Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology, Newcastle University recently won the 2013 TED Prize for his experiments in self-organized learning. The basis of his experiments were these 3 simple questions he asked himself:

  • What if everything you thought you knew about education was wrong?
  • What if students learn more quickly on their own, working in teams, than in a classroom with a teacher?
  • What if tests and discipline get in the way of the learning process rather than accelerate it?

Mitra’s won the prize for his concept of “self organizing learning environments.” Simply put, it is an alternative to traditional schooling that relies on empowering students to work together on computers with broadband access to solve their own problems, with adults intervening to provide encouragement and admiration, rather than top-down instruction.

Mitra’s work with students in India has gained wide attention and was the focus of a 2010 TED Talk on his “hole in the wall” experiment, showing the potential of computers to jump-start learning without any adult intervention.

When Mitra, a trained physicist, bought his first personal computer, he noticed that his 6-year-old son was able to tell him how to fix problems he had operating the machine. His friends reported the same thing as well about their kids.

Experimenting with children living in slums in New Delhi, Mitra set up a publicly accessible computer along the lines of a bank ATM, behind a glass barrier, and told children they could use it, with no further guidance. With no previous proficiency in English, the kids pretty soon were browsing the Web in that language. The tried the same experiment in a village 300 miles away to prove that the experiment would work in an isolated environment. After a while, “one of the kids was saying we need a faster processor and a better mouse.”

When the head of the World Bank, President James Wolfensohn, came down to Delhi to visit the experiment and saw how successful it was, he gave Mitra a check for $1.5 million, which allowed the professor to continue his experiments in India, Cambodia and Africa.

India’s traditional system of education is largely based on British colonial system where vast amount of territory had to be governed by people writing things on paper and sending them around the world on ships. Skills like reading, writing and arithmetic are key, and Indian schools turned out clerks who functioned as interchangeable parts in a vast bureaucracy.

Traditional education stresses tests and punishments, two things that Mitra said causes the brain to shut down its rational processes and surrender to fear. To help speed learning, he has recruited hundreds of ‘grannies,’ volunteers from the United Kingdom, many of them retired teachers, who function more in the role of “grandparents” than teachers, skypeing into learning environments around the world, encouraging students to do their best and praising their achievements.Adopting a method closer to that of grandparents, who shower children with admiration, is “the opposite of the parent method,” which relies on threats, Mitra said.

Mitra intends using his TED prize money to build a laboratory, most likely in India, where he can test his theories through experiments that supplement schoolwork. He likens it to a “safe cybercafe for children” where they can strengthen their English skills, which can be a route to economic advancement. Mitra said he doesn’t think teachers are obsolete but suggests their roles may be changing as students increasingly have access to self-learning through computers. Plus, he argues that his self-organized teams may be an alternative to regular schools in places where teachers may not be available, like in rural areas.

Source:  Richard Galant | A $1 Million Bet On Students Without Teachers | CNN | February 2013, CNN


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