TED Prize 2013 winner SUGATA MITRA, who teaches at Newcastle University, UK, set up the first Hole in the Wall, a freely accessible computer armed with an internet connection. It became a hit with street children, who learnt to use it all by themselves within a matter of days. In Delhi to launch the first School in the Cloud at a school in Kalkaji, he spoke to Divya A about creating schools without teachers:
What made you think children can learn without a teacher?
Does anyone teach children how to use Facebook? If a group of children are given a gadget, do they need anyone to teach them how to use it? But this may not be possible in case of 50-year-olds; they need someone to guide them on the basics of using a gadget. Typically, the knowledge base of 15-year-olds is different from grown-ups.
Are there prerequisites?
The entire model is based on community-based learning, so being in a group is a must. You don’t learn about mobile phone specifications sitting alone at home. You sit with friends and figure it out. If you give a group of children a set of questions and a computer with internet, they will be able to find answers — whatever the difficulty level. Interestingly, the more random the group, the better.
Can education then be solely based on group interaction? Is it possible not to need a teacher at all?
Besides what textbooks tell us, we get so much more in terms of learning from other sources. We never think of that as learning. With technology and the internet becoming a part of our lives, we could think of moving beyond classrooms and teachers. As I said, a group of children can resolve any query if given access to internet. We call them self-organised learning environments, or SOLEs. But the more important part is: how to ask the right questions. That is where the concept of Granny Cloud comes in. It’s like a teacher available over Skype from a remote location, not as an omnipresent supervisor, but as a mentor-on-call. That delivers amazing results since our study shows that children perform best when they don’t have an elder supervising. I would say that direct supervised learning as we know it may soon be obsolete.
School in the Cloud (SITC) is a combination of SOLE and Granny Cloud.
How feasible is the project? What kind of money does it require?
If you talk of feasibility in terms of showing results, SITC has showed tremendous results. I am putting in place as many as seven SITCs — five of which will be in the remotest and poorest locations of India, and the other two in northeastern UK. The new SOLE locations share a lack of educational opportunities for the children living there. We are also going to conduct a three-year study to assess the improvement in children’s reading comprehension and search skills.
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What might the drawbacks of unguided learning be?
What we are looking at is minimally invasive learning, and not unguided learning. Until it can replace the conventional learning system, it may complement it. Even though critics say it is not real learning, is imperfect and imprecise, I ask them, how can we measure what is real learning? We only look at it in terms of degrees and not life skills.
How is the model in the UK different from that in India?
There is no difference. The English comprehension levels of children in all areas we have earmarked to set up SITC is the same. To our surprise, earlier surveys proved that children in the poorest of poor areas in India — who have had no exposure to English or computers — take as much time to solve a given query as others. SITC is a great way to improve the English comprehension skills of children, since most of the stuff on the internet is in English.