Sugata Mitra: The Return of the Autodidact – Learning to Trust Students

Sugata MitraProfessor Sugata Mitra wants anarchy. This professor of educational technology at Newcastle University is hard at work dismantling what he sees as the most robust, yet outmoded, legacy of British rule in his native India – its educational system still geared for empire building.

According to the professor, schools in India rely on rote learning and constant examination to churn out the homogenous mass of human automatons required to man the empire’s most crowning achievement – a bureaucratic machine.

India’s education system has utterly failed to adapt to the advent of both modern society and new technologies. Earlier this year, Professor Mitra was awarded the Ted Prize worth a million dollars to further his school-undermining endeavours.

Professor Mitra is a proponent of Minimally Invasive Education, a system that places particular emphasis on self-organised learning by students with access to the Internet. Teachers are to act primarily as catalysts for learning.

In 1999, while working as an IT teacher in New Delhi, Prof Mitra had a PC with Internet access installed in a slum. He left local children – none of whom had ever used a computer before or spoke any English – to investigate his strange gift.

“People are adamant learning is not just looking at a Google page. But it is. Learning is looking at Google pages. What is wrong with that?”

Eight hours later, he came back to kids playing games and browsing the Internet. Shortly after, Prof Mitra devised a second experiment. He now placed a computer in a village some 300 kilometres outside New Delhi – well out of the way of any computer-literate person. Again, the local children spoke no English, nor had they even seen a PC before. When the professor returned a few months later, he was promptly asked for a faster processor and a better mouse – in English.

Besides his experiments amongst India’s poor, Professor Mitra has implemented a programme known as the “Granny Cloud”: Middle-aged women in the UK give up some of their spare time to instruct small classes in India via Skype.

Professor Mitra’s most significant experiments are possibly those creating Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs). Small groups of students are given Internet access and a big question to answer. Usually within hours, these students will have formulated an elaborate answer. In the process, they learned about disciplines usually considered too advanced for their age. These SOLE experiments are not only performed amongst the poorer segments of developing countries but also in UK classrooms and those of other European countries.

The project for which Prof Mitra has now received the TED Prize is an amalgamation of his previous research. His School-in-the-Cloud plan aims to design a full-fledged self-organised learning facility. It is to be a bricks-and-mortar building in India custom-designed to experiment with a range of cloud-based, scalable approaches to self-directed learning.

Over time, Prof Mitra has attracted his fair share of critics some of whom see his approach as simply dumping hardware in front of unsuspecting youngsters and hoping for some magic to happen. However, the well-documented experiments are gathering impressive, and most of all encouraging, results.

Professor Mitra does not claim that the current school system is broken beyond repair. He simply notes that it is quite outdated. The shape imposed by the present model on students no longer fits their world: “In an age of networks, we need cloud-structured schools, not ones made to look like factories.”

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