The hole in the wall theory of education.

mmghosh's picture

This is the website.


Watching my own kids grow up in a highly rigid and formalised education environment, I really do wonder if the Hole in the Wall techniques might not have been superior.  An introduction to Khan Academy, which, IMO and FWIW, does offer the best science and tech education on the Net, at a much earlier age than they actually did might have helped too.


The Hole in the Wall could be dismissed as faddish New Age woo but actually has produced excellent results in the field.  

In contrast, Hole-in-the-wall Learning Stations seek to create a new paradigm in the learning process by providing unrestricted computer access to groups of children in an open playground setting.

What gives me hope personally is the inventor of the technique actually went through the rigid, formalised education that I went through, too.


Here's what the the inventor says.

An outdoor kiosk was constructed such that it could be accessed from outside the boundary wall of the NIIT headquarters in New Delhi. As a result, the experiment is often referred to as “the hole-in-the-wall experiment”. The campus is situated in Kalkaji in the extreme south of the city. The office is bordered by a slum, as is the case in many Indian cities. The slum contains a large number of children of all ages (0-18), most of whom do not go to school. The few who do go to government schools of very poor quality (that is, low resources, low teacher or student motivation, poor curriculum and general lack of interest). None are particularly familiar with the English language.  The kiosk was constructed such that a monitor was visible through a glass plate built into a wall. A touch pad was also built into the wall (see photo 1). The PC driving the monitor was on the other side of the wall in a brick enclosure (see photo 2).

The PC used was based on a Pentium, 266 Mhz chip with 64Mb of RAM, suitahle hard disk, a true color display and an ethernet card. It was connected to NIIT’s internal network of 1200 PC’s using the Windows NT operating system. The kiosk had access to the Internet through a dedicated 2Mbps connection to a service provider.

he goes on to present results for what he calls Minimally Invasive Education.


So is this an attempt to get rid of teachers, or an understanding that small-class-size education is not even a remote possibility in a planet with a population of 10 billion by 2050 and an attempt to do something about it without mouthing platitudes?  I do worry about the possibility of unsupervised rubbish entering people's heads - and not just Peace TV nonsense, but almost identical nonsense spouted by an advanced and educated elite.  But I do want to give this a cautious thumbs-up.  There are other educational experiments being conducted here, and here, about which more later.  

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

The opposite of team bonding is reflected by...

Bird Dog's picture

...the treatment of Jonathan Martin by Richie Incognito and others. Goodbye Dolphins season, and the maybe the next.

Dolphins management originally issued a lawyerly statement but backtracked when Martin's representatives made allegations. After the transcript of a phone message from Incognito to Martin was released, the team suspended Incognito indefinitely. This is going to be a messy and highly publicized business.

This hits a nerve with me because BD Jr. was bullied by a so-called friend from 8th grade through 11th grade. It doesn't matter if you're a state wrestling champion or a 300-plus pound NFL lineman, you can still get bullied by the a**holes around you.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

In A Way It's A Shame. . .

M Scott Eiland's picture

. . .that those recording so thoroughly doom Incognito, particularly the racist content that will make it easier for anyone else who was participating in the bullying to distance themselves from him. It would have been nice if the "normal" bullying had been out there alone to be rejected on its own lack of merit, and the thoroughly despicable Icognito sent into darkness (or the Arena Football League, poe-tay-toe, poe-tah-toe) for that level of unacceptable behavior, not the stuff that even the old school idiots would agree he should be sent packing for.

. . .and Don Mattingly must be fired (bye Ned--don't let the door hit you in the @$$ on the way out!).

+1 to you and BD on this (nt)



Come, my friends. 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world -- Tennyson



The connection to hole-in-the-wall education is crucial,  but so subtle that almost no one besides BD and MSE could have seen it.

Can't Take Any Credit On My End

M Scott Eiland's picture

I responded to BD's comment without noticing what diary it was attached to until afterward.

. . .and Don Mattingly must be fired (bye Ned--don't let the door hit you in the @$$ on the way out!).

I am told by some Warsaw Pact kiddies


the chief reason nobody on that side of The Wall believed in their Communist Paradise was what they saw on the television signals which leaked out of West Berlin.  Especially the ads.  For some reason, the shameless advertising, which we in the West routinely discount as so much stuff and nonsense, made these kids believe in democracy and capitalism.


Doesn't matter if these Indian slum kids learn to program.  Those computers and those connections are windows into a larger world.  Gives them some hope, a belief the world is larger than their slum.  Hope is what you've got when nothing has happened yet.  It's a great comfort and motivator.  Often, it's the last thing we have left when things get truly bad.


Education is overrated.  Well, education of a particular sort is overrated, the force-feeding of facts to little children.  India does that.  China does that.  That sort of education doesn't produce initiative.  Education is often an excuse for many useless initiatives and I suspect this is just one more such program.  


I'd prefer to see those computers running Linux of some sort.  The griefers will attack those computers if they're over Windows, already vulnerable to viruses and many other threats.  Linux runs older hardware more efficiently and more securely.  Moreover, given the variety of languages and scripts in India, Linux supports them far more directly.   I am not encouraged by the website's talk of Unsupervised this-and-that: such a program needs shepherds and I don't see much talk of that on their site, though I suppose there is some.


Nor has the website been updated since 2012.  I can't find anything about the number of installed Holes in the Wall.  



I'm collecting criticism of the concept

mmghosh's picture

as I go along - Payal Arora of Erasmus University is particularly critical and pretty withering.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that there is little documented evidence on HiWEL other than that originating from the HiWEL researchers themselves.


However, this does not take into account the dynamic asymmetries in people’s behav- iour (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Evidence from HiWEL’s own experiments suggest that there are often fewer girls than boys accessing these kiosks (Mitra, 2003). The researcher’s own 6-month experience with Hewlett Packard-supported community computer kiosks in rural Andhra Pradesh (Figure 3) established that these were primarily used by boys flocking to play games (Arora, 2005). These kiosks quickly gained the reputation as ‘play stations’ in the locality, creating a further disconnect from schools. Often, the same group of boys dominated these spaces.

The exclusion of girls is particularly troublesome, given all the problems we have with education for girls.


OTOH, good teachers have taken the ideas behind this concept further.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

"We live in an age when unnecessary things


are our only necessities."  


Wilde's epigram is certainly true for us, but flip the coin and you realize people who live cheek-by-jowel with hard necessity might see a real attraction to a culture than can so cavalierly tell death, deprivation, injustice and hunger to go diddle themselves. They'll gladly run the risk of moral turpitude, thank you very much.

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

Oscar Wilde also said Education is an admirable thing.


But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

Huh? What does that have to do with my point? (n/t)



A fancy way of agreeing, demonstrating how what looks like


corruption from a western perspective (pointless consumption of wasteful consumer goods) can look like paradise from the perspective of anyone who's ever known real hunger and deprivation.

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

I wouldn't install these little workstations.


Not this way anyway.  But I've seen what a network connection does to a village.  This isn't about Consumer Goods.  It's about connections to the outside world.  That does get people out of poverty.   Do you have any conception of what it's like to be able to send money to someone in a remote village?  Get a fiber optic cable or a microwave tower setup out into the bush, it's the equivalent of bringing in the railroad.  Keeps people from coming into the urban areas, into the slums. 


I've seen real hunger and deprivation.  A poor family needs more than food.  They want more for their children than what they had.   Telling them a connection to the outside world is Superfluous -- they don't think that way.

Mobiles are outstripping workstations.

mmghosh's picture

There's a US company called RightChoice supplying an emedicine platform for rural users - here's Payal Arora again criticising this.

Currently, about 512 million people in India do not have access to a physician, particularly in rural areas (eHealth 2007). The migration of doctors to the cities is increasing exponentially, given the socio-economic promises of the city in this new emerging market. Most of India’s 650,000 rural villages, where two-thirds of the population resides, have few options but to seek diagnosis from healthcare providers with less than a high-school diploma. (Banerjee, Deaton, and Duflo 2004). Seventy-five per cent of allopathic practitioners reside in cities, leaving space for a crop of un- or under-qualified practitioners to serve the rural public.


First, a patient profile is created; a list of complaints show up from which the healthcare worker is meant to choose based on the patient’s main complaint. Next, the system guides the user to ask relevant and in-depth questions about the patient’s symptoms. Finally, after clicking on the choices provided by the software, it leads the healthcare worker to the possible diagnosis. A choice of diseases and the confidence levels come up, showing the percentage of accuracy alongside each diagnosis.

American designed healthcare software might have problems in being transferred to our context.


My personal approach, OTOH, is developing apps for phones to deliver content to individuals directly via smartphones.  True, most of the mobiles sold here are not smartphones.  But that is primarily because of price.   Just look at the features on this smartphone - Rs 3600 (that's USD $60!)

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

*Scott Contemplates The Contents Of Much Of The Internet. . .

M Scott Eiland's picture

. . .and shudders*

Uh. . .maybe not "unrestricted" access. Seriously.

. . .and Don Mattingly must be fired (bye Ned--don't let the door hit you in the @$$ on the way out!).

Interesting, though computer 'literacy' is kind of a misnomer.


You couldn't, for example, leave a book chained to a telephone pole in the neighborhood and expect illiterate children to work out what the glyphs mean among themselves, translate and read the entire thing just by flipping through the pages.  


Windows competency is a simplistic set of skills that can be learned in an afternoon. Like reading time from a clock, you show children how to do it once, they practice a little, and then they've pretty well got it for life. Learning to use a smartphone is similar. Or, say, running a textile machine. There's really no comparison to actual literacy.  


Language, mathematics and logic, by contrast, are very dense sets of interrelated skills that require years of daily practice just for basic competence, and only the most gifted children could be expected to make any progress in "self-directed" learning. Literacy, numeracy and the critical thinking required for doing science/medicine/engineering, etc. may not absolutely require teachers, but it's hard to imagine any computer program or automated learning system ever becoming half as efficient as human beings at teaching (how do you program a computer to judge handwriting, pronunciation, summary analysis, idiomatic expression, to reward creative problem solving and monitor social behavior skills (girls can't use the computer!) all at the same time?).  

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

The programming is the easy part


how do you program a computer to judge handwriting, pronunciation, summary analysis, idiomatic expression, to reward creative problem solving and monitor social behavior skills (girls can't use the computer!) all at the same time?

Actually most of that will probably be available soon with fairly good quality,  I'd say within 20-25 years.  Computer programs can already judge handwritten print fairly well,  and cursive shouldn't be taught anyway.  Pronunciation is already here, e.g. Rosetta Stone.  It's got flaws but will get better.  Same with idiomatic expression.  The summary analysis is harder but I don't see any real barriers. 


Maybe we don't want computers doing "reward" and "monitor",  at least not now.  On the other hand,  computers can be programmed to have patience,  which is essential for elementary level teachers but is becoming hard to find in humans and is even considered a character flaw by some.


The problem with the hole-in-the-wall concept is that it's not sufficiently authoritarian.  It's great for the curious kids that want to learn and would otherwise have reduced opportunities.   But the unfortunate fact is that a major task of compulsory elementary education is ramming some minimal knowledge down the throats of not-so-curious kids.  Despite my anti-authoritarian tendencies,  I'm not in favor of letting 6 year olds decide whether they want to learn to read.


That's why I'm surprised that people with generally equalitarian ideas are so much in favor of this and other "incidental learning" programs.  The naturally curious already have a massive advantage and these programs strengthen that.

See how this has worked in real life.

mmghosh's picture

In 1871, the British Government in India enacted the Criminal Tribes Act under which members of, what were then mostly nomadic tribes, were required to register with the local magistrate and report to the guardrooms several times in a day. The Act also gave broad powers to the local government to forcibly move these 'notified' tribes to 'permanent reformatory settlements'.


More than 50 years after independence, we still refer to these tribes as De-Notified Tribes (DNTs). Members of these tribes are regularly rounded up for interrogation every time there is a petty crime in the neighbourhood. Their children still fall under the needle of suspicion and get thrown out of schools on flimsiest and unsubstantiated accusations. Private enterprise and the public sector continue to refuse them jobs.

Now see what these children want.

This will also be a test-bed to study the relationship between collaborative, informal learning and the perceptions and achievement motivation of Charra children. Children in the age group of eight to fourteen will be tracked for their formal academic performance in school, their self-esteem, achievement motivation and their perceptions about education, learning, computers, careers...

The early impressions based on our research are indeed very heartening. Majority of children [59%] aspire to be professionals, most children [89%] were aware of the significance of education and a very high proportion [66%] of children were aware of the benefits accruing from computers.

I guess you are talking about the children who do not fall into that 59, 89 or 66 % bracket.  But this offers a great opportunity to identify and target conventional or remedial education to that group.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

Look at this Jordan, and think again.

mmghosh's picture

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

I'm willing to learn, and certainly no expert,


but I don't see much info about results. Looks like the program is so cheap it's almost worth doing even if the results are minimal. I just hope this isn't being promoted as an alternative to actually spending money to address a problem (I'm not saying I have any reason to think it is; but in the US that would be exactly the motive behind such a program). 

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

I agree, it seems a little disconnected from reality.

mmghosh's picture

But someone has to think about these things.


I don't know if you know about Summerhill school.


Or about Bertrand and Dora Russell's experiment with the now defunct Beacon Hill School.

Fortunately, the extreme organisms like Beacon Hill fail to thrive; in Darwinian terms, they are not fit, and they gasp for oxygen which is only provided by the life support systems of wealthy, idealistic patrons. And despite the wishes of the most ardent progressive cultists, children still learn despite the best efforts of some of their teachers that they should not, simply because it is nearly impossible to run a school on entirely progressive principles. At some point, even the devoted have to acknowledge that children must be told facts, encouraged to remember them, and later display them in some form of formal scrutiny, all in an atmosphere of collegiate socialised norms.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

This bit was amusing


"In retrospect, I feel that several things were mistaken in the principles upon which the school was conducted. Young children in a group cannot be happy without a certain amount of order and routine. Left to amuse themselves, they are bored and turn to bullying or destruction”


Indeed.  I've read a couple of Montesori's works. She was obviosuly an important counterweight in the dialectic and full credit to her, Pestalozzi and the like. They put the child at the centre of education, gave  them credit for being naturally cooperative and hard working, extolled the virtue of kindness in teaching. But a few things occured to me when reading her.


She loves order. She expresses quite some (qualified) admiration for the fascist fantasy of an ordered society. I suspect that her classes were a lot more ordered than a lot of her more cultish followers realise. Being less ordered than the institutionalised abuse that passed for education then was probably dramatic at the time but she was probably more ordered than most current western schools.


She has odd ideas that are rarely mentioned by her modern adherents. Teachers should be young and beautiful for example. I'm sympathetic to that one. It might have a real effect from what I've seen of my own children's behaviour but implementation is impractical and unfair. It might also have more insiduous negative consequences that outweigh the benefits.


Her ideas were developed working with the mentally handicapped. Draw from that what you will.


She was teaching early 20th century slum children whos parents were not able to spend time with them due to being out on the streets working and fighting for the basics. I suspect that is was hard to fail and any acheivement was a genuine boon to the kids. It does not follow that the same methosds are the best ones to apply to all situations and children.


Some of her anecdotes do not add up when i look at my own children. There is one about teaching a class how to blow their noses and how this class (of about 4 year olds it seems) were so delighted at the knowledge since they were tired of being called "snotty nosed". My youngest was blowing her nose from about 15 months based on observation of her parents and brother.  I detect a certain "just-so" quality to a lot of her anecdotes.



In the end, I think children are highly variable. The modern, ordered, education system is a good way, probably the only way, to ensure that the vast majority of children in society gain a thorough knowledge of the basics (literacy and mathematics). That probably retards some children who, given opportunities to spontaneously learn, would excel. That is the price of solidarity. And I suspect that even the children who excel would do so for a time and in one or two areas. Forcing them into a formal structured curriculum ensures they are not later crippled by gaps in knowledge in areas where tehy do not have natural aptitude or interest.

Gaps in knowledge


Certainly everyone needs to be able to read, write, and 'rithmetic their way around. 


But once you get up past 8th grade level or so, I wonder how much gaps in knowledge actually matter. I'm more-or-less in favor of standards, at least minimum ones, but I'm also sympathetic to letting teenagers pursue their interests in greater depth than is usually possible. 

Come, my friends. 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world -- Tennyson