Sugata Mitra on edtech and empire

In his 2013 TED talk at Long Beach California, Sugata Mitra gave a bold political twist to his story of education by placing it in the context of a grander story about empire. The now familiar story of the hole in the wall project (where children in an Indian slum were given unsupervised access to a computer built into a wall) is given a new political radicalism, expressing a radical opposition to imperialism.

Let’s have a closer look at this new anti-imperialism – and let’s have a look at it, if not from the standpoint of the slums, at least with the slums in mind – the slums without which Sugata Mitra might still be an unknown scientist working for a little-known company in New Delhi instead of being a professor at MIT, the inspiration behind an internationally popular film (Slumdog Millionaire) and a darling of the TED stage with one of the highest profile “ideas worth sharing”. Remove the slum from the story and Sugata Mitra’s message does nothing more than confirm what every parent in California already knew, i.e. that given a new game console their children can figure out how to use it without reading the manual. What turned Mitra’s story into an idea worth sharing was the image of children in the Indian slum facing the blank wall of seemingly insuperable poverty – a wall in which Sugata Mitra opened a hole giving a view of a brighter future beyond. What inspires most is not the idea of children learning things by themselves, but the idea that digital technology can open up huge holes in the walls of poverty and deprivation. It certainly is inspiring, in the way that an imaginative retelling of the Cinderella story might be inspiring, with Sugata Mitra playing the role of the fairy godmother, but is it as politically radical as the new talk about empire might lead us to believe?

With the soft avuncular tone of a man who has the very best intentions, Sugata Mitra begins his TED talk:

“I tried to look at where the kind of learning we do in schools came from. If you look at present-day schooling the way it is, it’s quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago, and it came from the last and the biggest of the empires on this planet.”

On the stage we see:

Sugata Mitra TED prize, edtech and empire

“Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data handwritten on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It’s still with us today. It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine.”

Mitra wants to argue that mainstream schools, with all their emphasis upon standardisation, uniformity, rote learning, punctuality, linearity and so on, were set up originally to train the administrative minions of an empire that tried to run the entire planet – minions who would dutifully perform their functions as regularly as clockwork within the gargantuan pre-digital administrative machine.

The reference to empire and the huge graphic with so much of the world marked out in angry areas of deep red tap into the anti-imperialist sensitivities of the wealthy audience in democratic California. If any of them know details of the British involvement in India they might know about the Amritsar massacre and have in the back of their minds the image of General Dyer on 13 April 1919 giving the order for the British soldiers to shoot into the crowd of unarmed protestors – shots fired without an order to disperse being issued – shots that continue until all the ammunition is finished – shots followed by a refusal to allow the wounded to be removed and cared for – all to teach the people of the Punjab a lesson – an imperial lesson written in blood.

Mitra taps into these anti-imperialist sentiments, but he is careful to keep his own telling of the story bloodless. The only victims of empire seem to be the white children who are forced to wear uniforms and sit in rows in school and spend so much time learning how to write well and do mental arithmetic.

Mitra’s radicalism keeps our opposition focused on the fate of those privileged children: “The students must be identical to each other…They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional.” This way of telling the story not only conceals the greater injustice perpetrated beyond the ranks of the privileged, but it also empties the modern principle of identity – of equality – of all its political radicalism. Is there not an identity that deserves to be recognised? Every voice raised against imperial exclusion is a voice that claims a more fundamental equality – an equality that challenges empire.

But the most questionable remark that Mitra makes about empire is the one he makes next:

“The empire is gone.”

Mitra wants to argue that we don’t need to waste time arguing about the rights and wrongs of the old way of educating the privileged children of the empire. It is enough to recognise that the empire is over, from which it follows that there is no historical need any longer for its system of schooling.

“The empire is gone.”

I imagine Mitra hesitating before saying that, wondering how the audience would take it. It is a claim that would have offended other ears – ears in Baghdad, Kabul, and the Naxalite villages of West Bengal, for instance, where Indian villagers are still being forced from their land at gunpoint to make way for multinational mining companies. But the privileged audience in California accepts the claim without a ripple of objection.

It is at this point that Mitra looks to us no longer like the fairy godmother telling the children of the slums that they will go to the millionaire’s ball, but like Alice going through some mirror-like hole in a yellow-brick Californian wall into a crazy world of make-believe.

This is a Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee version of the end of history thesis. Mitra, who started by tapping into our anti-imperialist sentiments, now tells us that there is nothing to get agitated about any longer except for odd remnants of the dead empire – remnants like the old-fashioned schools.

Mitra continues his journey on the far side of the looking glass by describing what he sees as the future of work: “people will work from wherever they want, whenever they want, in whatever way they want.” This is a completely ridiculous view of where the world is heading, but only if you can mistake such folly for the truth, can you believe that the future of education should involve the sort of thing Mitra goes on to suggest: having teachers and schools and communities step aside to let the children educate themselves as much as possible online so that they grow up with the habit of doing whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want.

While being told about current trends, Mitra’s audience are shown this:

Sugata Mitra future of work

Mitra seems to be looking around now and seeing only silicon valleys running down to Californian beaches. He seems to have completely forgotten the Kalkaji slum that spreads out beneath the window of the office at NIIT in New Delhi where he used to work – a slum that speaks more loudly of empire than any row of desks that Mitra might find in any school in the world, since the existence of the slum can be traced back to the British Raj which drew civil lines around the protected enclaves of the affluent and forced everyone else to live in areas designated uncivil. That slum, like others in India, is growing. About a quarter of all the inhabitants of India’s larger cities live in slums, and the total slum population of India is estimated to have risen from 43 million in 2001 to 93 million in 2011, growing on average at a rate of 5% a year. There is no sign that we are just around the corner from a society in which everyone will live in a nice suburban home with broadband in a silicon valley only a short drive from the beach. On the contrary, there is every sign that the growth of wealth in the silicon valleys of the USA is joined at the hip to the perpetuation of poverty in places like Kalkaji, where a shocking number of people still dream, not of broadband, but of having their own toilet.

Dhravani slum, India

The slums are growing not where current policies are failing, but where they are working “best”. They represent not the failure of the system, but its success. When we think of the future and think of the affluent employee doing what he wants, when he wants, where he wants with his laptop on his knee, we ought not to forget the vast pool of cheap, poorly-regulated and unorganised labour that the system producing the laptops needs – a system in which the slums have their role to play.

It would be nice to just ignore Mitra’s cukooland in the cloud view of history, but his idea of, for instance, a self-organising learning environment (SOLE) where children educate themselves online with as little intervention from the teacher as possible gets all its persuasive force from the perception that we are only a few steps away from a perpetually peaceful self-organising society – a society in which all the children of the slums will be equal participants once they figure out how to code and once they save up enough money for a laptop. If this view of history is wrong, then the main reason for embracing this model of education collapses.

Just a hole in the wall?

What initially sounded like a radical story turns out to be something that merely played with our anti-imperialist sentiments while concealing the persistence of empire. It is also utterly unradical in its ignorance of the way the computer at the heart of its edtech pedagogy is itself bound up with that persistent empire.

Mitra assumes that empire is one thing and computers are another. Computers have nothing to do with empire and politics. He sees nothing political – nothing imperial – in plastering a computer into the wall of the Kalkaji slum.

What is this computer in the hole in the wall? Is it a perfectly innocent educational tool, as Mitra wants to construe it? We do not have the eyes of the children of the slum, but if we imagine looking through such eyes, how does the computer in the hole in the wall look?

Sugata Mitra’s colleagues at HiWEL Ltd (the company that has carried on the hole in the wall project, assisted by funding from an organisation with impeccable anti-imperialist credentials: the World Bank) offer three interpretations on their website:

“For experts, like Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, Hole-in-the-Wall is a ‘Shared Blackboard’ which children in underprivileged communities can collectively own and access, to express themselves, to learn, to explore together, and at some stage to even brainstorm and come up with exciting ideas.”

Hole in the wall, edtech, India

Do the children believe that they own the computers plastered so immovably into the wall of their slum? Is it not more likely that the computers are recognised for what they are: impossibly expensive objects that they could never own? Seen in this way, doesn’t the computer with its fittings and the wall around it painted bright yellow and red to attract the children start to look like some high-tech bauble dangling in that hole in the wall, advertising a world of wealth that the children can only dream of?

Another interpretation from the same page:

“For villagers, it is more like a village well, where children assemble to draw knowledge and, in the process, engage in meaningful conversation and immersive learning activities that broaden their horizons.”

Do children in the village see it as a well? A well is something going deep into the ground, a visible link to the hidden powers of nature. Does the computer not take the children away from the space of their village and the obscure nature on which it rests? Do the children draw knowledge from the computer or are the children drawn away from the village to a virtual city of high-tech amibitions?

“Activities that broaden their horizons.” Is this new horizon something that the children just enjoy looking at, as if they were watching a documentary about penguins at the Antarctic, or is it a view of a life they start wanting to be a part of – a life that, in all likelihood, they will not be able to be a part of?

And the last of the three readings:

“For children, it is an extension of their playground where they can play together, teach each other new things, and more importantly, just be themselves.”

The village playground was a space that probably cost nothing, decorated entirely by figments of the children’s imaginations drawing on the culture that they were born into. It wasn’t something that could only be bought by getting deep into debt – a debt that could not be paid off before the technology of the new playground became obsolete.

“The children can just be themselves.” How are the children just being themselves if they are struggling with a foreign language while working out how to use a tool they will never be able to own?

And does the computer which the HiWEL people want to say is an innocent part of local life not introduce a very political concept of time? Does the shiny technology – aided by a thousand billboards – not speak to the children of the future? Does it not teach the children that the village is the past and tech is the future? Do the children not learn to think of historical time, not in terms of their own cultural imagination, which might view time as cyclical, but in terms of the linear progress of technology – the progress from bytes to kilobytes to megabytes and now to terabytes?

Why do Sugata Mitra and his colleagues not see that they are to the new empire what General Dyer was to the older one? The methods are different, of course. General Dyer knew that bullets would have to be used to teach the natives to accept the foreign culture. Sugata Mitra and HiWEL Ltd, by contrast, have found a way to make the children of the natives dream the dreams of which the new empire is made. The result, though, is the same, is it not?

When speaking to the Guardian newspaper Mitra described how his edtech opens the door not just to information but to a new world of dreams. He refers specifically to his experience of online learning in the UK:

“I’m encouraging kids to use computers at their own pace to build aspirations.

“Too many pupils at schools in the UK want to have careers as footballers or TV hosts, or models, because that’s what they’re constantly exposed to as the heroes of our time. I use the internet to introduce them to unlikely heroes, such as material about people working for Nasa, and volunteers in Congo, then I leave them to do their own research, unsupervised. After as little as eight or 10 exposures, the kids have new dreams about what to do with their lives.”

There is a lovely naivety here about technology and empire – about how the activities at NASA rest on an imperial pyramid of wealth that funnels profits to the top by exploiting those at the bottom – about how the volunteers in the Congo live lifestyles that perpetuate the very same system that produces and reproduces the dire conditions in the Congo that the volunteers want to help.

If the technology can inspire new dreams in the relatively affluent children of the UK, it is likely to do the same with children in the slums – getting them dreaming dreams that could only be realised by their becoming willing participants in the very same system that produces and reproduces the slums.

If we are concerned about empire, we need to see not only that certain kinds of traditional schooling can foster an unthinking support for empire but that certain forms of edtech unschooling can do the same.

Children and empire

The failure of Mitra’s pseudo-radicalism is evident not only in his naïve idea that computers have nothing to do with empire, but also in his equally naïve idea that children have nothing to do with empire. For evidence of this let’s look at the story of one child (as told on the HiWEL website). Here is the story of Suresh:

“Suresh (name changed) lost his father, a rickshaw puller, at the tender age of two. Pressurized by her family, the responsibility of a mentally challenged daughter and lack of financial support, his mother gave him up at a Nirmal Chhaya Home in Delhi with the hope of her son receiving better care than what she would be able to provide him. He says, “I had never even seen a computer closely before I started using the Learning Station. It is a beautiful opportunity for children like us who do not have access to such things. We hear from other children in our class about computers and internet but very rarely do children like us get a chance to experience it first-hand.” Suresh describes how he enjoys listening to ‘Meena ki kahani’ stories and likes games such as matching objects. In the recent past, he has familiarized himself with the ‘paint’ application which he proudly states he has learnt completely on his own despite finding it difficult initially.

“In the beginning, Suresh felt the need for a teacher to help them with the Learning Station but with time he has realized that learning something through his own efforts has given him confidence and now he proudly explores all the applications. Suresh is interested in using the internet and is fascinated by email after his friends at school told him about it. He is grateful to the Home for providing him with the basic amenities he requires, ability to attend school and access to the LS which he believes will help him in building a strong future.

“He says, “I dream of becoming a cricketer and make my country proud.” Yet the young boy is realistic and says he is also pursuing courses in mobile repairing and electrical work as back up. His ultimate dream remains to be financially independent so that he can set up a house for his mother and restore the home he lost.”

How do we view Suresh? Do we see him simply as a poor child whose plight tugs at our heart strings – a child in so much need – a child who could benefit from learning how to use the paint application of a computer built into the wall of his orphanage? This would seem to be how Sugata Mitra and his colleagues at HiWEL Ltd see matters. Isn’t this a rather myopic and superficial view – one that sees in the background only a fuzzy image of poverty and deprivation?

If we try to bring that background more into focus, we might notice a few odd facts, such as the facts about the tax breaks the Indian government has been giving to multinational companies. We see then the political decision to favour the interests of big business instead of providing a greater level of security for families like Suresh’s so that the poorest don’t feel they have to hand children over to orphanages. Instead of merely feeling sympathy for a poor child in an orphanage, isn’t there reason here to be angry about the injustice of the system behind his being put into the orphanage? But Mitra’s pseudo-radicalism conceals all this – conceals the way in which Suresh is a victim of a new empire – an empire that will leave its own children languishing hopelessly in orphanages if the overriding imperative of attracting foreign capital requires it.

Community and empire

One of the concepts conspicuously absent from Mitra’s critique of empire is that of community. He is all in favour of children working in groups to learn from each other, but he seems hostile to the idea of a community organising itself and organising the education of its children. He seems to lump all such communities and social systems together as being one with the British Empire, as if, inside every teacher there hides a General Dyer and inside every community leader there hides a Queen Victoria, and that to avoid imperialism in education, the bulk of it must be entrusted to computer programmers and corporations with a proven anti-imperialist track record like Apple, Microsoft and Google.

What Mitra fails to see is the blatant imperialism in the attitude he and HiWEL Ltd take to the communities in the slum. One mark of the imperialist is his refusal to listen to the natives. That is exactly the attitude that Mitra and his colleagues took when they first began the hole in the wall project. They avoided all dialogue. They did not go into the slum and ask those who could speak on behalf of the communities there what they believed was needed and how their children should be educated. He did not ask them, for instance, if the children should become literate first in their mother tongue or in English. He did not ask them about the design of the applications to be installed on the computers. No, Mitra – like his British predecessors – had already decided what software to install and what the main language was to be. In one of his talks about the project he recounted with a broad smile on his face that the first English word the children learnt was “Google”, failing to see the parallel with those other children long ago looking down the barrel of General Dyer’s gun – children whose first English word might have been “Victoria”.

Mitra wants to call his approach to education minimally invasive because it involves so little input from the flesh and blood teacher and because it stops the local community “invading” the minds of its children. What he fails to appreciate is that his sort of minimally invasive education can also be maximally imperial – the computer and the software on it speak as clearly of empire as did the bayonet on the end of General Dyer’s rifle.

To try to refrain from this arrogant imperial attitude we will need to be more respectful of the local communities – communities which, arguably, constitute the only hope for genuine opposition to empire. Where else would any real opposition come from? It certainly wouldn’t come from children who have been lured away from their communities by the toys of the rich and who have come to dream of working at NASA. It will come instead (if at all) from communities who find more effective ways of organising themselves and defending their interests – which might include helping their children both resist and understand the seductions of empire that well-intentioned edtech gurus like Sugata Mitra might place before them.

If we think through the issue of empire more carefully and see the way the digital edtech promoted by people like Sugata Mitra is actually implicated in it, we might see the need for a more positive notion of schooling. Instead of casting doubt on the legitimacy of any and every school, urging teachers to step aside to let more of education be organised by companies operating online, we might see the need for schools that have a renewed sense of purpose in a hugely unjust and exploitative global empire animated by dreams that thrive on ignorance and insensitivity.



To see the video of the Sugata Mitra talk at TED in February 2013 see:

written by Torn Halves on March 8, 2013 in digital revolution and Edtech and education and Sugata Mitra with 24 comments