A Million-dollar Boost to 'Let Learning Happen'

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

In awarding its 2013 prize to educational innovator and university professor Sugata Mitra, TED takes a step that is as bold and as brave as Mitra himself, and as visionary as his ambitious wish to "design the future of learning."

To that end, the prize money will help fulfill Mitra's wish to build and launch a school-in-the-cloud, a self-organized learning environment (SOLE), to be based in his native India, and to be structured and managed by cloud computing, and overseen by a global network of teachers and facilitators. These teachers will raise big questions and then step back to "allow learning to happen," using Mitra's words, although they will continue to provide encouragement, leaving it up to kids anywhere to answer the questions by collaborating on an intellectual journey across the world of the Internet.

The school-in-the-cloud will be a model environment and hub of research on how such student-driven, technology-based, self-directed learning may work, and I believe it will have a profound impact on how we will re-engineer and run our schools-on-the-ground in years to come.

To Mitra, that is essential; he believes our current model of education -- its schools, teachers, curriculum, fact-based knowledge, tests -- is obsolete and inadequate for our changing culture and for this moment in our human evolution as well. By combining broadband, open collaboration, and encouragement, Mitra creates a simple model for the kind of learning he sees as essential for the next generation with technology at their fingertips. The school-in-the-cloud will show us if that's the case.

As if to emphasize the significance of this choice, the 2013 award marks the first time that the TED Prize was directed to the field of education and the first time that the award has hit the million-dollar mark. These "firsts" make TED's imprimatur of Mitra's vision even more striking, yet at the same time, the choice fits perfectly the TED style and mission -- to be unconventional and to do no less than change the world, one wish at a time.

So I congratulate TED as well as my friend and colleague, Sugata Mitra, on what is not just an important moment but also an exciting one for education innovation globally.

For make no mistake: What Mitra is planning is both needed in our world and is a departure from anything that has ever been done before in education reform on a large scale. Moreover, if his TED Wish is not anti-establishment, it is certainly outside the typical range of ed-tech innovation.

However, his concept of self-directed and self-organized collaborative learning -- based on the idea that "children will learn to do what they want to learn to do" -- is not in itself radical. TED has long given voice to education innovators who have espoused similar notions -- Sir Ken Robinson, who has written widely about kids' natural creativity and how to inject creativity into our educational systems as basic literacy; or Nicholas Negroponte, who founded the MIT Media Lab and OLPC, two revolutionary education innovations with profound global impact, the latter providing low-cost laptops and tablets for children's learning in the developing world; or Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, providing 2000 free tutorials for self-learning of any subject globally.

Mitra is unique in that he challenges the very core of the standard educational innovation comfort zone and wants to build a totally new model to replace it. And in the spirit of the TED Wish, Mitra is inviting everyone on earth to participate and help in that challenge.

The immediate social purpose is key. It is urgent: A billion children around the world are poor and live in places where there are few, if any schools or teachers available. Like his famous hole-in-the-wall experiment, Mitra's school-in-the-cloud offers a prototype in which for relative pennies, those millions of children can access the world's library of information and questions via fast Internet; through such access, by their own curiosity, they can drive themselves to gain the literacy to figure things out -- with help from always available mentors. In so doing, they have the opportunity to be curious and imaginative, ask big questions, learn and realize their human potential.

So may we all. For Sugata Mitra's vision is exciting and inspirational. In my life-long innovative ed-tech projects, especially in my recent work with Globaloria, I've been confronting daily the issue of trying to fit an innovative total-immersion learning experience into the confines of a closely-managed, structured-by-the-hour U.S. school system and its buildings. While we can be quite disruptive in certain contexts, we always end up compromising in order to "fit in the system." This innovation-inside-rigidity has been quite frustrating to my own long-standing credo of Constructionism, which holds that deep learning happens when kids imagine, ask, invent, research, and build things alone and in teams. Computational tools and project-based learning cultures empower kids to invent things like video games and simulations, which teaches them to self-drive -- to design and publish by actually designing, coding, and publishing the games and simulations they invent.

On the personal front, therefore, my hope is that Mitra's TED Wish project will impart some sense of how to integrate the school-in-the-cloud with those schools-on-the-ground in today's world.

I welcome Mitra's sheer daring in going so far out of the U.S., and out of India's school system, to stretch all people into the future of self-directed learning. But I also want to know more about how his vision of "let learning happen" will scale (hole-in-the-wall was small), and also how it will address the kind of deep project-based learning that includes learning to design, engineer, and code, for this too must be part of the next generation's intellectual journey -- especially for the economic development of underserved, low-income communities worldwide.

It makes this moment in educational innovation in school buildings and clouds -- and Sugata Mitra's justly deserved TED Prize--even more compelling and even more challenging.

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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