Sugata Mitra’s educational experiment: schools in the cloud

In 1999 Sugata Mitra who worked for an educational technology company in India, experimented with children’s capacity for self-education. He put a computer on a wall of the building, where he worked, facing a poor slum where the children were uneducated and largely illiterate.

He told the kids (7-13) to play with it and he installed a video to monitor them. They shared each discovery with the others. Within days they were using the computer to paint, draw, play games, listen to music etc. Mitra repeated the experiment in other areas with the same result.

The children learnt English words from the computer and talking to the others. One computer was sufficient for 3oo kids becoming computer literate within 3 months. He called this minimally invasive education. It showed how curiosity, play and social interaction combined to aid learning and their teaching of each other.

In 10 years at school most kids don’t learn what these illiterate street kids learnt in 3 months. As Peter Gray explains, teaching inhibits learning by thwarting curiosity and learning from play; play is a way of practising he explains (P.119ff; Free To Learn).

Mitra commented that children learn better by sharing a computer and learning from each other rather than having a laptop each. Watch his experiment here

Prof Mitra is professor of educational technology at Newcastle University. His personal website is  http://sugatam.wikispaces.com/ For more on child-driven education and teachers visit here

Now he is planning “schools in the cloud” which he talks about below.

Free Thinking 2013 – Sugata Mitra 05 Nov 13

Professor Sugata Mitra’s pioneering experiments gave children in India access to computers to teach themselves and inspired the novel which became the film Slumdog Millionaire. He is now using retired volunteers in the UK to share their knowledge and guide children across the other side of the world. At the Free Thinking Festival he outlines the way he plans to use the $1 million 2013 Ted Prize to further his vision of “schools in the cloud”. Presented by Philip Dodd and recorded on Saturday 26th October 2013 in front of a live audience at Sage Gateshead. This radio discussion can be opened or downloaded from this link and lasts 45 minutes: Teaching the Teachers: the Future of Education: Click here

To watch a video of his Ted Talk Build a School in the Cloud click here

Update: I posted this yesterday and today a letter in the Irish Times questioned the government’s plans for high achievers and preparation for technology jobs. I took the opportunity to reply!

Sir, – The Minister for Education (Education, December 10th) rightly praises schools for Ireland’s improved Pisa scores despite the severe cutbacks experienced due to economic recession.

However, the Minister pays only scant regard to Ireland’s continued poor performance in relation to the fewer numbers achieving at the higher levels in maths and science.

While the Minister admits to being worried about this situation, he doesn’t propose any solution, preferring to focus on “the slow long-term task of improving schools.” In his article the Minister compares us favourably to Finland while failing to point out that in Finland more than 15 per cent of students are performing at or above level 5 on the Pisa tests in mathematics compared to Ireland at 10.7 per cent. We are also well behind our counterparts in Germany and Poland at this level, and slightly behind the United Kingdom.

Given that most of the jobs in the technology sector require a high level of mathematical proficiency and that it is seemingly the objective of the Government to push the so- called smart economy, it seems reasonable to ask what structure the Government might put in place for our bright students to be able to achieve at a level appropriate to their abilities? – Yours, etc,

Dr COLM O’REILLY,

Director,

Centre for Talented Youth

Ireland,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.

To which I replied,

Sir, – While I agree with  Dr Colm O’Reilly (Letters, 16.12.13) that the better performing children in schools are not facilitated as are the “weaker” children and all as far as I can see are dumbed down to be average, I disagree with the idea his organisation suggests, that 10.7 per cent are talented. All children are talented even if the curriculum fails to realise it. Also, to label kids at all, as smart or otherwise is unethical and as research has shown, it interferes with their learning; those labelled bright feel they don’t need to study and those labelled negatively feel there’s no point studying.
Regarding preparing children for the smart economy which requires “a high level of mathematical proficiency,”the work of Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, is worth noting. In 1999 when he put a computer on the wall of his building opposite a slum area in India, the illiterate unschooled children taught themselves to be computer literate and learnt English to operate the computer to the point that 1 computer was sufficient for 300 children to achieve this learning within 3 months. He also found that sharing a computer was better than having a laptop each and that teaching them actually thwarted their learning.
Yours, etc.,
Stephen Blendell
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