Do we need the internet in classrooms? - On Wall embedded computers, Norman doors, and education


The year is 1999, place Kalkaji, New Delhi. The kids from the nearby slum wake up to see a strange sight. There is a wall with a hole in the center, and inside the hole there is a machine - one of the biggest revolutions of the 21st century. A computer.


The kids have never seen a computer before so they obviously don’t know how to operate it. But in the next six months these kids learn all the mouse operations, they can record music, and download games. They didn’t have a formal education so they make-up their own terminologies; the hourglass becomes ‘damru’ (an instrument played by the Hindu god shiva), the mouse pointer becomes ‘teer’ or ‘sui’ (Hindi for needle). Through discussion and interaction, the kids learn to operate a system that can sometimes be complicated even for adults.


In 2013 the person who did this experiment, Dr. Sugata Mitra, received a TED award for education, and he went on to tell the world that this experiment proves that education is a ‘Self-organizing process’. What it means is that given enough time and if humans are allowed to discuss and interact with each other, they can essentially educate themselves without needing external help.


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Different time & different place, somewhere in the USA. A man is rushing into a building. It has a modern design; the entrance consists of two rows of swinging glass doors, one after the other. The design helps reduce the airflow, maintaining the indoor temperature of the building.


As the man goes through the first set of doors, his initial position changes slightly. He starts pushing against the second set of doors, but nothing. The doors don’t budge. He thinks the doors are locked, so he turns back and pushes against the first door he came through. To his surprise that door doesn’t move either. He tries to push against both sets, nothing happens. He is somehow trapped between two rows of glass swinging doors.


This story is relevant in ways we’ll discover soon.


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After the 1999 experiment, which professor Mitra later named the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment, the same results were replicated in two other places: Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh and Madantusi in Uttar Pradesh.


Apart from the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment, professor Mitra also tried a few other variations of the same experiment. In one of the variations, he worked with a sample of people who spoke English with a Tamilian accent. He gave them a microphone and a computer with speech-to-text software. Initially, as they spoke words into the microphone only gibberish came out of the text pipeline as the computer didn’t get the accent. Then, he left them with it for a few months and when he returned he saw that the people had developed a British accent even when they had no exposure to that accent or enunciation coaching.


All these social experiments seemed to circle back to this: Self-organized learning takes place in a multitude of settings and situations & humans can be quite adaptable to these.


Meanwhile, the man who was trapped between the glass doors in the USA has got out and he might have a good explanation for the results of professor Mitra’s experiments.


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The man had got trapped within a set of doors that fall under a category called ‘Norman Doors’ within the design community. A ‘Norman Door’ is a name used for any door which is poorly designed for human interaction. Don Norman is an American design research professor and he was among the first wave of professors who pushed for a human-centric design of everyday objects, or what we could call ‘user-friendly’. (See Vox’s video on Norman doors for an interesting watch)


The human-centric design keeps human interaction at the fore-front. Take for instance the story of our trapped man. Swinging doors have two ends. One end acts as a hinge, and the other end is where the force (push or pull) needs to be applied. In the case of the doors in the story, the hinge was hidden for a better aesthetic. So when the man changed his position he started pushing against the hinge instead. If the doors were designed with a focus on interaction they would have been designed in a way that made it obvious where you need to exert force or if you need to push or pull.


An interesting observation is that the systems which Professor Mitra used for his experiments were also designed keeping in mind the above mentioned human-centric design principles. There are two foundational pillars of a human-centered design system:

  1. Discoverability: For example, in the ‘hole in the wall experiment’ when a user moves a computer mouse, they discover that it performs an action on the screen. In the second instance, where speech-to-text was used, the user was able to discover that speaking in a microphone generated English words.

  2. Feedback: This is the second stage of design. Once an action is carried out, the system should give immediate and logical feedback. For instance, if the user clicked the left button on the mouse when it was over an icon, the icon changes colors to give the feedback that it has been selected. In the speech-to-text system, the accuracy of the text output serves as feedback.


In the case of the glass doors, there was no discoverability in terms of the correct side to push/pull, let alone a mechanism for feedback.



Systems that are designed with human-centric principles in mind, ensure that learning happens naturally. In other words, the human-centric systems were responsible for making education self-organizing. But most of the traditional education systems are not designed with these principles in mind. They usually end up focusing just on the ‘discoverability’ aspect. When a teacher announces that today you will be taught ‘Simple harmonic motion’ the students just get to know the theoretical concept. The only feedback they get is in the form of a class test, which again focuses on theory. While some schools with strong financial backing can arrange for practical experiments, most schools still suffer, especially the ones in the rural region.


In such a scenario the digital transformation of classrooms can serve as an important step towards a more self-organized, human-centric approach to learning. While the teacher can continue to ask relevant questions to facilitate the ‘discoverability’ aspect, watching videos of real-world applications, running simulations of simple experiments, and gamification of some fundamental concepts can act as ‘feedback’. And since many resources on the internet are free, therefore, after the initial setup cost we can ensure practical experience even without expensive practical apparatus.


A major impediment to digital transformation has always been the unavailability of the internet in many rural schools, but pandemic has accelerated the push towards digital education. Considering the benefits of the internet, and technology in general, to the current education system, it is now imperative to keep up with the initial momentum and ensure that everyone in the country has equitable access to the internet because equitable access to the internet is essential to ensure equitable human-centric education in the future.


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