As much as we talk about technology revolutionizing schools, in truth, we’ve only scratched the surface.  In today’s connected classrooms, it’s possible for students to learn with very little assistance from teachers.

So says Sugata Mitra, an education trailblazer who has gained a following – and a TED Prize – for his widely publicized Hole in the Wall and School in the Cloud experiments.  Mitra spoke on April 26 at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, as part of Houston A+ Challenge’s Speaker Series on Public Education, sponsored by Chevron.

The Story of Hole in the Wall

As he has in two TED Talks, Mitra shared the origins of Hole in the Wall:  In 1999, Mitra embedded a touchscreen computer in the wall of a slum adjacent to his workplace.  Though Mitra had an inkling that children, even poorly-educated ones, could acquire basic technical skills if given access to a computer, the results far exceeded his expectations:  After just three months, the children’s technical abilities were on par with the average office secretary in the West.

With support from the World Bank, Mitra repeated the experiment in rural villages across India, discovering that students grew not only in their technical skills, but in their ability to learn other content – from English pronunciation to genetics – through technology.  Remarkably, students mastered content that was not in their native language, and learned to make subtle distinctions to find quality information among the dreck returned in the typical search engine result.

Mitra’s characteristic humor suffused the presentation as he shared anecdotes of rural children encountering unfamiliar, sometimes college-level material:

When I returned, they looked very grave.  “We’ve understood nothing.”  I asked when they’d given up, and they said they haven’t – they look at it every day.  “Why,” I asked, “do you look at it every day if you’ve learned nothing?”

A little girl raised her hand – I’ll never forget this girl – she said, in broken Tamil and English, “Well, apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing else.”

From Hole in the Wall to School in the Cloud

Armed with his paradigm-shattering findings, Mitra has embarked on a second project that morphs its central question from “can children left alone with a computer learn unassisted?” to “can schools – especially those in remote places – serve children better by redesigning around this idea?” While Hole in the Wall proved that minimally assisted learning is possible and repeatable, School in the Cloud tests the boundaries of that learning, and the inputs necessary for success.

Mitra’s TED Prize grant enabled him to set up seven self-organized learning environments (SOLEs) in Great Britain and India.  Though the eastern and western settings are very different, the design is the same: Seats gathered around a large screen facilitate group work.  Complex questions engage students in online explorations.  Teachers or facilitators – affectionately referred to as “grannies” – are beamed in by videoconference and offer encouragement and curiosity but very little in the way of directions, answers or behavior management.  Students form their own groups, manage their own participation and engagement, and approach the question in their own way.

A Teacherless Future?

Asked whether he is advocating for a teacherless classroom, Mitra answers emphatically no.  In SOLEs, the role of the teacher must change – from a “sage on the stage” who provides answers to a learning designer who poses well-crafted questions and a trusted friend who gets students excited to learn.

Yet he noted that SOLEs can  be teacherless classrooms – when necessary.

“Good teachers don’t go to remote places,” he said. “ The remoter you get, the worse primary education becomes.  It’s children in desolate areas who really need to learn how to learn.”

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