Can Educators Turn Silicon Into Gold?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

On Feb. 27, TED announced that it was awarding a $1 million prize for educational innovation to Sugata Mitra. Dr. Mitra is famous for his "hole in the wall" experiment, in which he made a computer freely available to children in a Delhi slum, and documented their excitement and self-generated learning. Dr. Mitra repeated similar experiments in small villages in various parts of India, all trying to jump-start children's passion for learning with simple access to technology. In his speech accepting the TED Prize, Dr. Mitra described his principle of Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs), and proposed to use his prize money to establish a School in the Cloud, a network of mentors (especially English grannies) mentoring children in India and encouraging their explorations with technology.

The vision presented by Dr. Mitra sounds exciting. Imagine that the boring, lockstep factory-like structure of the traditional school could be shattered, and students could become self-directed, self-motivated learners, exploring big questions unfettered by tests or busywork. Wouldn't this prepare our children for the world of the future, in which knowing facts will be unnecessary (because they can look them up on line) and people can work wherever and whenever they want?

My only problem with Dr. Mitra's wonderful speech is that I've heard it many times before over the past 40 years. Visionaries have been predicting that computers will revolutionize education since the early 1970s. The machines have certainly arrived in schools in very large numbers, although the schools have always lagged far behind the technology available in middle class homes. In about 1980 I recall visiting a suburban elementary school in Maryland. Fifth graders had been asked to make timelines of their own lives. I looked at their products, and saw the same pattern in every one. Each timeline began with a line in the year the child was born. Then there was a blank space leading up to the year and date when the child got his or her first computer, then lines for his or her first printer, various software, and so on, so the right-hand side of the timelines were clustered with densely packed lines, all related to getting more technology.

At least among middle-class kids in the developed world, digital technology has been around for a very, very long time. In classroom applications, simulations like Oregon Trail and computer-assisted instruction like CCC and Jostens have been widely available and widely used since the 1970s.

What is new today, and very important, is the democratization of technology. As computers and other devices become less expensive, they are becoming more and more accessible, even in places with few resources. That is the importance of Dr. Mitra's work; he is making technology available to poor Indian children, and showing how this can be transformative for them, bringing them into the modern world and the modern economy. Widespread access to cell phones with access to the Internet, and to inexpensive tablets, are making knowledge and electronic capacity available throughout the developing world. Within the developed world, access to the Internet is also expanding rapidly, so that it will soon be the case that teachers can assume that every child will have a device at home capable of linking to the Internet.

Will access to the Internet be transformative? It will be for some children, of course, but if access alone were transformative, the developed world would be transforming like crazy in terms of learning, and it is not. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, scores in reading are only slightly higher than they were in 1980, and in math, somewhat better. In other developed countries, patterns are similar. If access to computers were decisive, middle-class children, at least, would be gaining rapidly. Admittedly, the technology itself keeps getting better and faster and easier to use, but from thirty years of experience in the developed world, it seems unlikely that access alone will lead children to become wise and capable.

Personally, I am very optimistic about developments in access to technology, but for reasons that have little to do with the "teacher-free" vision embraced by Dr. Mitra. My optimism stems from the possibility that when every student can be assumed to have access to computers at home and in school, programs can be developed to integrate activities in those different settings. Many schools, for example, are using forms of "blended learning" or the "flipped classroom," in which all children are expected to do some activities at home that feed into activities they do in school. In flipped classrooms, teachers may send out their lessons to be viewed at home, so that class time can be used for cooperative learning, experiments, expeditions, or other activities that depend on groups of children working with the teacher. We are designing a middle-school math program in which children experience cooperative learning enhanced by traditional teaching and exciting content on interactive whiteboards. Then, during a study hall and following up to homework, students work at their own level and pace using individualized Khan Academy materials. The idea is to use homework time to focus on individualizing instruction for students, while using class time for the activities that move the whole class forward together. We are hoping to organize online tutoring from older students or adults to help struggling students during the after-school hours. We do not know how this will all work out, but we are confident we can make it work in some form.

The long history of technology in education should make us very skeptical about claims that technology dropped into classrooms or homes will change everything. I have no doubt that when exciting and replicable solutions to enduring educational problems are found, they will incorporate technology in a significant way, and will take advantage of ubiquitous access to the Internet. However, we must carefully evaluate any solutions we create or propose, using the highest standards of evidence. This means comparing new solutions to traditional practices in terms of learning gains, ideally assigning schools at random to use new programs or stick with their existing programs.

I congratulate Dr. Mitra on his well-deserved recognition as a visionary in technology and education, and I am sure he will continue to advance the frontiers of education in developing as well as developed countries. Things are moving so rapidly in technology that there is no telling what things will look like in five or ten years, much less longer periods, so we should celebrate pioneers willing to push us to the next level and try out new solutions.

TED and The Huffington Post invite you to take the SOLE Challenge, a unique contest in which we're asking teachers and parents to create child-centered learning labs in their homes and schools. Write an 800 to 1,000 word blog post on your experiences and send it to Three winning submissions will get to attend TED Youth 2013.

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