I believe that primary education needs to be changed completely. I also believe that increasing the number of teachers will not solve the problem. We must acknowledge that there will always be areas on the planet where good teachers will not want to go (see, for instance, Hindustan Times, 2007; Thomas, 2003). The best teachers tend to want to be near to urban centres so they often move from remote areas towards the town. The quality of education therefore is inversely related to the remoteness of the school from its nearest urban centre. The Indian Government, as well as governments of many other countries, spends large amounts of their education funds to train teachers, in the hope that this will improve the quality of education. This expectation may have an intrinsic flaw when applied to remote areas. Wherever a teacher wants to migrate away from the school he or she is employed in, teacher training will only enable them to do so more easily.
Given this, we must consider alternative ways to deliver education. In particular we should devise a process that can be made available in the places on earth where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go to. This is a priority because these are the same areas where, in general, trouble comes.
Is there a way to solve the problem by taking the teacher out of the equation? What, for example would happen if you gave computers to children without the support of any human intervention? Can they self-educate? Computers have the advantage of working the same way wherever they are and can do the same for children irrespective of location. This is what the “Hole in the Wall” experiment was designed to uncover. The idea was simple, to adapt the concept of an ATM cash machine for education and place it in areas where there are no teachers or where teachers do not want to go.
We offered internet access via a computer, fixed to the wall in slum areas and positioned at the appropriate height for children to access. The results showed that children in urban slums and remote areas of India, many of which have never seen a computer in their lives, are capable of teaching themselves various things from character mapping to DNA replication all on their own.
Building on our initial findings we went on to test how much children can learn if given internet access and left to their own devices. One such experiment was to see if some Tamil speaking children in Kalikuppam a South Indian village, could learn the biotechnology of how the DNA molecule reproduces using a street side computer that only “spoke” English. At a Western college this would be considered to be a second year undergraduate question. Despite knowing nothing about the subject at the beginning of the process, or being able to speak English, and without being asked direct questions on DNA molecules, it took students only 2 months to have a broad understanding of the subject. When tested they were able to answer about one in four questions correctly. After another couple of months, with only the encouragement of a friendly local, they were getting every other question right. From this it is clear therefore that if you take away adult restrictions, and provide children with Internet access, they will self organize and learn.
What is implied from the experiment outlined above is that children thrive best when left alone to uncover knowledge, particularly when their imagination is charged with difficult questions and achieve more when they are encouraged and praised for their achievements. This we call the “Grandmother method”.
Unlocking the power of new technologies for self-guided education is one of the 21st century superhighways that must be opened. Profound changes to how children access vast information is yielding new forms of peer-to-peer and individual-guided learning. The cloud is already omnipresent and indestructible, democratizing and ever changing. We should use it to spark the imaginations and build the mental muscles of children worldwide. This is why we have created “SOLEs,” “self organized learning environments,” where children group around Internet-equipped computers to discuss big questions. The teacher offers support rather than direction and merges into the background to observe as learning happens. SOLEs can inspire good teachers, provide a powerful learning tool to poorer teachers and offer basic essential resources and inspiration to pupils where there is no teacher.