Online Educa (4) Opening keynotes

by Jay Cross on December 6, 2007

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Two of the first day’s keynote speakers stirred people’s feelings.

CIMG6344.JPGWhen he was chief scientist for NIIT, Sugata Mitra walked to work through a slum just outside the NIIT campus. He asked colleagues what they thought of the children just over the wall in the slum. His colleagues said they wished the children didn’t exist. Not that they wanted to do away with them: no one should live in such circumstances. Sugata then asked the slum children what they thought of the people strolling the NIIT campus. They replied, “Nothing.” They did have a few questions: Why to they all dress alike? Why are they always on the phone? From this evolved the “Hole in the Wall” Project.

Dr. Mitra put a PC with touchpad in a hole in a wall in the slums. Unattended. A hidden video camera recorded what happened. In a matter of minutes, a curious child had discovered how to browse the web. Soon she was teaching six-year olds the secret. At another location, a thirteen-year old learned to browse in eight minutes; by the end of the day, seventy children were browsing.

CIMG6343.JPGNext, Dr. Mitra lodged a PC in a wall in a community where no one had ever spoken English. Several weeks later, he returned to find that the children had learned anatomy. How had they accomplished this? To figure out the lessons, they taught themselves English. Frequently, one child would operate the PC in front of a dozen spectators giving instructions. Half the instructions were wrong, but it did not matter; everyone learned nonetheless.

Dr. Mitra took a PC to a remote Tamil village. He challenged the children to learn biotech. When he returned, the children said the subject was too difficult. Then an eight-year old girl said that of course they knew that DNA was the cause of genetic disease.

A hole in the wall costs 3 cents per child per day. The children learn irrespective of who they are. None of this takes place in school.

At the Educa party the next evening, Sugata told me his next experiment would assess whether children can learn enough independently to pass school examinations. My friend Peter asked about how this might work in other cultures, only to find that Sugata had already demonstrated that the Hole in the Wall works in Africa.

I plan to keep in touch with Sugata. Children teaching themselves spontaneously
is as informal as it gets. How well would extreme informal learning work with people whose minds have already been polluted with schooling?

CIMG6355.JPGAndrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, came at things from a different direction. Sugata has found that the children naturally learn; Keen thinks everyone needs guidance. His presentation was about “how the net is killing our wisdom.” He warns that web 2.0 is the “democratization of idiocy.”

Mind you, here in Berlin, web 2.0 was the major topic of discussion. Everyone was talking blogs and wikis. Keen told the audience that at Google, no one was in charge; the kids are running the show. And over at Wikipedia, there is a longer entry for Pamela Anderson than for Joan of Arc. The whole thing is being run by a bunch of ex-hippies.

It’s Huxley’s monkey theory. Give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, and one of them will type the entire works of Shakespeare. That’s who’s running web 2.0: monkeys. Monkeys!

CIMG6347.JPGKeen favors material that’s written in books or the press. Groups can’t write books, he declared. I ponder… Did this guy ever read the Bible? Is Mein Kampf okay because it’s a hard-bound book? Does he read the same biased newspapers I do?

When I talked with Andrew privately, I discovered that he lives in Berkeley! What did I think of his presentation, he asked. I told him I thought he was full of crap. He had said that Wikipedia valued the knowledge of a 14-year old boy over that of a Harvard professor. I told Andrew I went to Harvard, and sometimes the fourteen-year old will be wiser. Tim Leary and Harry Kissinger were Harvard professors. But Andrew’s comparison is wrong: it’s one professor against a community of thousands, not a lone teenager.

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This business of the superiority of the elite over the ordinary people is hardly new.

The next day a friend and I walked down Unter den Linden to Bebelplatz. Under the cobblestones is a monument visible through a sheet of plastic. You stare down on tiers of stark white, empty bookcases. In 1933, Josef Goebbels made a bonfire of books that didn’t meet the approval of the people in charge on this very spot.

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A little while later, we toured the Pergamon museum. The Germans looted Babylonia because Great Britain had already picked over the great Greek and Roman antiquities, and Egypt had been pillaged by, ah-ha, Harvard professors. The booty is breathtaking: the immense Pergamon steps and altar, the mightiest palace of Babylon with its Ishtar Gate, mythic figures from Abysinnia, and six-thousand year old statuary.

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The Pergamon has splendid examples of cuneiform on tables, columns, and cylinders. Books would not make the scene for some time. Four thousand years would pass before the founding of Harvard. It’s amazing what these pre-book monkeys were able to accomplish.

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