Learning in Rural India and Ethiopia

Today I met up with an old colleague from my University of Toronto days, PhD candidate Fisseha Yacob (or Fish as he calls himself). He told me about the non-profit he was developing called Kuraz (Kuraz.org)

Kuraz is determined to make a difference in the lives of children, youth and their communities in Ethiopia. Using collaborative learning strategies, critical pedagogy and community integrated approach, we provide hands-on practical training and workshops for community members, educators and students. (Kuraz.org)

Kuraz made me think of a couple TED talks I had heard on self-directed learning and participatory education in rural India. Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, has created a number of “hole in the wall” educational experiments. For his first experiment, he put a computer screen in the wall for children in a rural Indian village who had no experience or skill in computers whatsoever and very little formal education. He returned months later to find children using the computer and figuring out much more about it’s function without any teachers guiding them. He has since created more of these experiments testing the limits of self-directed learning. One experiment had British Grandmothers mentoring children in India via a web video link. The Grandmothers were instructed not to teach, but only to encourage.

I do not regularly champion computer technology as a form of international development. From my experience working in South Africa and Zambia, the initial gifts are often short-lived. In a rural community of South Africa, I visited a school that had been given a number of brand new computers to use by the students from an international development agency. Three years since they were delivered, the computers were broken and no one knew how to fix them or could pay to have them replaced. The one remaining computer was kept at the Principal’s office because he was afraid the students would steal it if they had a chance to use it.

Technology moves fast, especially mobile devices, desktops and laptops. In 5 years time, today’s laptops might not be able to properly watch videos, upload information or send data. However, Mitra’s work shows that infrastructure without teachers or gatekeepers can lead to some surprising results. I especially see the potential of the Grandmother experiment to connect the assets of some to the needs of others using web video. The simple experience of having a real person (video or live) to encourage you and someone that you can be accountable to makes a huge difference in the development of self-efficacy.

Although I have never lived in rural India or Ethiopia, I imagine that elements of Barefoot College could be replicated in rural Ethiopia. However I pause to say these inspirational centres take time (starting in 1989), require advocates and champions as well as a specific context to sustain it. And maybe a killer Ted Talk too:


Recently, Barefoot College has been receiving students from rural villages outside of India. See this short 5 minutes award winning documentary: