Jay Cross has posted some further reflections on the Hole in the Wall project that was presented in a keynote speech by Sugata Mitra at Online Educa Berlin two weeks ago. Although the Hole in the Wall has been going for at least 7 years and has been deployed (as Sugata told me privately) extensively not only in various locations within India but also in Africa and Cambodia, confirming the potentially universal application of the results, the deeper findings of the ongoing experiment only came home to me in Berlin, which -- incidentally and somewhat ironically -- perhaps reveals that public presentations by an active speaker in front of a passive audience may occasionally be an effective way of transmitting knowledge. This post can also be read as my personal answer to the Big Question for December, since the Hole in the Wall (HiW) was indeed the most significant revelation of the year for me. It’s always pleasant to see the experimental confirmation of one’s favorite hypotheses (concerning both social learning and e-learning as a resource), but as with all empirical evidence, I’ve discovered in HiW material for extending the original hypotheses and introducing new dimensions (e.g. the organizational, the psychological and the ethical).
It seems to me that the fundamental key to the success of HiW is the notion of "self-organized groups" who learn on their own. If education is to become truly non-invasive, as Jay suggests, it must refrain from defining both the goals and the means to reach them, entrusting the groups with this task. If educational gurus (authorities) notice that a group is neglecting what is considered "essential" in the curriculum (for whatever reason, whether it’s basic security, survival or inculcating an existing set of values), the group could be challenged to account for why they may be neglecting a certain topic or reminded of the interest in pursuing it. Respecting the self-organizing group and its decision-making capacity is the sine qua non of success. It also happens to be the absolute opposite of the organizational principles of traditional education and training.
It's worth reflecting on how learners in self-organized groups use external resources to solve problems. One of Sugata’s anecdotes in Berlin concerned a girl who was overwhelmed by the exposure to the micro-biology courses in English (a language she had to learn as the medium of instruction). She stole some money from her mother to phone her uncle in Delhi, who she hoped might be able to explain in simple terms what DNA was. His vague and unscientific but nevertheless informative answer gave her the minimum she needed to begin constructing her understanding of the lessons she wanted to explore.
In other words, everything one already knows or has access to in the world becomes a potential resource for building rather than simply receiving knowledge, traditionally from a single authoritative source. This is probably also the best answer to Andrew Keen – another keynote speaker in Berlin whose stock-in-trade is lamenting Web 2.0’s loss of the sense of established authority common to traditional education and the Web 1.0 -- because it demonstrates that even sources of knowledge (the uncle) that are not fully reliable can contribute to the construction and refinement of knowledge. Being exposed to a multiplicity of sources and entering into dialogue with them is the best way of evaluating the components of knowledge and understanding relationships between complementary elements. Inevitably such increasingly complex networks of knowledge (and interpretation of existing knowledge) produce a more diversified intellectual culture capable of appreciating value rather than relying on arbitrary criteria, such as university degrees or media-induced standards of celebrity: see for example this interesting article in the LA Times on the Trump University.
I expect that within the family (in Indian culture) the mother could forgive her daughter for the theft. It’s worth noticing that in some cultures – and especially within educational institutions -- that theft would not be forgiven and the child would be branded as a real or potential delinquent. It’s the old Jean Valjean problem that our western cultures are still struggling with, where the “rule of law” can easily become a rigid regime of “law and order” and human potential stifled with a vengeance.
Sugata told me that his results apply strictly to an age range of 6 to 13. He wouldn't commit to drawing any conclusions about how the findings might apply to older children and even less to adults. It's obvious that a similar experimental setting would be difficult to imagine. But I believe that parallels can be found, that the principles concerning the motivational factors of learning are similar and that, with some imagination in the "learning design", similar results could be produced in adults. The place to begin, of course, is CoPs since what the HiW children effectively did was to build and run their own CoP. And isn't "self-organized group" the best and most succinct definition of a CoP?