The Hole in the Wall project directed by Sugata Mitra, of NIIT India, was previously discussed in this column by James Tooley in December 2000. Since then, some important developments have taken place. For those not in the know, Mitra’s initial research project involved setting up a computer kiosk with free internet access (a hole in the wall) in a slum area of Delhi and then recording what happened next. Without any instruction or assistance, groups of local children quickly became computer literate. Further research was then carried out (funded by the World Bank) to see if these results were specific to Delhi or if they also applied in a variety of different environments. Numerous ‘hole in the wall’ experiments were therefore carried out across the Indian subcontinent involving approximately 40,000 of the world’s poorest children. By 2005, the data-based outcomes showed that when children were given unsupervised access to computers in public or play areas it resulted in the acquisition of functional computer literacy, improvement in academic performance, increase in confidence and self-esteem and increased collaborative behaviour. There was also consistent anecdotal evidence of a large-scale impact on school enrolment, retention, concentration, attention span and problem-solving ability.

In 2006, Mitra wanted to show that there must be something which children could not teach themselves and therefore posed the following question – Can Tamil-speaking children learn Biotechnology in English – on their own? The experiment took place in the village of Kallikuppam on the south coast of India. A hole in the wall kiosk was set up, only providing access to material on Biotechnology in English. When Mitra returned to the village two months later, he found that while many children complained that it was a hard subject to learn in a foreign language, one girl responded ‘Apart from the fact that DNA replicates and that defects in DNA can cause disease, because it replicates, we have understood nothing else!’ The research showed that Tamil-speaking children could learn the basics on biotechnology, in English, on their own.

In short, the research programme has shown that groups of children can learn to use computers on their own, without any teachers or instruction. Interesting points to highlight include: group interaction with children of different ages is important; when the ‘hole in the wall’ is placed in a classroom, the effect is lost as it begins to change from a voluntary educational experience, to one which is forced. Finally, Mitra suggests that the four most important words in children’s education are ‘if they want to’. If children want to learn something, then they will.

In 2006 Sugata Mitra was also appointed Professor of Educational Technology at the E.G. West Centre, School of Education, University of Newcastle, and since arriving he has been wowing audiences up and down the UK with his ‘Hole in Wall’ presentation. His unassuming and jovial manner guarantees a warm and enthusiastic reception, and even the Jesmond Gentleman’s Association (average age of 75), have confirmed that it was their most thought-provoking presentation to date!  While at Newcastle, Professor Mitra will be addressing the following question:

 Can groups of children complete their schooling on their own? If we haven’t been able to help them for 2,000 years, can we at least help them to help themselves?

I have been told that Professor Mitra was a big fan of Pink Floyd in the 1970s and that their 1979 hit Another Brick in the Wall was a particular favourite. The lyrics, which informed teachers to ‘leave them kids alone’ as they ‘don’t need no education,’ help to explain why.

An edited version of this article was published in Economic Affairs, June 2008