ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Food for Thought: Sugata Mitra’s “School in the Clouds”

By Joey Lee

If you haven’t heard about TED before, you probably have quite a bit to be enlightened about. In a space where geniuses (think Steve Jobs or Jamie Oliver) have just 20 minutes to propose an idea, which could revolutionize the world, to an audience brimming with minds of equal caliber, it’s an enthralling space—to say the least.

This year, TED2013 had a million dollar grant waiting for the TED prizewinner for the first time ever, and it was none other than Sugata Mitra who won the coveted top spot. Yet, the reactions to his pitch remain mixed. Mitra wished for a “School in the Clouds,” which loosely jabbed at the hard fact that we need a new education system.

In a world that would be absolutely crippled without technology, and where print is perishing while online is thriving, it does seem ironic that schools are mostly going about with writing information on paper while banning electronic devices.

“The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.”

With that gutsy statement Mitra might have stepped on some toes, because in a sense, Mitra is stating the years spent training and trying to maintain the structured curriculum of schools were a waste; teachers are obsolete; and the entire system archaic.   

The job as a teacher, which remains a valiant career in the eyes of many, will swing from being one of “teaching” to one of “encouraging.” Essentially, Mitra is pointing out (with first-hand validated proof) students don’t do well in a stifling, sterile environment where sheets of information are handed out to be read. Instead they thrive in one that is centered on the innate curiosity of youth, where unique unorthodox questions are posed to students, they are then egged on to research and find out the answer.

In his talk, Mitra screened videos of children, within the ages of 8 to 13 years old, learning from complete scratch about how to use a computer and the Internet without any help at all, except for the computer that was strategically placed behind a wall with a hole for the screen. The speed of their learning was proven to be a dramatic as compared to the average person attending school, which urged Mitra to attempt the audacious act of trying to make them learn about the likes of molecular structures and neurons by themselves, which was yet again proven possible.

It’s a mildly alarming discovery, especially with the easy option of comparison, and lends the brain an imaginary vision of what kind of world we would be living in if this system was fully implemented from the moment the digital age hit us head-on.

On Tumblr, Mitra showed an example of how a regular class of American students learned about the history of the Coliseum—not by the trusty history textbook, but rather, through a webcam conversation on Skype with a class of students in Italy. Virtual interaction with other children living in the country itself was clearly more favored by the students when juxtaposed with the history textbook.

There has been no confirmation of what exactly the “School in the Clouds” would be like, except for the fact it would be located in India, but it’s certainly something that could change the education system even sooner than we might think.




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