A critique of Hole-in-the-Wall (HiWEL)

Development Policy04 Jul 2010Janelle Ward

A colleague of mine, Dr. Payal Arora, recently published an article in the British Journal of Educational Technology where she questions the fundamental assumptions underlying the Hole-in-the-Wall (HiWEL) project, which seeks to ‘create a new paradigm in the learning process by providing unrestricted computer access to groups of children in an open playground setting.’

Why does this article make such interesting reading? Well, at the same time Dr. Arora submitted her critical article for consideration, Sugata Mitra (founder of HiWEL) had also submitted a piece arguing for expansion of the possibilities of the HiWEL methodology. The journal thus provides a ‘face off’ approach detailing the different views these scholars hold. Dr. Arora’s article can be found here. In this blog post, I report on a brief exchange I had with Dr. Arora regarding the content of her article. For those interested in further exploring her work, here is a link to Dr. Arora’s website.

1. How did you become aware of the HiWEL project (what was your ‘chance encounter’)?

Interestingly, I was not targeting HiWEL but was involved with fieldwork in Almora, a small town in the Central Himalayas in India. I had committed to being there for 8 months to investigate how a newbie population (with a recent investment in broadband) uses the Internet and computers in such a remote town, which is what my upcoming book is about. So in that sense, it is not a coincidence that I encountered HiWEL. But it is a chance encounter nevertheless as I was not expecting it to be in a ‘failed’ state. Given that all the literature is highly positive, it was important to see then why the community and this organization had abandoned such ‘learning stations’ or computer kiosks.

2. Can you briefly describe the nature of the debate between you and Sugata Mitra?

Sugata Mitra’s idea is a wonderful one. No wonder it has gained so much attention. When you’re in the field trying to improve education and you’re constantly encountering education institutional failure such as chronic teacher absenteeism, rote learning etc., you can start to feel that the situation is quite hopeless. Then comes this idea of placing computers outside schools for children so they can learn on their own terms. The fundamental basis of Sugata’s idea is that children should be their own mediators of learning (a ‘minimally invasive education’ method): through peer-learning much more can be accomplished than that through the ‘failed’ school. So it’s a project that reminds us that children have enormous potential to learn if only we give them a chance and that oftentimes, institutions can actually interfere in this learning process.

I celebrate this idea too. However, just with all ideas, there is theory and there is reality. I actually question the underlying assumptions of this idea, and the contradictions that appear when it is implemented. I question the quick abandoning of ‘schooling’ as an institution. For instance a few children usually dominate the kiosk; these are usually boys. Schools on the other hand ensure equity of access. Also, peer teaching and learning sounds wonderful but oftentimes, children can be deeply discriminatory in their independent dealings. And what of mediators? While HiWEL is based on celebrating direct access to learning, even in their experiments, they have started to use ‘volunteers’ who sit by the computer to guide the children informally. This is quite problematic: What incentives do people have to sit by a kiosk all day? More importantly, aren’t they functioning as ‘teachers?’ Lastly, HiWEL is an institution now after a decade of existence. For further funding by the State, it is using schooling benchmarks to prove its efficacy. So in essence, isn’t it a school outside the school?

3. In your conclusion, you mention the ‘double-edged sword’ between autonomous learning and the intervention of mediators. What do you think is the best way forward, for HiWEL and similar projects?

I don’t think it is possible to not have mediators in such projects. I also think it is important to acknowledge that autonomous learning is deeply limited and that institutions such as schools have an important role in learning. That said, HiWEL and other such projects take on the role of a laboratory of ideas where they can serve as standing reminders of what we can do with new technologies, and what children are truly capable of. So it is important to have alternative learning venues that schools can learn from, and thereby improve themselves.

For more information about Dr. Arora’s work and for contact information, see her website.