The Future of Learning Is Hard to Predict

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

Sugata Mitra, the first-ever $1 million TED Prize winner, is an incredibly charismatic speaker. Like Sal Khan, he is both earnest and witty, weaving wonderful stories about his own experiences with children into his narrative about the future of learning. Earlier this week after his prize was announced, he asked the global TED community to help realize his dream to build the ultimate School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India that connects children with information and mentoring online.

At the heart of Dr. Mitra's work and his hypothesis with the School in the Cloud is that the nature of learning has changed and if we follow the children and the technology, the new face of learning will emerge, free from what the past has brought. This new learning will make the concept of "knowing" obsolete. Students will instead tap into their inner joy about learning, connecting with technology through self-organized learning environments and receiving positive encouragement from a virtual network of wise grandmothers, standing by at the ready to offer advice and the occasional "shhh" to quiet the children if they act like, well, children.

In contrast, Dr. Mitra reflects on the history of learning with a decidedly Orwellian tone. For him, the history of learning for the last 300 years has been about control, performance, and threats. The end goal of which is to create cogs for a "bureaucratic administrative machine." The world, he reminds us, has changed though and cogs need no longer apply. We need individuals capable of self-organized learning and the current system of education will not produce such people. The good news is that schools as we know them are now obsolete and any "system" of education is no longer needed. Whew! Glad we got that cleared up.

While it is hard not to applaud Dr. Mitra's obvious passion for children and his desire to find a better way to encourage and promote learning, I just can't accept the premise that schools are obsolete and that children will do just fine if they are given access to broadband, have the opportunity to collaborate with others, and receive lots of positive encouragement. Dr. Mitra talks fondly about the network of British "grannies" he has enlisted to teach children online and offer encouragement, but what about all the other issues that so often compromise a child's ability to learn and grow? Will a computer and a virtual grandma ameliorate the devastating impact of poverty or abuse?

It is hard to know if Dr. Mitra sees his wish for a nation of self-organized learning environments as the future of education or just a concept that everyone in their own way can embrace and engage in. That is an important distinction. If the former, it seems to me that Dr. Mitra has written the forward of his book but still has many chapters to complete. While I have no doubt that children, even the world's poorest, can do amazing things with a computer if you just let them get on with it, I am not sure Dr. Mitra's vision is a game changer. For example, is there any valid research that shows these efforts are truly impactful? Does this kind of self-organized learning really lead to a more educated population with greater opportunities for economic mobility? And at the risk of sounding snarky, I have to add that while Dr. Mitra may have the highest regard for women, the idea that there are hundreds of grannies sitting around waiting to be invited to teach children via the Internet is a little hard to accept, not to mention a tad misogynist. What about the grandpas? Are women the only members of a community that have a responsibility or vested interest in educating children?

Dr. Mitra's vision for the future of learning raises many of the same questions digital learning has raised in recent years. And before anyone accuses me of being out of touch or an old fart, let me just say that most of us who raise such questions know full well that technology is here to stay and that kids operate in an environment that is both guided and fueled by technology. But does that mean we have figured out how to use it so effectively and with such power that we can declare victory and start boarding up all the brick and mortar schools? I don't think so.

If however Dr. Mitra views his wish as a clarion call for individuals and communities everywhere to engage with children in a positive, resource-rich learning environment that builds on students' interests, abilities, and innate love of learning and collaboration, then more power to him. I would contend that with the right resources, the right teachers, and a student-centered focus, that kind of learning could happen almost anywhere. Even in a school.

Finally, I must admit that my reaction to Dr. Mitra's wish for a world without schools has been tainted by my visit today to the Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. This school, widely recognized as one of the best in Washington, is a testament to the power and goodness of a school. The culture of the school is built on respect, compassion, active citizenship, and rigor. No one value dominates and the school building literally exudes positive energy. The reasons for that are myriad but the big take way for me was that the students are the school. It is hard to notice anything else when you are there. The teachers seemed great and the facility is impressive, but all of that was background. The passion and promise of the students just dominated everything. I am not a soft sell when it comes to schools... I have visited too many to count. But I do know the right thing when I see it. Every child should have the chance to learn in a place like Capital City, whether it be made of brick and mortar or found somewhere in a cloud. If that is what the last 300 years of learning has led us to, then we have arrived.

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