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
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.
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.
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.