Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra, a polymath who is presently Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, gained a level of public awareness through a TED talk in 2007 where he described an experiment that is popularly known as "The Hole in the Wall". In this experiment, a computer was placed in a kiosk in a wall in a slum in Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely. The experiment tested a hypothesis that children could learn using computers without any formal training.

In 2013, Mitra pitched a scaling of this idea in another TED talk titled Build a School in the Cloud, which resulted in him winning the $1M TED prize. This funding is being used to establish facilities to replicate the Hole in the Wall experiment in customised facilities around the world in a range of contexts.

Rather than just beng an exercise in dumping hardware into schools and hoping that learning outcomes improve (as was the case with much of the Rudd government's Digital Education Revolution), Mitra was drawing on an area of knowledge in Mathematics and Physics called self-organising systems, which is found in complexity theory and chaos theory. The experiment attempted to create an environment in which learning was made possible. Mitra's hypothesis was that, left to themselves, children will learn to operate computers and the internet to learn. 

The story of the experiments was fascinating. Random groups of disadvantaged children were placed unsupervised and undirected in twenty two locations, equipped with a shared computer, and tested in computer literacy on a monthly basis for nine months. In this time they reached the level of computer literacy of an office secretary in the West. Although games were initially the focus of the children's interest, this reduced over time. When a crowd was present, conversation turned towards school and home and, after four months, the children started to bring school work to the computers.

As the studies have progressed, Mitra and his team have identified parameters that assist the learning to happen. The presence of a friendly mediator (not instructor) was beneficial. A ratio of one computer to four students seems to work the best. When students were one to one with a computer, they tended to get distracted and do their own thing. A shared device brought with it a measure of responsibility to be on-task. Big screens are far better than small screens. Lots of (student-generated) noise seemed to help the learning take place. Interestingly, the high-ability students preferred not to work in groups, unless the work was clearly challenging and difficult; if the tasks did not extend them, they preferred to work alone. Fluid grouping was the norm; students default to forming their own groups, but the groups were not fixed.

There were a few key takeaways for me from this session. The first is that students are not inherently reluctant to learn. The second is that a key role of educators is to create an environment in which learning can happen, rather than to feel obligated to make learning happen. The third was that shared ICT devices require a different level of collaboration to the typical 1-1 learnng. 

We are not at a point that we can declare the teacher redundant. However, we certainly should be thinking as to what the teacher's role ought to be, given the capacity for learning that is inherent in young people, and the extent of knowledge that is available to them online.

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