How Technology Will Shape the Future of Education

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Sugatra Mitra began his 2010 TED talk with a very simple statement: “There are places on earth, in every country, where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go…”

He has devoted his research to solving this problem, and was granted a $1 million prize in 2013 to build a “School in the Cloud.”

In his acceptance of the prize, he outlined his vision of the future of education. While criticizing the current educational system as being obsolete (it was designed 300 years ago according to the needs of the British Empire), Mitra presented a vision of a more effective educational system that would allow children to be more engaged and involved in the learning process.

Mitra presses that the goal of education would be to teach people how to learn any set of skills on their own, due to the uncertainty of job skills that will be required in the future. The foundation of the system is simply a computer, an internet connection, and a group of children.

Mitra’s research has certainly supported this notion. In his first experiment, called “Hole in the Wall”, he placed a computer with a broadband connection inside the wall of a Delhi slum.  Children were soon gathered around it, learning how to surf the web and teaching others how to do so. He has replicated many similar studies in different settings. When he installed a computer near a road in rural India, children were soon using it to play games. They eventually told him that they wanted “a faster processor and a better mouse” and that they had taught themselves English because that was the language the computer used. In another experiment, Indian children were able to teach themselves a different accent by talking into a speech-to-text engine until it understood them.

Probably his boldest experiment was when he endeavored to test whether 12-year-old Tamil-speakers could learn the biotech of DNA replication in English by themselves, a seemingly impossible task. After leaving them with the English-language material for a few months, he asked the children what they had understood. One little girl answered “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing.” To improve their comprehension further, he asked a local volunteer with no knowledge of the material to tutor the children using the “granny method” – simply providing encouragement. The positive results this generated led him to develop the “granny cloud”, in which retired teachers spent time tutoring and encouraging groups of children over Skype in what he refers to as a SOLE, self-organized learning environment.

As a result of this ground-breaking research on the power of technology in education, Mitra has been awarded with a $1 million prize from TED to fund his vision for creating a “School in the Cloud” in India, which will also serve as a research center to further explore approaches to self-directed learning. He has also released a toolkit for parents and educators who want to create their own SOLEs to help encourage eight to 12 year-old children all over the world to learn.

Returning Mitra’s opening statement in his 2010 TED talk, it is clear that his research has many implications for helping improve the educational quality and outcomes for those children who currently do not have access to good schools or teachers. Improving education has been shown to be a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty, and Mitra’s approach may be able to help many underserved children.

– Caroline Poterio Martinez

Source: TED Conference
Photo: GED 578

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