In the last segment of this series we examined how Professor Mitra demonstrated that educational technology and student collaboration can bridge the learning gap in remote and poorly resourced educational environments. But what’s the real potential here? Can merely introducing a computer and allowing young kids to work together to problem-solve really make a serious difference? Mitra was determined to find out.

He decided to conduct a much more ambitious experiment than his previous efforts. He began in Hyderabad, India. This time he chose a group of poor students with poor English skills and added another dimension of difficulty for the students. The computer he supplied had a speech-to-text interface and when the kids tried to use the computer for the first time speaking English, their accents were so garbled that the interface was useless.

When they told Mitra that the computer was useless, he replied, “Make yourself understood to the computer.” When the students asked him how they could do this, Mitra told them that he had absolutely no idea, that they’d have to figure it out on their own. Mitra left for two months and returned to find these students speaking in a crisp British accent—the same accent that the computer speech-to-text interface had been programmed to understand. For these kids, learning to speak proper English was not an educational goal they set out to conquer and it wasn’t a task they were given.

It was the result of being given basic technological tools and an environment where collaboration could happen naturally. Learning proper English was just a problem they solved in the process of reaching their goal of interacting with the computer. For them, the language acquisition was secondary and they inadvertently gave themselves the best language immersion class possible in a great example of online learning. Professor Mitra referred to this success by saying, “if children have interest, then education happens.”

Mitra replicated these experiments in Cambodia—where a young boy demonstrated his ability to send emails, and added, “They hop across the ocean.” And the success of combining technology with a collaborative environment worked for a group of Tamil kids in the south of India who were given a computer and told that the information contained inside was probably too difficult for them to understand. When Mitra returned to their tiny village two months later, they looked sad and said he was correct. They had used the computer every day for two months and didn’t really feel like they’d learned much. A twelve-year-old girl somberly told him while surrounded by 26 other downcast students that “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing else.”

The thing that all of these self-learning examples have in common is that while students don’t have a teacher pushing them to an educational goal, the environment in which they’re learning allows them to be active participants in learning. They’re not passive recipients into which teachers are trying to stuff knowledge. In the next segment of this series we’ll examine how Geoff Mulgan’s innovative “Studio School” approach in Great Britain is working.