The Future of Learning:
Embracing Technology To Prepare Students For Today’s World
Sugata Mitra is one of my all-time favorite speakers on topics of education. His outstanding TED talks, including Kids Can Teach Themselves, have well over 6 million combined views. This month, Mitra’s latest three-year research project that combines the Granny Cloud with Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) is drawing to a close. During his Educause 2016 keynote, Mitra reviewed the astounding successes of the first SOLEs and described how the concept has been extended to remote villages in Asia, Africa, and inner-city locations in the US with phenomenal success.
The genesis of SOLE took place at the “end of the last century”, as described by a young student who instantly made Mitra feel ancient. The project actually took place from 1999-2005, although he now wishes he had waited one more year to begin it. Mitra had placed a computer in a New Delhi slum where kids would have access to it, and waited to see what would happen. All on their own, the children learned how to use the computer and were soon surfing the web. The suspicion was that some adult must have been teaching and supervising the kids, so the experiment was repeated in ever-more remote locations; always with the same result. Each time, the children would teach themselves to use the computer, sometime even repair it, learn to surf the web, and then download all kinds of valuable information and games.
From 2007-2009, Mitra conducted a slightly different experiment with nine-year-old children, giving them a room with five large monitor screens and access to the web. The children were posed questions like, “Can something exist in two places at once?” Very quickly, the children self-organized into a kind of collective hive, working under an efficient, but invisible teacher. In a short period of time, the children came back with an answer, “It is possible for something to exist in two places at once. Have you ever heard of quantum entanglement?”
Mitra found that the children could be encouraged simply by expressing admiration without giving any specific coaching. He calls this the grandmother effect, and in 2009 he recruited 200 grandmothers to interact with remote groups of children for one hour each week. The results were dramatic changes in behavior, elevated motivation, even improved accents, which is actually an important determinant of occupation and living standard.
In 2013, Mitra won the $1M TED Prize, which is constrained to research projects. His experiment would combine the Granny Cloud with SOLEs set up in places like West Bengal, Goa, Phaltan, Harlem, and Matamoros (Mexico). These SOLEs are solar-powered with satellite uplinks to the Internet. Each has a supervisor whose only role is to look after the health and safety of the children. The results of these SOLEs with the Granny Cloud has been dramatic improvements in all of these areas: reading comprehension, communication skills, Internet searching skills, and self-confidence.
Example of a SOLE hub in Uganda
That’s the good news. The bad news, as Mitra reports, is that our education system in general is training students much as we did 150 years ago. A photo of students being tested illustrates this point. “We are preparing our children for employers who have been dead for 100 years.”
Work environment of the 1920s
Students being tested today
Student study and test environment of the future
Today, assistive technology is the norm and should be taken full advantage of. The important skills are now the 3 Cs, not the 3 Rs:
- Comprehension (Reading, which is only one part of this, should be subsumed.)
- Communication (Writing, which was great for the Phoenicians, is only a small part.)
- Computation (Arithmetic is a tiny part of this.)
Matrix for designing and evaluating curricula by Sugata Mitra
If the purpose of education is produce happy, healthy, and productive people, then we should design and evaluate our school curricula to optimize these characteristics. To that end, Mitra proposes a matrix to help in curricular design. He concluded his talk with, “Somewhere in there [the table above] is the future of education.”
Sugata Mitra’s conclusion