Mitra gets $1 million for ‘school in the cloud’

Sugata Mitra once put a computer in a hole in a wall in an Indian slum and let street kids teach themselves to use it.  Now a Newcastle University professor, Mitra won the 2013 TED prize — worth about $1 million — to develop what he calls School in the Cloud, reports Time. “In nine months a child left alone with a computer would reach the same standard as an office professional in the West,” Mitra said in after accepting the prize.

Mitra’s Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs) are designed to capitalize on children’s curiosity. He plans to hire “a global network of retired teachers who Skype into ‘classrooms’ all over the world but especially in the most remote and underserved areas” to help groups of children learn. It’s the “granny cloud.”

“The role of the mediator is to ask the right questions and listen to the children bragging about what they did,” Mitra says.

. . . “The model is you have eight children and one computer. Not one computer per child,”  he says. And although he seems to advocate a very hands-off approach to teaching, he did say that his method would be supplemental to traditional schooling, not a replacement. ”There are going to be 10 different ways to teach the next generation. I have touched the tip of the iceberg of one.”

His Self Organizing Learning Environment toolkit can be downloaded for free.

The TED bubble

This is my last guest post, so I thought I’d take on one of my favorite big topics: the fad of the big idea. In an era of TED talks, “essential questions,” and so-called “higher-order” thinking, we are witnessing a shiny bubble that will pop sooner or later. Eventually it will come clear that we need much more than grand ideas. We need a better grasp of details and their relation to larger structures.

 TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design”) is a nonprofit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading”; it is chiefly known for its conferences and online videos of talks.

Over at Salon, Alex Pareene nails what TED talks tend to have in common. (Note: not all TED talks fit this formula–and not all talks that fit it come across as formulaic.)

The model for your standard TED talk is a late-period Malcolm Gladwell book chapter. Common tropes include:

  • Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
  • Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
  • Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins of said complex problems.
  • Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.

What’s most important is a sort of genial feel-good sense that everything will be OK, thanks in large part to the brilliance and beneficence of TED conference attendees. (Well, that and a bit of Vegas magician-with-PowerPoint stagecraft.)

Pareene takes issue primarily with the TED conference’s smug elitism and its avoidance of controversial topics. My criticism is related but different; to me the main problem is the insistence on bigness, and, with it, the avoidance of the sort of modesty, tentativeness, and probing  that could make the speeches even more interesting.

Take Salman Khan, for example. I bring him up not to pick on him (I’ve questioned the viability of the “Khan Revolution” before) but to turn toward the subject of education. At the time of his TED talk, Khan had created a library of some 2,200 instructional videos on mathematical and scientific topics. Now there are about 3,200, and the range has expanded. The talk begins with a montage of videos and topics: a hypotenuse, a map of animal fossils, integration, galaxies, and more. “If this does not blow your mind,” he says, “then you have no emotion.”

He then tells the story about how it began, how it grew, and how, bit by bit, he realized that it was more than a collection of videos. It was a way of flipping the classroom; that is, with the help of these videos, students could learn the content at home and then come to class to work in groups, receive extra help, engage in projects, and so on.

A dialogue starts up in my mind:

—But wait! I want to hear more about the hypotenuse.

—Oh, you can, in your own time. Let’s focus on the big idea for now.

And there lies the problem. If we are content with a swift montage of topics, if we choose not to bother with the actual geometry, astronomy, or calculus of Khan’s videos, then our trust in his “flipped classroom” is wishful trust indeed. By this I don’t mean that an error or flaw in the videos would invalidate his project. Rather, his presentation  excites the audience precisely because it doesn’t go far into the subjects (or at least partly because of that).

Now, we find a similar phenomenon in classrooms that emphasize ungrounded “big ideas” and “essential questions.” For example, you have classes that emphasize the “scientific method” without making clear that in order to apply it well, you have to know the science. Yes, certain principles apply to all scientific investigations, but they must be translated properly into the nitty-gritty.

Or take “interdisciplinary thematic units” that focus on a theme such as identity, prejudice, or progress. The danger of such a focus on a “theme” is that it can (and often does) encourage sloppy analysis. For instance, if you’re studying Sophocles’ Antigone in a unit on dissent, you may think the play is primarily about dissent and gloss over whatever doesn’t fit. To work well with themes, one must handle them loosely and with great caution.

Now, big ideas are not bad. Whether they’re ideas about the past, present, or future, they can help make sense of phenomena. The challenge is to determine when they do and when they don’t. To this end, one must be willing to bear with the details, to admit to error, and to do without bigness for long stretches of time.  A “big idea” economy can’t sustain itself. In fact, it could land us in a rut. If we’re too hooked on the grandeur of ideas, we won’t know what to do when they wobble or break down.

We have seen the rise of the entrepreneurial geek (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates), the person who can turn an intense, specific intellectual interest into something popular and huge. It’s dazzling, but some of the dazzle deceives; the person had to do the unpopular work behind the scenes. Spectators come to believe that they can jay drive straight to the big stuff; it rarely works that way.

So, let’s expect students to delve into the details–to practice a scale until they get it right, to memorize a poem and thus learn all its tones and turns, and to learn the binomial theorem and its proofs. Through such study, students will encounter ideas of many sizes and will learn to tolerate their temporary absence. They may not make it big; why should they have to? But whether or not they do, they will have something solid.

Now that’s a big idea. But it isn’t revolutionary, and its implementation isn’t easy.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its original posting but before any comments appeared.

Video on demand for teachers

TED, a nonprofit known for its annual ideas conference, will provide free video lessons of 10 minutes or less on TED-Ed, reports the Washington Post.

Imagine you’re a high school biology teacher searching for the most vivid way to explain electrical activity in the brain. How about inserting metal wires into a cockroach’s severed leg and making that leg dance to music?

Starting Monday, that eye-popping lesson, performed in a six-minute video by neuroscientist and engineer Greg Gage, is available free online.

“Right now there’s a teacher somewhere out there delivering a mind-altering lesson and the frustrating thing is, it only reaches the students in that class,” said TED-Ed project director Logan Smal­ley. “We’re trying to figure out how to capture that lesson and pair it with professional animators to make that lesson more vivid and put it in a place where teachers all over the world can share it.”

In contrast with many of the free lessons now available online, TED-Ed uses “sophisticated animation, professional editing and high-quality production values,” according to the Post.

Teachers also can find free lessons on YouTube Teachers, a new channel whose slogan is “spend more time teaching, less time searching.”

Here’s a clip of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

 

Kids teach each other to use computers

Without adult supervision, children can teach each other to use computers to learn, Professor Sugata Mitra told the TED Global (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference. From the BBC:

In 1999, Mitra embedded a computer a computer in the wall of a Delhi building facing a slum. The poorly educated children, who didn’t know English, quickly learned how to access the Internet.

“I repeated the experiment across India and noticed that children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.”

In Rajasthan, children learned “how to record and play music on the computer within four hours of it arriving in their village”

In Cambodia,  he left a computer loaded with a simple math game.

“No child would play with it inside the classroom. If you leave it on the pavement and all the adults go away then they will show off to one another about what they can do,” said Prof Mitra, who now works at Newcastle University in the UK.

He gave computers loaded with biotechnology information (in English) to 26 Tamil-speaking 12-year-olds in south India.  Two months later, children said they hadn’t learned anything, despite using the computers every day.

“Then a 12-year-old girl raised her hand and said ‘apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA contributes to genetic disease — we’ve understood nothing else’.”

Mitra has designed SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environments), which consist of a computer with a bench big enough to let four children sit around the screen. “It doesn’t work if you give them each a computer individually,” he said.  He also created a “granny cloud” — 200 volunteers who will video chat with students.

SOLE is being tested in Britain and Italy.