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BYU Forum: Glimpses of the future of learning

Dr. Sugata Mitra, professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, delivered the BYU Forum address on Tuesday. He spoke about his technology research and his vision for technology-integrated education in the future.

To begin his address, Dr. Mitra asked the audience to do something: clap synchronously. It took a few seconds of asynchronous clapping, but the audience came together quickly to accomplish the assigned task.

“It started with a fraction of a second of chaos and then order,” said Mitra of the clapping. “Who brought the claps together? Nobody did. Who decided the frequency? No one did. Who decided the volume? No one did. There exists something in this hall that is not human that brought these claps together.”

The rest of his story on educational technology, Mitra said, involves looking for that non-human factor that brings claps (and learning) together. He then outlined key points in his research about technology.

Unique Relationship Between Children and Computers

When personal computers first started entering homes, no one could keep children away from them, said Mitra. Parents began to think that their children were gifted because they could easily do fantastic things with the new technology – things that until then businesses had to hire PhD-level physicists and mathematicians to do. However, it was very unlikely that those children suddenly became gifted.

“It’s entirely possible that computers and children have a certain relationship,” said Mitra.

This relationship between children and computers led Mitra to his research in education. In 1999, he began his famous “Hole in the Wall” experiment with computers in the slums of India. When given access, these children began to browse the internet and teach other children how to use the computer. Even without instructions or teachers, these children were learning. He had discovered that the absence of a teacher was a learning tool for these children.

How did it happen? Mitra had no idea.

“The thing I was missing at that point was that I didn’t realize who or what was bringing the claps together,” said Mitra.

Children Learn to Use the Internet by Themselves

As these results gained attention, Mitra and other organizations aimed to find out how these children were learning how to use computers. The Indian government put computers in other places and researchers measured the results over time. Computer literacy went up, just like a normal teaching curve, but there was no teacher.

The results of this research showed that children can learn to use the internet by themselves in certain circumstances: If they are in unsupervised, heterogeneous groups, accessing the internet through large, visible screens in a safe and public space.

Mitra’s research moved on to other countries, where he called the method Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE). In these environments, teachers were needed to ask children big, interesting questions. Then the children used the internet and teamwork to teach themselves. Once they had solved these questions using computers, they were able to remember what they had learned and replicated the knowledge in an exam setting.

Children in Self-Organized Learning Environments can learn anything by themselves, said Mitra. To further his research on SOLEs, Mitra established eight schools that followed the model. In the schools, every day starts with chaos. But as the day goes on and the children begin to learn, “you watch the claps come together.”

The results in these schools indicated that three things happen when children have safe access to the internet: reading comprehension goes up, internet searching skills go up and self-confidence remains steady.

“There is a generation growing up with supreme confidence in the digital world. All that they’re asking for is access,” said Mitra.

So what is the key to bringing the claps (and the learning) together?

“I’ll ask the internet,” said Mitra.

Next Devotional: Jason Carroll, School of Family Life

Jason Carroll, a Professor of Marriage and Family Studies in the School of Family Life, will deliver the next BYU Devotional on Tuesday, April 2, at 11:05 a.m. in the Marriott Center.

His remarks will also be broadcast live on BYUtv,, KBYU-TV 11, Classical 89 FM and BYU Radio.

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