Sugata Mitra and schools without teachers

Sugata Mitra at TED 2013

Since Sugata Mitra won the  $1 million TED prize in March, the education world has continued to buzz with debate over his work on “Self-Organized Learning Environments” or SOLEs.

Mitra’s experiments, dating back to the 1980s, mostly in India, have sought to show “that groups of children, given shared digital resources, can learn to use computers and the Internet and go on to learn almost anything on their own that they have an interest in. They do not seem to require adult supervision.” His initial experiments, dubbed “Hole-in-the-Wall,” dating back to 1999, made computers, connected to the Internet, available freely for the use of children in Delhi. His TED Prize proposal, dubbed the “School in the Cloud,” involves building a computer lab for 8 to 12 year old children in India and connecting them via the Internet to volunteer tutors whose role is more to encourage than to instruct (in other experiments, he’s called these tutors “the granny cloud.”)

This is the ideal of technologically-enabled learning in its purest, most unadulterated form: just a child and a computer. A similar strategy is endorsed by Nicholas Negroponte, creator of the One Laptop Per Child project, who has recently been giving tablets to children in rural Ethiopia with almost no instruction or intervention.

The contrast is pretty stark. On the one hand you have one of the trendiest intellectual brands of the Internet age, known for its association with some great, innovative minds in education like Sir Ken Robinson and Sal Khan, endorsing, and funding, the provision of Internet access as a complete solution for children’s education.

On the other hand you have the educational establishment saying this is kooky, or worse. A growing body of research does not support any educational effects on children from merely handing them computers. With regard to his own work, though experiments go back to 1999, Mitra’s website claims, “Not much has been published on these because of the preliminary nature of these findings.”  One of the independent reports has been published, however, dubbed the interventions “not very effective,” facilitating only l0w-level learning. Some of his own studies on SOLES, Mitra has stated recently, have been rejected by peer-reviewed journals.

SOLEs work anywhere with an Internet connection, with or without teachers”  , Mitra claimed earlier this month in the comments section of an education blog. “In the hands of good teachers, they result in very effective learning. In the absence of teachers, they sometimes produce astonishing results. So, I would think, there is a case for doing them. Schools cannot be built, as of now, without teachers. There are many places where they cannot be built at all.” 

Mitra makes some extremely well-founded criticisms of the traditional education system and how it needs to be remade to grapple with the demands of the Internet age. However, his insistence that all of today’s education is obsolete and his proposed alternative, known as ‘minimally invasive education,’ casts teachers as an impediment to learning, threatening to do more harm than good to the cause of innovation. While self-directed curiosity is crucial to learning and development, and may not get its due in the faculty model of education, the idea that meaningful learning can “scale” in a self-organized fashion from children following their own curiosity with the help of digital technology sounds like a naive technocratic fantasy.

Advocates of the “drop computers from a helicopter” approach to ed-tech often argue that the real audience for such an intervention is the estimated 100 million children globally who don’t go to school at all. Critics call this dressed-up colonialism. The true test for fans of any radical educational intervention is not whether it’s considered good enough for the poorest kids in the world, but whether someone would want to provide that same experience to their own children.