Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sugata Mitra: We Are Just at the Beginning of Exploring the Web's Potential for Education

I have been following Sugata Mitra' work since I discovered his Hole in the Wall experiment in which he left a working computer in a hole in the wall of a remote Indian village and observed how the children taught themselves how to use the machine. This was ground breaking work that Mitra classifies under the academic sounding title 'self organized learning.'  The work provoked some mild interest and a spell binding TED talk that earned him a $1 million dollar prize in 2013 but not much else(as Mitra notes in a Guardian article) seems to have changed in the educational landscape. Mitra seems frustrated by the problem but has not stopped experimenting. His most recent innovation is the Granny Cloud--that has involved a group of volunteer teachers from the UK and a few other countries  who have been connecting to poor schools in India and South America for more than five years, "using a combination of the internet and admiration to provide a meaningful education for children."The grannies, or e-mediators as they are officially known, are not teachers, and the sessions they conduct with the children in India are not lessons. Instead, they read stories to the children and talk about things relevant to them and to the U.K. They encourage, praise and became a "virtual granny" to these Indian children. The granny idea emerged when after he saw students learning grow using the computer alone he brought in a " 22-year-old woman with no knowledge of the subject to tutor the kids, using “the method of the grandmother.” Instead of traditional instructing, she simply gave encouragement. The kids’ test comprehension scores jumped. There are around 300 "grannies" involved in the scheme and is growing all the time." What a good idea.  As Mitra states

"We don't need to improve schools. We need to reinvent them for our times, our requirements and our future. We don't need efficient clerks to fuel an administrative machine that is no longer needed. Machines will do that for us. We need people who can think divergently, across outdated "disciplines", connecting ideas across the entire mass of humanity. We need people who can think like children."

Mitra's major point is that we need to reinvent schooling based on the notion that the kind of superficial learning that school encourages can be mastered in a few minutes by children using the web

"The curriculum lists things that children must learn. There is no list stating why these things are important. A child being taught the history of Vikings in England says to me: "We could have found out all that in five minutes if we ever needed to."
What the Internet has really allowed in classrooms is what do we do with the knowledge once we find it ---how does it apply to real world problems. How can we devise new solutions. What does it mean for example that we are entering a period of planetary unsustainabilty?   We as teachers have been given a gift--we still seem to be struggling to know how to use it.