Sugata Mitra looks like a kindly uncle with his round face and a swoosh of black hair punctuated on both sides by inverted commas of grey. You expect him to be jolly and he is, but when he speaks about learning and his maverick educational projects you feel the enthusiasm and then genuine awe at his revelations.
As a physicist and computer scientist he may just turn out to be one of the most radical figures in education of the past 50 years.
Mitra’s importance is his belief in simple technologies to transform learning. What is more surprising is his genuine wonder at the results he has witnessed after each of his experiments.
In 1999 he entered a Delhi slum armed with an internet ready PC to create his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment. “What is it?” the children asked. “I don’t know,” said Mitra and he left. With that simple exchange his method was born.
Learning from scratch
Mitra and his assistants gave young children resident in the slum the opportunity to learn new skills from scratch without the guiding hand of a teacher. By embedding a computer and trackpad into the side of a building he opened an entirely new vista of ‘self-organised’ learning in primary education.
His plan was to simply give the children the tools and see what they could learn by themselves. “If I said a sentence that affected what happened next, then if this was to be a global model, it would need a million of me,” he says now. Five hours later the children were teaching each other how to browse.
Mitra’s method was a response to the shortage of good teachers in poor or remote areas. Provide children with an internet connection and stand back. Anything could have happened but what happened was nothing short of wondrous.
Experiments in remote rural Indian villages showed that children could teach themselves English to interact with the computer within two months.
An unexpected development, so Mitra decided to test his method to destruction. At a south Indian school he decided to find out whether Tamil speaking children could teach themselves the biotechnology of DNA replication in English from a street-side computer.
The results were, well, miraculous. By incorporating a ‘mentor’ pupils achieved the seemingly impossible in a matter of months. It appeared that children could learn anything given the right set up and encouragement. Listen to Mitra talk about his methods at this year’s British Science Festival in Newcastle, throughout this post, and his plans for Schools in the Cloud.
Grannies in the Cloud
Using British grandmothers (his ‘Grannies in the Cloud) he plans to provide groups of schoolchildren with the positive feedback they need to succeed – simple praise, admiration and reinforcement for learning – via Skype. He has the backing of the World Bank and MIT, but more importantly he wants to make his method universal.
Scrap all examinations
Mitra wants nothing more than a radical transformation of the classroom at all levels of education. He wants to throw out the Victorian tools of pen, paper and protractor and bring in the PC or tablet. Ask the right questions and you will get better answers, he says. Scrap all current examinations and challenge ourselves to do better.
“Examinations should allow use of the internet and mobile devices,” he says. “We don’t have to decide to do it, it is going to happen. These devices are shrinking in size. It will come to the stage where we have to use body scanners to find out who is using them.
“Obsolescence of ideas, skills, methods and knowledge is accelerating. We need to factor that in. Ask the learner how it should work.”
I urge you to listen to his talk at the British Science Festival 2013. Listen to it all. It is entertaining and inspiring. I’m sure there are kinks that need to ironed out in his theory, like the fact that technology is not democratised and the quality of your smartphone or tablet depends on how deep your pockets are.
Broadband and wireless delivery are another problem. Here in the UK we have woefully slow download speeds compared to places like Korea (where commercial speeds are up to 1Gb compared to 20-30Mb here) and poor WiFi coverage. Go to places in Africa or central Asia and both speed and coverage are a bigger problem.
Listen and let me know what you think. Do Mitra’s ‘Schools in the Cloud’ level the playing field? How do we decide what to allow in examinations and how should they change to involve the net or group learning? Do we scrap traditional methods or supplement them? I can’t wait to hear your opinions.
Look at this wonderful video about a high school teacher and his inspirational teaching methods and get some idea of what a great teacher looks like. You cannot buy this experience. There are good and bad teachers and they aren’t all working in either public or private education. Money cannot buy the love and attention that this guy has for his students and his family.