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The question of how to inspire creativity, curiosity and advanced learning skills in children is an age old one. However, today we live in a world with vast global and online connectivity, and have the opportunity to use the Internet to explore exciting new methods of education. Professor Sugata Mitra, education innovator and professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, is using technology to transform how we think about learning.
In Los Angeles, February 2013 Mitra received the TED award for his revolutionary work in the field of non-formal, minimally invasive education. The US$1m prize fund is being used to set up a series of cloud schools, using what he has coined as Self- Organised learning environments (SOLEs), which capitalise on children's innate curiosity and ability to learn a variety of subjects in a group setting from a computer. His research has led him to believe that education is a self-organising system.
Initially he intends to set up five cloud schools, three in India and two in the UK, near the University of Newcastle. The remotest of the locations is Korakati, a village in eastern India. It will be very different from a conventional school - a glass pod filled with computers and with one large screen to allow moderators to Skype in and play a role in the education of the children. The moderators will be drawn from Mitra's "cloud granny" programme, which is already up and running in the UK and India. Retired people in the UK connect via Skype to a variety of community run youth clubs in India offering a range of activities, with the most popular being reading them stories. For him, the key part of the project will be to let the children self-organise. There will be no timetables or curriculum, and much of the learning will be left to the children.
The model for the schools is drawn from the hole-in-the-wall computers that Mitra set up in the slums of India in 1999. The computers came with no instructions, and were simply left for children to explore for themselves. The way they developed skills amazed him, and led him to the conclusion that 'in nine months a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the west.' Groups of street children learned to use computers and the Internet by themselves, with little or no knowledge of English, and never having seen a computer before. Then they started instinctually teaching one another.
'In nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West'
Over the next five years, through many experiments, Mitra learned just how powerful adults can be when they give small groups of children the tools and the agency to guide their own learning, and then get out of the way. Experiments have shown that, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other if they're motivated by curiosity and peer interest.
Mitra argues that our educational systems today, with their standardised curricula and cookie cutter assessments, are the product of an expired age. They are based on the Victorian model designed to manufacture generations of identical workers for an industrial age rather than the technological age, and therefore he is concerned that what got us here, won't get us there. He believes that students are rewarded for memorisation, not imagination or resourcefulness, and that this will prevent our future development. As Mitra explains punishments and exams are seen as threats by kids. He says that these are tools no longer needed, outside of the age of the empire. He urges us all, to shift the incentive for education from threat, to pleasure. We can't imagine the technology of the future, and thus we can't know what jobs we'll need the skills for. So Mitra suggests that education should be about develop-ing the ability to learn anything on one's own. There is no need to carry data in our head as if it is a pen drive, because information is availableat our fingertips. Instead, children should be challenged to understand and express ideas and concepts.
Mitra wants children around the globe, in addition to traditional schooling, to get a chance to participate in self-organised learning. He has also released a toolkit for parents, educators and teachers who want to create SOLEs. The online resource will help them support kids (8-12 years old) as they tap into their innate sense of wonder. He will gather feedback from the School in the Cloud laboratory, and the global community of SOLE educators will help shape the future of learning. The feedback will be used to create a blueprint, free for others to copy and scale, and a web-based public commons of educational resources.