EdTech and ‘Minimally Invasive Education’ – the SOLE way forward?

Full-length text now available at https://sciencebin.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/holes-in-soles-re-examining-the-role-of-edtech-and-minimally-invasive-education-in-language-learning, and a printer-friendly version at https://www.academia.edu/12688895/Holes_in_SOLEs_Re-examining_the_role_of_EdTech_and_minimally_invasive_education_in_language_learning) Below is an early commentary published in IATEFL Voices.



Reference as: Paradowski, Michał B. (2014) Classrooms in the cloud or castles in the air? IATEFL Voices 239, 8–10.

Classrooms in the cloud or castles in the air?

(For a full-length discussion see https://sciencebin.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/holes-in-soles-re-examining-the-role-of-edtech-and-minimally-invasive-education-in-language-learning, and for a print-friendly version https://www.academia.edu/12688895/Holes_in_SOLEs_Re-examining_the_role_of_EdTech_and_minimally_invasive_education_in_language_learning)

Few IATEFL plenaries in history managed to polarise the audience and cause a ruckus on the web as much as Professor Sugata Mitra did in Harrogate. The talk can now be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3U15-MKHUQ

As language teachers, we can find much inspiration in the presentation. Here is a subjective list of points, some being Mitra’s original arguments and some my reading thereof:


1. Give children credit. Kids are often smarter than we make them out to be;

2. Instead of spoon-feeding children ready solutions, pose engaging, provocative questions and let them try to work out the answers on their own first. Let them produce, not passively consume; be a facilitator, not a lecturer;

3. Allow them to work on and develop knowledge and competence (including linguistic competence) in areas of their interest;

4. Children will read and comprehend much of materials originally intended for ‘more serious’ audiences. Doing so can boost their reading comprehension (indeed, many teaching materials overly simplify content and language);

5. Reward effort. A little encouragement and praise can go a long way, it empowers learners, builds confidence and leads to sustained engagement;

6. School is a place for not only competition, but also collaborative learning. Children like to share their discoveries and newly learnt knowledge. Teamwork can be enforced by giving one desktop to 4-5 pupils, assigning them a task, and asking to report the findings in front of the class;

7. Make place for the Internet in the syllabus and pedagogy;

8. Consider overhauling some exams to allow access to resources such as the Internet or dictionaries, if the aim of the assessment is to replicate day-to-day tasks. Given the washback effect that exams exert, this also implies that the focus of education should shift from test-taking (TTT) towards solving more real-life problems;

9. A pretty neat alternative to the language lab or CALL in self-assessment of pronunciation skills is using speech-to-text software (if the goal is EFL rather than ELF).

Sugata Mitra is a masterful public speaker, which gives power to his message, but some of his assertions seem slightly utopian and superficial and may ring alarm bells.


1. Lasting impact

In Mitra’s original ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ (HiWEL) experiments, there is too little information on how the incidental acquisition of English was measured. Given Harnad’s (1990) Symbol Grounding Problem it is implausible that the children neither knew no word of the language beforehand nor were offered any external scaffolding and bootstrapping. More crucially, so far none of Mitra’s projects provided data on the long-term impact of the intervention. A danger with interpreting much experimental classroom research is that the results are not necessarily due to the methods’ effectiveness, but merely the fact that pupils are keen to engage with novelty. We know that the HiWEL computers were mainly used for play, led to mostly low-level learning, and failed in the long run (Warschauer 2004, Arora 2005, 2010).

2. Autonomy needs assistance

Self-study rarely happens simply because knowledge is at hand. Children first need to be taught how to learn on their own. Torn Halves aptly draws attention to the current “clear perception that autonomy [can] only be achieved after a period of heteronomy, with children needing the pedagogic care of their Socratic teachers in order to achieve their full potential.” Children may lack the motivation, affective maturity, and cognitive skills necessary to render unassisted peer-supported enquiry productive (cf. Kuhn et al. 2000, Kuhn & Pease 2006, Dean & Kuhn 2007); evaluations of programs such as One Laptop Per Child revealed rather paltry results (Cristia et al. 2012). Even with older and more mature learners autonomy doesn’t work with everyone, as evidenced for instance by the high incompletion rates in MOOCs (Ho et al. 2014, Jordan 2014) and language-learning software (Nielson 2011). As a side-note, while it would be easy to propose “let pupils exercise responsibility for their learning,” when they don’t it’s us teachers who get evaluated.

3. First things first

Knowledge is incremental and requires competent scaffolding. In order to learn new things, we need some foundations to tie them to. Only then can you start asking students questions. If we just leave pupils to follow their and their peers’ interests, they are unlikely to get far. We need to show them at least some of the possible paths and open the doors, so that they can look beyond their immediate concerns. A balanced, comprehensive, systematic education requires selection of good content, posing the right questions, and prioritising, structuring and organising the learning process. Google won’t do this.

4. Striking home

The choice of questions matters, and they should be selected in a wise and relevant manner. Rather than ‘beaming in’ grannies from a totally different culture wouldn’t it be more useful that the kids learn something that is tangibly usable and locally practical and pertinent? How are the knowledge and lifestyles from alien cultures beamed through VR realistic for them? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to portray more achievable models? Why outsource grannies instead of engaging local ones? Globalisation doesn’t obviate the need to navigate and function in local communities and realities.

5. Teaching and education vs. downloading bits of information

We can learn much more from persons who are more experienced and better educated than from similarly ignorant peers. While teachers are not keepers of all knowledge, they should know enough to win students’ trust and confidence in their capacity and competence. At the same time, is the role of the teacher merely that of a repository and transmitter of knowledge? Education means the development of literacy (including digital literacy), reflectiveness, critical thinking and the ability to synthesise facts, it also consists in fostering study skills, cultural transmission, and much more. (It is not only or all about preparation for the demands of the workplace; there is a reason why not all schools are vocational schools.) As Jeremy Harmer points out, the role of the teacher consists in being a caregiver and counsellor, adapting instruction, prompting and encouraging, ensuring students stay on task, helping overcome obstacles, offering personal feedback and guidance, fostering good learning habits, the ability to predict problems and find solutions, being an authority, inspiring, acting as a role model, instilling values… you name it. How many of these can be managed by an ignorant “supervisor who can’t teach anything because he doesn’t know anything.” Nor will the Internet replace quality face-to-face interaction with a live tutor, the genuine student-teacher relationship, or the trust that may ensue.

6. The devil in the detail

In Mitra’s SOLEs it is enough if the children know how to figure out the solutions; the answers’ quality and veracity don’t matter: “Don’t evaluate. Admire.” But carrying out successful webquests requires extensive prior digital literacy training, cognitive skills, and subject knowledge. The very SOLE Toolkit exposes samples of children’s work which divulge substantive errors and blatant failures of reasoning (pp. 12f.). As Michelle Sowey cautions, facilitators mustn’t simply sit on their hands and admire these answers; they should be able to competently evaluate the arguments and hypotheses that students come up with (as well as step in—or better yet, prevent—when they encounter adult, hate and other undesirable content). While there are several testimonies around the web from teachers who have been applying SOLE ideas in their classrooms reporting children’s engagement and improvement in reading and presentation skills, they were exactly that—carried out under the supervision of knowledgeable instructors.

7. Seeing the trees in the wood

Mitra focuses on learning in groups. But shouldn’t education and the teacher in the first place focus on and benefit the learner, each individual learner? (By the same token, shouldn’t teachers praise not only group achievement, but also—if not first and foremost—individual achievement?) Also, while collaborative learning can bring benefits, children also need to learn how to learn on their own.

8. Cold comfort in collaboration

Groups often mean problems. The HiWEL project benefitted mostly the strongest uns; girls and frailer kids were relatively rarely seen around the computers. For many children, peer groups are dreaded because they mean social exclusion and isolation (Arora 2005). This is why teachers are needed – it is one of their responsibilities to prevent ostracism and provide universal access to knowledge.The problems don’t stop once the group has successfully been formed. Group work in effect often means that one or two persons will do most the work while others will be freeloading if not distracting; as a result it’s not always the most effective approach. At school, we have a limited amount of contact time with the pupils. Accordingly our instructional approach ought to be efficient to facilitate as much learning (both in and after class) as possible. Thus, especially if the SOLE sessions are to be “a chat about anything at all,” they seem viable if they complement other pedagogical practices, or are used as extracurricular activities, but not as the sole (pardon the pun) valid alternative to regular schooling.

9. Omnia mea mecum porto, or knowledge unplugged

Mitra makes a case for examinations focusing on the Internet and collaboration. But if our knowledge were contingent on access to the Internet and a ‘lifeline’, that might lead to a terrible sense of insecurity: What is there is no WiFi? What if my battery goes flat? What when I leave school and no longer have access to the shiny Internet-connected hardware and the ‘Granny cloud’? (On another note, how long will the grannies’ enthusiasm hold out?) Apart from the feeling of security, knowing also endows us with a huge empowering and motivating sense of satisfaction and gratification. Do we have the right to deprive pupils of that?

10. The language advantage

For both above reasons we shouldn’t dispense with learning languages simply because “maybe machines will translate” (let alone the emotional connection established with another person when we can communicate freely without a mediator). For all immediately practical benefits there are also the numerous verbal and non-verbal advantages of bilingualism (Paradowski 2011) that no machine translation will provide.

11. Slowly but surely

SOLEs also seems more fit for learning content subjects than languages. Hugh Dellar rightly reminds that linguistic development takes time, requires massive exposure, graded input, scaffolded communication, reformulation, recycling, and multiple repeated opportunities for practice. All these are best facilitated by an experienced classroom practitioner who possesses linguistic and methodological knowledge, not a search engine or a virtual ‘grannie’ available for a couple hours a week. Children won’t learn English by default just as a side-effect of engaging in webquests.

12. Everything in moderation

Finally, praise is good when it is truly deserved. It should be administered with care. Constant unwarranted and overdone praise soon deflates and only results in insecurity. Likewise, “tell [pupils] that there are no rules” may not be the safest pedagogical approach, as children need something they can hold on to to have a sense of security and stability.

As I see it the concept of school learning may have to undergo another overhaul, but maybe not entirely along the path and to the extent that Professor Mitra suggests. What do you think?


Arora, P. (2005) Profiting from empowerment? Investigating dissemination avenues for educational technology content within an emerging market solutions project. International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology 1(4), 18–29.

Arora, P. (2010) Hope-in-the-Wall? A digital promise for free learning. British Journal of Educational Technology 41(5): 689–702.

Cristia, J.P., Ibarrarán, P., Cueto, S., Santiago, A., & Severín, E. (2012) Technology and Child Development: Evidence from the One Laptop per Child Program. [IDB Working Paper Series No. IDB-WP-304]. Inter-American Development Bank.

Dean Jr., D. & Kuhn, D. (2007) Direct instruction vs. discovery: The long view. Science Education 91(3): 384–97.

Dellar, H. (2014, Apr 9) Why we should be afraid of the big bad wolf: Sugata Mitra and the neoliberal takeover in sheep’s clothing. http://www.eltjam.com/why-we-should-be-afraid-of-the-big-bad-wolf-sugata-mitra-and-the-neoliberal-takeover-in-sheeps-clothing/

Halves, T. (2013, Apr 17) Sugata Mitra: “Knowing is obsolete.” Is it? http://www.digitalcounterrevolution.co.uk/2013/sugata-mitra-knowing-is-obsolete/

Harmer, J. (2014, Apr 7) Angel or devil? The strange case of Sugata Mitra. http://jeremyharmer.wordpress.com/2014/04/07/angel-or-devil-the-strange-case-of-sugata-mitra/

Harnad, S. (1990) The Symbol Grounding Problem. Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena 42(1-3): 335–46.

Ho, A.D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D.T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., & Chuang, I. (2014) HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses. [HarvardX and MITx Working Paper #1]. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2381263

Jordan, K. (2014) Initial trends in enrolment and completion of massive open online courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 15(1), 133–60.

Kuhn, D., Black, J., Keselman, A., & Kaplan, D. (2000) Developing cognitive skills that support inquiry learning. Cognition and Instruction 18(4), 495–523.

Kuhn, D. & Pease, M. (2006) Do children and adults learn differently? Journal of Cognition and Development 7(3), 279–93.

Mitra, S. (2013) SOLE: How to Bring Self-Organized Learning Environments to Your Community. http://media.ted.com/storage/prize/SOLEToolkit.pdf

Nielson, K.B. (2011) Self-study with language learning software in the workplace: What happens? Language Learning & Technology 15(3), 110–29.

Paradowski, M.B. (2011) Multilingualism – assessing benefits. In: Komorowska, H. (Ed.) Issues in Promoting Multilingualism. Teaching – Learning – Assessment. Warsaw: Foundation for the Development of the Education System, 357–76. https://www.academia.edu/2400955/Multilingualism_-_Assessing_Benefits

Sowey, M. (2013, Oct 14) Can you kill a goat by staring at it? A critical look at minimally invasive education. http://philosophyfoundation.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/michelle-sowey/

Warschauer, M. (2004) Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


This piece was fuelled by thoughts from Donald Clark, Hugh Dellar, David Deubelbeiss, Torn Halves, Jeremy Harmer, Leonard James, Muralee Navaratnam, Simona Petrescu, David Petrie, Michelle Sowey, Grzegorz Śpiewak, Scott Thornbury, and Jake West.

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  1. Building bricks | EFL Bytes linked to this post.

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