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Cloud schooling: why we still need teachers in the internet age

Education guru Sugata Mitra and his colleagues — who have pioneered the “School in the Cloud” — are sending ripples through the world of education. Their idea is simple: provide learning spaces with ready…

With access to a wealth of information, students no longer need a ‘sage on the stage’, but a ‘guide on the side’. Computer image from

Education guru Sugata Mitra and his colleagues — who have pioneered the “School in the Cloud” — are sending ripples through the world of education.

Their idea is simple: provide learning spaces with ready access to internet connected computers. But instead of teachers directing students, the students are left to “self-organise” and learn by collaborating in groups. The only support provided is by online personnel who are there solely for encouragement.

Mitra claims that without any instruction, children will just learn on their own. The idea originated from experiments conducted in disadvantaged areas of India where he set up “Hole in the Wall” computers – publicly accessible outdoor internet kiosks. He discovered that children from roughly 5-16 years old would use the computers and support each other in developing basic levels of computer literacy.

After some success, he tested whether they could also learn specific content knowledge — in this case molecular biology. The results showed 10-14 year olds from a rural village matched the knowledge acquisition of 16 year olds from an elite urban private school, and easily outstripped 16 year olds at the rural government high school.

So how did this happen?

A school without teachers

Sugata Mitra’s Ted Talk explaining his ‘school in the cloud’ idea.

His research has meant Mitra has won this year’s TED Prize and interest in his ideas have grown quickly from videos like the one above. But his idea that teachers are no longer required has, understandably, caused consternation amongst some in the teaching fraternity.

The only learning support provided to children using the Hole in the Wall computers was via a “mediator” who (deliberately) had no content knowledge and whose primary task was to give encouragement – which is why Mitra sometimes refers to them as “Grandmothers”. Who, by the way, live in the Granny Cloud.

But does this mean all we need is a few well meaning Grannies to run schools from now on?

Hardly. One way to comprehend the kind of education advocated by Mitra is to look at the variety of roles teachers play. Many young people find traditional forms of teaching alienating: the teacher telling them what they should know leading up to a test. Such teaching positions young people in particular ways. It can downplay their own interests and take away their ingenuity and creativity.

If teachers are only knowledge experts in this traditional sense then, as Mitra understands, they are quickly being overtaken by what is readily accessible via the internet. But teachers are – or at least should be – more than knowledge experts.

Learning by design

There were two molecular biology websites that Mitra offered via his Hole in the Wall computers: one site explains genetic engineering with a friendly penguin as a guide, while the other explains genetics through virtual labs and activities.

Both of these websites have received awards for the way have been designed. This design work has been performed by people who are not just knowledge experts, but who know how this material may best be organised for student learning: namely teachers.

Sugata Mitra has warned teachers should be ready for change. Flickr

Importantly, learning does not here refer to knowledge acquisition alone (if so it would simply be a matter of sequencing the knowledge from less to more complex). Instead, learning means doing something meaningful with this knowledge – ingenuity and creativity – which is facilitated by the sites.

Doing meaningful things positions young people very differently. It taps into their interests. The teachers who designed these learning units took into consideration both knowledge and the interests of young people, not just knowledge alone.

Social learning

Access to these teacher designed learning units means the poor teaching available in some schools is bypassed. But more support is usually required for learning than websites or software alone.

For most of us, human contact is necessary for learning. This is because learning is naturally a social event. At the Hole in the Wall computers, other children learnt through their peers as children organised themselves into supportive groups. Mitra has found that adult mediation can speed up learning - in this case, the Grannies in the cloud.

But such adult support is not of the expert knowledge kind – rather it is of the encouraging, questioning, grandmothering kind – the kind that leaves the ingenuity and creativity with the children.

What Mitra is highlighting (without stating it explicitly) are two key aspects of what good teachers do – work that usually goes un-mentioned or un-noticed. The kind of work that encourages students and enhances their learning.

This encouragement happens everyday in the classroom, but it also occurs via the unit design. Units are crafted carefully, usually by groups of teachers, and slowly improved over numerous iterations (a process which often spans many years).

Such a design process is much like developing software: new versions come and go as the designers make improvements informed by the ways in which users have interacted with it. Good designers recognise that if users are having problems, the issue isn’t likely due to the user, it is with the design itself.

If the design is good, then users will enjoy collaborating with peers as they play (not work) their way through, only needing the grandmothering kind of extra support to help them over the hard spots.

Good teachers still needed

Mitra’s work then doesn’t imply that teachers are obsolete. In fact, it means education needs good teachers who are much more than knowledge experts. These teachers are designers and they are Grandmothers.

Teachers of this kind draw out the ingenuity and creativity of young people by challenging them, in groups, to do meaningful things.

In this way Mitra’s grand vision for the future of learning can be seen as one that embraces the good teaching alive in classrooms today. It’s just that this good teaching is usually only glimpsed when one looks through the Hole in the Wall to see what lies behind.

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Christopher White

    PhD candidate at La Trobe University

    I can see it now; this research being used to to justify removing teachers from schools altogether. The federal Minister for Education must be licking his pips in anticipation at this very minute.

    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Christopher White

      Christopher White wrote; "... I can see it now; this research being used to to justify removing teachers" The only logical conclusion from this comment is your research skills are as unused as other commenters.
      Still the potential is there to abuse any system using innovative ideas as we have seen with nuclear energy.

    2. Christopher White

      PhD candidate at La Trobe University

      In reply to Paul Richards

      The only logical conclusion from this comment is that you prefer ad homnem to critical commentary; well ... to each his own

    3. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Christopher White

      logical conclusion Christopher White wrote; "... logical conclusion... prefer ad homnem" You are correct, well spotted. An interesting reply that says more about the values in play than expected, thanks. Five gold stars, with the caveat there is a time for everything and any preference is very specific.
      Can only recommend looking at the context, start by examining Sugata Mitra's value system.
      There was an understanding the neoliberals are selling austerity hard in the current climate, conditioning people to shed social capital. Perhaps the change from the relics Abrahamic learning system the conservative cling to is to great a leap.

  2. garybass

    Education IT Physics

    Context plays a large part in adoption of a School in the Cloud strategy. The children in the original study were not going to school. It is a major leap to attempt to apply similar approaches in Australia. The closest to self learning is Flipped classroom which is directed tasks by a well prepared teacher. Expectations are much higher though curriculum requirements are more about passing the next checkpoint, test or examination. While creativity and learning are linked, there is no such connection with schooling which in Australia appears to be about credentials and status.
    Curiously another third world solution was eagerly and quickly adopted inAustralia, OLPC laptop per child, a very low cost basic computer. But soon found out learning is more than access to a textbook, computers are more than www...or should be.

  3. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Having worked in the Stanford group (IMSSS) pioneering computerozed instruction in the late '60s, and having a daughter that now works in the online schooling biz, all I can say is -- it's software, dummy. You have no teacher, you have no quality control. You have no teacher who's well educated, you're wasting kids' time & lives, and taxpayers' $.

    By the way, from day 1 of computer networking -- even before our flawed Internet -- there was "the cloud". The only difference is how much marketing hype is applied to "remote servers" and how much power is wasted running them.

    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Alex Cannara

      Alex Cannara wrote; " ... You have no teacher, you have no quality control." Alex all I can suggest is you look into Sugata Mitra work further.
      Because what you wrote is simply out of context with both the article and Mitra's findings.

  4. Denise Cunningham

    farmer, teacher, writer

    Whether it's education via cloud or via any other medium, there's nothing new in having interested, motivated, curious (intelligent?) students directing their own learning. Frequently, though, the issue is how a skilled teacher can turn around disengaged youth. ........and I'm not just talking about those of us who see the classroom as a performance space. I'm also talking about how quality teachers make the tricky bits easy and interesting, and motivate students to wonder about the next thing. So thanks, John, for pointing out the importance of programming / learning design; the social aspects of learning; and concluding that good teachers are still needed.
    Quality control, raised by Alex, is an escalating nightmare. Enrol online, pay online, 'learn' online, have someone tick the correct boxes in the online quiz, print out your own qualification, ...................

  5. Michelle Sowey

    Philosophy educator at The Philosophy Club

    I agree that knowledge acquisition alone falls well short of the kind of deep learning that we want for our students. As you’ve suggested, John, good teachers tap into students’ interests, promote creativity and encourage students to apply their knowledge in meaningful ways. But beyond this, I think good teachers can further support students in challenging received wisdom, questioning its foundations, and using tools of critical thinking – such as scepticism and active open-mindedness – to develop…

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  6. Warwick Rowell

    Permaculturist at Rowell Consulting Services

    Don't get me wrong, and please feel free to contribute to my education. I love the words about creativity, and problem solving, and engagement and so on. But a hugely important learning task is one I witnessed twice this morning with the youngest of my grand-daughters.

    Tessa came up around breakfast time, and helped "Pampa" prepare garlic eggs, but she doesn't like eggs herself, so she did her own baked beans, from scratch, to clearing away. So lots of skill building, and increased autonomy…

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    1. Michelle Sowey

      Philosophy educator at The Philosophy Club

      In reply to Warwick Rowell

      Warwick, I enjoyed reading about your grand-daughter's activities. The following organisations might be a source of inspiration for fostering the kind of learning you've described:

      - Brightworks (USA), giving students real tools, real materials, and real problems to encourage their love of learning, adaptability, tenacity and readiness to engage as citizens of the world:

      - Tinkering School (USA, with outreach to Australia), building children's competence in learning…

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