Wednesday 1 May 2013

Grounds for Critique in the "Hole in the Wall Experiment"?

Donald Clark recently wrote a critical post about Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiments (see This prompted a vigorous discussion, in which Sugata Mitra participated. There was a considerable amount of academic ping-pong, whose objective appeared to be defence of the rightness of one position against another. I found all of this rather depressing - but perhaps not for the reasons that Mitra did.

The problem with the debate was that only ground upon which the argument was based appears to be individual ego differences ("I'm right"). Never is there any attempt at critical inquiry in looking at what happens (or appears to happen) and then to ask "why?" Instead, evidence is produced (empty holes in the wall) which appear to conflict earlier evidence and the claims of Mitra. Yet, since Mitra's underlying theoretical concern is "self-organising behaviour in learning", the empty holes in the wall hardly refute the theory of self-organising behaviour. Indeed, they rather add a bit more spice to the mixture. What might this mean? How might it change what we originally thought? How might our theory need to change? It's unfortunate that many people find thinking hard and unpleasant, and where the thinking gives up, ego kicks in.

The empty holes in the wall are telling us something. Personally I wasn't particularly satisfied with Mitra's original conception of self-organisation (I discussed this with him). In particular, viewing the technology as having causal powers per-se in producing the behaviour of the children seemed teleologically-focused. I doubt technologies have purposes. But I think people have agendas, and their agency with technologies reflects this. (Indeed, I have a friend who vehemently denies the reality of technology, preferring to simply call  it an "artefact" - he may be right)

The agency behind the hole in the wall was Sugata Mitra. He established the conditions for a self-organising activity. There is something complex in the way that we conduct activities with people: without the continual care and coordination, things tend to fall apart. Mitra's computers were his means of coordinating the activity. My view is that his agency was mediated through them. The children's engagement was a function of the technology (which framed the activity) and the agency which coordinated it. Take the coordination away, and things will fall apart (in cybernetic terms, they go into oscillation). In effect, Mitra taught the students. But he taught in a very imaginative way. An experiment to be applauded, in my view.

But there's much more to get out of this - particularly about the mechanisms of activity and self-organisation. One of the mistakes in thinking about the hole in the wall is that it is an addition to the environment - some additional complexity which generates self-organisation. This isn't correct, in my view. Indeed, it is the opposite. The computer is an attenuator: it attenuates the sheer diversity of the childrens' daily concerns and focuses them on a particular task (playing with the computer).

Most learning activities are attenuations of one sort or another - indeed most games (think of the attenuation of table tennis!). But what does the attenuation do? Why is it that the attenuation of a learning activity sponsors creativity and self-organisation?

I can only speculate on a possible answer to this. It has to do with redundant action - those actions which are simple, repetitive and recursive. A high-variety channel can carry many different signals - the probability that one signal is the same as another is low. A low-variety channel carries only a few signals. The probability that signals recur is higher. Recurring signals are effectively redundant signals. In the computer, the idea of 'clicking' is a good example. But redundancy serves a purpose. I think it catalyses new forms of communication.  This may be the mechanism that Mitra had uncovered. A low variety activity stimulated rich social interaction and new forms of communication. If the redundancy of the communication is catalytic on the production of new communications, then this process can be accounted for.

But the attenuator (the computer) had to be managed. Teachers manage the attenuators of their activities (they remind children of the rules). Mitra had to manage the attenuation of his computer. When this was no longer managed, what happens to all complex systems in their natural environment occurred:


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