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Schools in the Cloud could teach children to teach themselves

Ben Grubb (via SMH) | March 6, 2013
When Sugata Mitra installed a computer in a slum wall in India, he had no idea it would later win him $US1 million to build a school on the internet that could spur an education revolution.

"I repeated the experiment there," Dr Mitra said. "There was no place to stay, so I stuck my computer in, I went away, came back after a couple of months, and found kids playing games on it.

"When they saw me, they said, 'We want a faster processor and a better mouse'."

His experiment has since been reproduced in different communities around the world, including in Australia, with the same conclusion: children can drive their own education if provided access to the internet and if nudged by adults - who also stay out of the way.

"They can cluster around the machine, then you sit back and watch," Dr Mitra said of self-guided learning.

"The more you ask them to sit quietly in rows and columns, that is when the fights break out," he said, referring to traditional classrooms.

After realising what he had found, Dr Mitra began publishing the results in scientific journals.

"I published everywhere. I wrote down and measured everything, and I said, in nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West. I'd seen it happen over and over and over again."

Dr Mitra reasons that the traditional focus in schools on reading, writing and arithmetic comes from a time when societies were cranking out workers for office jobs, government posts or the like.

"It's quite fashionable to say that the education system's broken," Dr Mitra said. "[But] it's not broken. It's wonderfully constructed. It's just that we don't need it any more. It's outdated."

As technology frees people from offices and creates jobs yet to be imagined, it is time to let children learn in ways that let them pursue and embrace new ideas, Dr Mitra said.

"There may be 10 different ways to produce the next generation," Dr Mitra said. "I think I have touched the tip of one of those icebergs."

Dr Mitra, a university professor in Britain, said the TED prize-money would fund a learning lab in India devoted to perfecting a formula for his internet-based school called "School in the Cloud".

Classes will be overseen by a global network of retired teachers, who connect with classes via online video chats, but an adult will be on-site to keep watch.

"I want to see if this is feasible," Dr Mitra said. "If it works, it will level the playing field."


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