important to acknowledge that there is such thing as an individual cognition, that can have a division of cognitive labour with an object (such as a list), without being distributed (or shared) across their environment. Even though Salomon (1993) believed individual cognition should not be ignored, he still believed that learning environments are so intertwined with a person's cognition that studying them in different contexts than the traditional learning environment (such as artificial settings) will not produce valid results.

I believe that it is important to study individual perspectives in some situations, such as a qualitative interview (rather than quantitative experiment) investigating the perspective of a specific population with a unique worldview, however even then they are being studied in the context of their worldview (which was developed through social and environmental pressures) e.g. interviewing Amish people who are addicted to video games. In that context you can’t separate the Amish person from the video game, or the Amish person from the Amish upbringing, since that is what has led to the unique worldview that is being studied. If you attempt to study everything in psychology in the context of every other possible variable, with the goal of producing perfectly valid results, you will likely be fighting a losing battle. In psychology it is important to control all possible variables before acknowledging and investigating the role any other possible variables may have played in the results, including all environmental and social pressures. Some people (not me) think that there is no way to make valid conclusions from psychological experiments because of the complexity of variables that may affect the results.

Some researchers hold the view that the specific context in which people learn have a direct influence on their cognitive processes (way they think). Lave and Wenger (1991) discussed how the specific situation in which a mathematical skill is acquired or learned will continue to affect the way the student will complete math problems in the future. This was first discovered by the researchers when observing tailors working with apprentices in West Africa. Their ‘situated cognition’ view follows the idea that the specific situation in which anything is learned will have an effect on educational outcomes. For a musical example, if you learned to play guitar with Jimi Hendrix, you would probably play differently than you would if you learned to play with David Gilmour; just as you might do better at algebra when you learn in an online environment or a traditional classroom environment, depending on multiple other variables including individual differences of students.

Therefore, although there may be some situations where individuals are not sharing their cognition with the current setting, it is important that educational practice and research takes into account as much of the bigger picture as possible; in terms of community influence, impacts of government decisions, influences from friends and family, past experiences and so on. Obviously this is impossible for most of the professionals working in an educational sector because of the limited resources they are provided, however if parents and teachers understand more of the specific environmental influences which have significant effects on education, they can work towards these changes wherever possible. I will try to provide more of those specifics throughout this blog.

For my thesis, I researched how different dynamics of groups affect education outcomes. Group dynamics include whether or not there are differences between the group members in terms of educational ability or physical difference, the effect of different group sizes in online and face-to-face settings, how well the group members knew each other or liked each other etc. I also researched whether group sizes affected the amount students’ test scores improved, or whether group sizes affected the amount students participated in discussion. I’ll dedicate more blogs to explain my research in more detail.

As mentioned, one of the major environmental influences that affect your own opinions and learning are the opinions of your friends. It was a long time ago that Asch (1951) found that people want to do what other people are doing i.e. socially conform. Once something is popular (or even just perceived to be popular) other people want to be involved. Then the more popular it is, the more it is ‘liked’ and ‘shared’, the more people are exposed to, which leads to even more people wanting to be a part of it just because your cousin’s hot friend thought Kim’s outfit in TMZ was super cute! I mean what else explains why Crazy Frog was so fucking popular.

So that time you thought how cool that dress was, or how pimp that car was; you are probably only thinking that because of a combination of events, including your friends’ equally ridiculous opinions,the conversation in the library last week that you subconsciously overheard, and that car advertisement which implied that owning that car would increase your chance of sexy times. Or perhaps the evil marketers will appeal to a woman’s maternal instincts by repeating how safe a car will be for her tots.

Considering the success of educational outcomes depends so much on the specifics of different situations, the potential number of variables that can influence educational outcomes is vast. It is important to be aware of as many of the more influential variables as possible and the conditions that lead to the best educational outcomes, so education plans can be effectively tailored to different individuals when possible. It is also important to be aware of your own limitations and to self reflect on the fact that your ideas and perceptions about the world are based on your life experiences, and that other people with different life experiences are likely to see the world in a different light. Understanding what makes us who we are and why we have different perspectives and worldviews, brings us closer to understanding what it would be like to walk 1.6 km in another person’s shoes. At the same time as improving educational outcomes, you can improve the world by decreasing prejudices and increasing understanding and compassion towards others.