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My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the work of Sugata Mitra, who is
turning education upside down with the help of the internet:
His TED talkwas amazing and I have since shared
some very enjoyable connversation with him over Chinese food in
Here is what I wrote:
Everybody knows that the Internet will
transform education, but nobody yet knows how. Most of the models
sound like dull attempts to reproduce, at a distance, the medieval
habit of schooling-one teacher telling a bunch of children what to
think. Now, though, I think I have glimpsed a better idea: the
self-organized learning environment (SOLE).
The credit for this approach belongs to
Sugata Mitra, an Indian physicist who, a decade ago, began to
install public "hole in the wall" computers in the streets of
Indian slums. He then sat back and watched how quickly the
impoverished kids learned to use the technology. The experiment,
which has now gone global, inspired the book that inspired the film
"Slumdog Millionaire," in which a boy from the slums improbably
learns enough to win a TV quiz show.
Dr. Mitra's next brainchild, SOLE, takes this
dynamic into the classroom. He is convinced that, with the
Internet, kids can learn by themselves, so long as they are in
small groups and have well-posed questions to answer. He now goes
into schools and asks a hard question that he thinks the students
will not be able to answer, such as: "How do you stop something
moving?" or "Was World War II good or bad?"
He gives them no clue where to start,
but-crucially-he insists that the school restrict the number of
Internet portals in the class to one for every four students. One
child in front of a computer learns little; four discussing and
debating learn a lot. What happens next is entirely up to the
students. All they know is that Dr. Mitra is coming back to be told
what they have found.
He arrives with a second question that links
the learning more closely to the curriculum, such as: "Who was
Isaac Newton?" and then "What's the connection between Newton and
stopping things moving?" The kids teach themselves the laws of
motion. Of course, the Internet is fallible as a source, but so are
teachers and textbooks. For the noncontroversial topics that make
up the curriculum, even Wikipedia is pretty good.
In a village in Tamil Nadu called Kalikuppam,
Dr. Mitra asked a class of poor Tamil-speaking kids to use the
Internet, which they had not yet encountered, to learn
biotechnology, which they had never heard of, in English, which
they did not speak. Two months later he was astounded at what they
had taught themselves.
In 2006, Dr. Mitra moved to England, became a
professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, and
tested SOLE in schools in a poor urban neighborhood, teaching
teachers to be facilitators rather than pedagogues.
On their own, children can get about 30% of
the knowledge required to pass exams. To go further, Dr. Mitra
supplements SOLE with e-mediators, or the "granny cloud" as he
calls it: amateur volunteers who use Skype to help kids learn
The experiment is now going global. Schools
in Australia, Colombia, England and India are trying SOLE and
sharing their experiences of how to improve it. The U.S. has been
slow to join, says Dr. Mitra, because Americans tend to view the
program as relevant only to the developing world. But schools in
Nevada, Maine and San Francisco have recently called on him to
explain his ideas.
One of my philosophical passions is bottom-up
order. Human beings have a hard time understanding that some of the
finest complexity in the world comes about through spontaneous
emergence, not top-down diktat. This is true of ecosystems and
economies, of genomes and cultures, of embryos and
Education, though, feels like one of those
things that has to be top-down: There has to be a teacher and a
taught. But plenty of people educate themselves. Is it possible for
everybody to be an autodidact, now that knowledge is so accessible