The future of learning “could it be we won’t need to go to schools at all … could it be if we need to know something, we can find it out in two minutes? My wish was to build a facility where children can go on ‘intellectual adventures,’ schools which can be practically unmanned and called Schools in the Cloud, designed and run by children.”
With these words Prof Sugata Mitra, Professor of Education Technology at the Newcastle University, UK, enthralled the 1,200-odd delegates at a packed plenary session of the South Asia Literacy Summit held at Pune.
With some of the money he got from the TED Prize, 2013, he set about doing just that and built a few labs in India and UK where children have large screens, good broadband connectivity and can explore the entire world and learn for themselves.
Showing the picture of one such centre in the UK, which has not only all this but “also an Xbox, so children don’t want to go home,” he added, “but if you notice, not all of them are playing on the Xbox all the time. They are on the Internet.”
He added that among such centres in India, one is in the Sundarbans. “There is no electricity, no healthcare, no primary school. It is solar-powered with a mast that sticks out 50 ft from the ground to catch the signal. It has all kinds of technical problems, but there it is!”
Mitra said we continue to be dogged by built-in assumptions about education. That inside a school education has to be unidirectional, from the teacher to the students, who listen and are examined on what the teachers said, and then certified. “That system comes from the last 200 years of the empire. Its purpose is to produce clerks and civil servants.” So we need to examine if we should continue this — “of course we still need a few clerks, because what clerks and civil servants do can be done by a computer today!”
We are producing children for employers who are dead.
The other assumption in this dialogue is that we are the masters and the computers are the slaves. Not sure this is true; there is also the Internet, so not sure who is the master and who the slave!”
Mitra said he “bumped quite accidentally” 16 years ago into what is the foundation of his work today through an experiment in Delhi slums in 1999. This, as other experiments, showed that “a group of children, left with a computer, can learn anything by themselves. This might sound strange but I did experiment after experiment to find out the limit saying, this one they won’t be able to do. I still haven’t found any!”
But, he cautioned, certain conditions and safeguards have to be put in place. The free Internet access should be given to unsupervised groups of children in safe public places which are visible to everybody. “A single child with a single computer in a room somewhere is dangerous. Every educator needs to keep that in mind. It is not one to one.”
This process of learning — putting a whole lot of children in front of computers and asking them questions which will interest their age group — can trigger a whole lot of learning. For example, ask nine-year-olds why nails on our fingers grow and grow and we need to cut them off. How and why does it happen? “In 40 minutes you’ll get evolutionary biology and a whole lot of things popping out of nowhere!”
Imagine involving a granny telling the child how did you do it? At your age I was so stupid, and the children will go further and further,” said Mitra.
He said that in 2009 he created the Granny Cloud by inserting an appeal in The Guardian newspaper saying if you are a British grandmother and has a broadband and a web camera, could she give him an hour of her time every week for free? In two weeks, he had more than 200 volunteers. “Now it’s a global thing, with Indians, North and South Americans, etc. It is a fantastic resource. These are retired teachers back home somewhere who miss the children. I beam them through Skype to places where good teachers will not go. The presence of a friendly mediator can boost such learning.”
Replicating the Delhi slum experiment in classrooms with glass walls in England where furniture is replaced with five computers with large screens, Mitra allowed the children “to work on whatever interested them. Once in a while you admire them. So SOLE (Self-organised Learning Environment) as I call it, is Broadband collaboration and encouragement. It costs very little and is highly effective.”
This idea spread fast; the first calls came from Europe, then North America and other continents; “I’ve lost track of how many teachers are using SOLE today. They are in tens of thousands. So obviously teachers like it, as it delivers results,” said Mitra.
But a big problem with this method was that teachers in India and elsewhere asked him what do they do after Class 9, “because then there is an examination, where the internet will be taken away from the children, and they will be asked to solve question papers in an assessment system that is 200 years old. So what do we do? How do we handle the transition of the children in Class 10 to a time machine that will send them into the past? And what will happen to them after that? I think everyone in this room has been taught how to solve a quadratic equation. Equally true that none of us has ever had to solve a quadratic equation till today! So what is it for?”
Captivating the attention of the audience, Mitra then showed a picture of an office as it was 150 years ago, showing rows and rows of clerks, who needed to know reading, writing legibly and arithmetic, “and to understand instructions. They were taught, like most of us for 17 years were, not to ask questions and not to be creative. Many of us, I see, including myself, are dressed like that (in suits)! We are producing our children for employers who are dead.”
Why can’t we allow internet into the examination hall?
Showing pictures, he said, when today’s office was a few people brainstorming before or with the aid of computers, our examination halls should also have kids in front of computers. But his quest with governments in different continents, “asking desperately to please allow the Internet into the exam hall” has met with zero success as this is “inconceivable in all continents now. I haven’t succeeded in getting even one positive response. But wherever there are children who listen to my talks, I get applause.”
The problem in changing the system and allowing the Internet in classrooms was that the approach to teaching, curriculum and exam papers and hence the entire education system would have to change totally. “But who is to bell the cat?”
Mitra left the audience with these thoughts: e-learning is a generic term. “Because is there any other kind of learning? What can we do without the internet? So why don’t we find a way to release children into this environment, and find new assessment and certification systems? It will be hard but has to be done.