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This course doesn’t need teachers?

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Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in England, gave a popu lar TED Talk about his Hole in the Wall Project, in which in 2001, he placed a computer in a kiosk in a rural slum of Kalkaji, New Delhi. Kids began using the computer freely, and were able to teach themselves how to use many of the applications, like character mapping without any instruction.

In Mitra's words, "The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning, provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal [human] guidance."

Mitra's point is is that a child's natural curiosity and focus on an enabling environment, such as a computer, will lead the child to learn critical problem solving skills on their own by experimentation with little to no intervention from a teacher.


The idea that children can learn without adult assistance or intervention isn't a new idea. In 1999, Neil Postman, in his book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, made a statement about teaching students how to use software. “That is easy to do and unnecessary, since most young people will learn how to use computers without the help of their schools,” Postman writes. He goes on to state that teachers should teach the history of technology instead, because not teaching from an historical perspective would distort the subject matter. Students need to understand how technology has affected society as a whole.

I agree with Postman and Mitra. Students are more than capable of learning how to use technology on their own, but it does take a teacher to fill in the gaps of historical content omitted when learning functionality on one's own.

Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment had an unexpected consequence; some took it to mean that teachers and, to a further extent, human contact is unnecessary for learning. Ever since computers became fixtures in schools, people have proclaimed a teacher’s job will be more of a facilitator; making sure equipment is working, and the children behaving, while students learn all of their lessons from a computer. For current students, the idea of working and interacting with computers instead of teachers is not an issue for most students.

In his book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte states, “we will find that we are talking as much or more with machines then we are with humans. What seems to trouble people most is their own self-consciousness about talking to inanimate objects.” It's worth noting that there was no Facebook, Twitter, or smartphones when Negroponte wrote those words.

That wall of self-consciousness is no longer a factor — society does not have a problem interacting with their inanimate (read: digital) objects. In many classrooms, students are learning science by watching videos and completing a majority of school work at home, without interacting with a teacher. A teacher's role has been reduced to grading papers and directing the students on how to navigate to the software, and thereby separating themselves from teaching much of the actual content of the course. In other words, the teacher is on the sideline of the whole process. Some curriculum is taught entirely via the Internet and programs like Khan Academy, a robust educational site.

The question is: Where is the balance between digital, individual learning and old fashioned one-on-one instruction? Television was blamed for a decline in literacy, what will computers be blamed for since they've become even more ubiquitous than televisions in our classrooms?

One way to rethink the role of technology in teaching is to understand that technology should enhance human instruction, not replace it completely — even if that is what it was designed for. It's hard to argue that a child won't benefit from the support and thoughtful guidance of a caring adult. Even tutoring can leave a positive impression that will last for a lifetime.

I don't think we need experiments like Hole in the Wall to see that students can learn computer applications on their own — I see it everyday in schools and when students use their mobile devices. But without contextual input from an instructor, learning how to use and traverse applications, and why it matters is like teaching them how to spell without teaching the meaning of the word. We can send monkeys into space by providing them stimulus to press certain buttons, but we don't believe they can actually navigate a spaceship on their own, do we? We would do the students a disservice by not putting technology in context.


Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at thruss09@gmail.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.

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