It’s no secret that the current, teacher-centered model of education leaves a lot to be desired, yet a lack of alternatives means that this outdated model is continuously replicated around the world. Though most consider education a critical sector in development, there are remarkably few innovations in education. Of course there are new technologies that can be used in classrooms, such as interactive white boards, but there have not been any truly significant changes to the structure of education in many decades. That is, until now. Sugata Mitra is challenging the status quo with his “Build A School In The Cloud Project.” His project uses online information systems and coaching to facilitate what he calls a Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE).
In his article for the Huffington Post (here) Mitra says, “Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed.”
Mitra argues that the skills we are taught in school are becoming obsolete in the current economy and therefore, so is the education system. Students are evaluated on their recall of material, when this information is now made readily available to us online. What matters more in an increasingly connected and information-ready global economy is the ability to find this information, analyze it, interact with it and then apply it.
Often, when a student does poorly in school, their teacher will tell the child’s parents that they do not participate in class or are always acting out. Yet the same student, when left alone with a video game system, will be able to figure out how to master every level and learn all of the shortcuts. The missing link between this teacher-centered learning approach and success is discovery. And that is what the SOLE system has to offer.
In a SOLE, groups of students research a designated topic or question on the Internet, finding the information for themselves instead of being taught it by a teacher. SOLEs capitalize on children’s sense of exploration and curiosity, allowing them to engage with the material and teach each other. The children become more resourceful and develop their critical thinking skills as they figure out which information is relevant and what sources can be trusted.
The SOLE program also allows each student to learn in their own way, depending on which learning styles work best for them. Working in groups on the project builds teamwork skills and encourages further exploration as the students challenge each other’s ideas and work toward mastering the concept.
Teachers still play an important role in the SOLEs, however their part is to provide encouragement for the students. Remote volunteers, whom Mitra has dubbed “Grannies”, can also fill this role. These volunteers drop in over Skype to help spark curiosity and provide encouragement for the children.
SOLE has huge potential for success in all parts of the world, but it could particularly be of use in areas where teachers do not want to work – whether this is due to isolation, conflict or poor remuneration. In these areas the student-teacher ratio can be upwards of 100:1, making teaching in the Global North look like a picnic.
Mitra won the 2013 TED Prize, along with $1 million to implement his program. The first School in the Cloud lab opened in Killingwork, England, in December 2013, and six more labs are set to open over the next year. Five will be located in India, with one more in the UK. Coordinators from all around the world can also register on the School in the Cloud website to receive guidance on how to run sessions.
Watch Mitra’s TED Talks below, including an interesting story about the program’s conception through the Hole-in-the-Wall Project, or an excellent talk on child-driven education here. Also, check out how a SOLE is working in New Jersey here.