Blue sky thinking

February 4, 2019

Sugata Mitra, professor of education technology at Newcastle University’s School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, became a global star in 2013 when his Hole-in-the-Wall – a concept that inspired the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire – won the $1 million TED Prize. He has since expanded his international learning experiment to create this School in the Cloud. From his base in New Delhi, he talks to Alison Cowie about his visionary journey and the future of education

Professor Sugata Mitra grew up in Kolkata, India, and went on to study physics at his local university.

As a way of earning money while completing a PhD at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, he began writing for an Indian children’s magazine called Target – edited by Rosalind Wilson.

Professor Mitra reflects: “Rosalind asked if I would take fairly advanced ideas in physics and create articles that both children and parents could enjoy.

“It seemed to work as I started receiving letters from children who understood the theory.”

After gaining his PhD in 1978, Professor Mitra entered the emerging computing sector, while continuing to write for Target in his spare time.

In the 1990s, he started a new position training software developers. At the same time, he began to recognise the special relationship children had with computers.

“I noticed how adept they were at figuring them out. Children, including my own son, were able to do amazing things on computers without being taught.

“I started to wonder if it would be the same for children who had no access to computers or the internet.”

Professor Mitra’s office in New Delhi backed onto a slum and one day, in 1999, he knocked a hole in the wall and placed a computer there.

Having given no instructions, Professor Mitra was astonished when he returned to the computer eight hours later and found a group of children – some of whom had never seen a computer before – browsing the internet.

Professor Mitre decided to replicate his Hole-in- the-Wall experience in a more remote part of Delhi and found that children there also figured out how the computer worked.

More Hole-in-the-Wall experiences were created – across India, Cambodia, Bhutan and Africa – and Professor Mitra repeatedly found young people, many of whom were living in abject poverty – could work out how to surf the internet and download games on computers that weren’t programmed in their native language.

“People were asking me, ‘how is this possible?’, ‘who is teaching them?’, but what was happening was that the children were essentially learning by themselves.”

Professor Mitra explains that the young users were creating a “self-organised system” – something that’s apparent in the natural world.

“Bees, for example, will build a hive, not by being taught but by figuring out how to do it by themselves.” Professor Mitra then began posing ‘big questions’ as part of his Hole-in-the-Wall experiments.

“I thought, ‘Okay, so these children can teach themselves how to play games, what else can they learn?’.

“I started asking children questions such as ‘why is a polar bear’s fur white?’ and see if they could use the computers to find the answer,” he says.

In one such experiment, Professor Mitra asked a group of Tamil-speaking children living in a south Indian village if they could learn the biotechnology of DNA replication in English (learning that was approximately a decade beyond their age level). After two months, he found that the children had a 30 per cent level of comprehension.

He then asked a local woman, who was working as an accountant, if she would support the children – not by teaching them about DNA but by simply encouraging them, showing interest and asking questions about what they were doing.

Two months later, the group’s comprehension had risen to 50 per cent.

In 2006, Professor Mitra moved to the North East of England where he became professor of education technology at Newcastle University’s School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences.

He took his self-organised learning environment (SOLE) into a primary school in Gateshead, where small groups of children were given a computer and asked to research a ‘big question’.

“We found that the children, with minimal supervision, were not only able to find the answers by talking to each other and searching the internet but that they were able to understand and remember the information,” Professor Mitra reveals..

According to the university professor, his SOLE concept “went from staffroom to staffroom” as teachers shared their experiences with peers at other schools.

Professor Mitra was soon inundated with requests to set up SOLEs across the world.

Around the same time, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, he appealed for people to donate an hour a week to provide encouragement to his SOLE participants.

He wanted to replicate the support that had proved so effective in the south Indian village – something he termed “the power of the grandmother”.

“I wanted people to chat to the children, to admire them and to ask them questions – a bit like what grandmothers traditionally do,” Professor Mitra explains.

More than 200 people volunteered and, via Skype, began speaking with children from all over the world, encouraging them and asking supportive questions.

In 2010, Professor Mitra presented his Hole- in-the-Wall findings at a TED talk and three years later, he was awarded the $1 million TED Prize.

At the TED2013 conference (watched more than two million times on YouTube), the Newcastle University professor announced a new ambition, telling the audience: “My wish is to help design a future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their wonder and their ability to work together. Help me build this school. It will be called the School in the Cloud.”

Professor Mitra used the TED prize money to make his wish come true. He has established eight School in the Cloud labs (two in the UK, five in India and one in the US), which provide an environment where a global community of ‘Granny Cloud’ mentors and educators – such as teachers, parents or community leaders – can observe the impact of self-organised learning on children from a wide range of educational backgrounds.

The global programme is managed by SOLE Central at Newcastle University, where the impact of the School in the Cloud can also be analysed.

“The two things that we’ve found so far is that children learn how to search the internet properly and to read way above their school comprehension levels,” Professor Mitra reports.

The Newcastle University professor – who now divides his time between New Delhi and the North East of England – continues to dedicate his life to the ‘future of learning’.

He has recently turned his attention to the methods of assessment and exams and, in his quest to encourage debate, has suggested that children should be able to use the internet in exams.

Mitra maintains that there needs to be a shift from ‘just-in-case’ to ‘just-in-time’ learning. He explains: “Traditionally, education has been about teaching lots of things in case you need them. But nowadays, if someone asks you something you don’t know, you reach for the smartphone in your pocket to find the answer.

“Education should reflect that change and I propose that there should be a shift from ‘just-in- case’ to ‘just-in-time’ learning – one where you’re taught how to use the internet efficiently and accurately.”

Whatever the future of education and its assessment methods, Professor Mitra is committed to being at the forefront of the conversation, and will continue to use his considerable drive, intellect and profile to develop visionary ideas and concepts to make learning as efficient and accessible as possible.

He concludes: “It’s not good enough for a person like me to simply complain about the way things are done – I need to be able to say what needs to be done.”



School in the Cloud

Illustrations by Grafilu

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