A Bold Vision of Online Learning

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

This evening, Sugata Mitra was awarded the TEDPrize, which comes with a $1 million check and the commitment of TEDsters to help fulfill a wish of the winner. Professor Mitra is one of the pioneers in online learning, working in the slums of India. His vision forms the first step towards Online Learning 2.0. Dr. Mitra is clearly pushing for the day when learning will become 10 times easier and 10 times less expensive for students, opening up learning to billions of children that could not previously participate in the global economy. That is a big dream, and one that I support wholeheartedly.

In his "Hole in the Wall" experiment, he provided very poor children in the slums of India with a computer and left them alone, to discover that a few hours later they had figured out how to get online, browse, and learn. He replicated the experiment in several forms and it is now his hypothesis that students learn just fine in a Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE), with no adults around.

Dr. Mitra made several very bold assertions in his TEDTalk that I think are worth reacting to:

1 -- Schools are obsolete and outdated.

This point is largely unimportant in the context of Dr. Mitra's experience in the slums of India and many parts of the world, because often the formal schooling is non-existent or very poor. So providing students with a way to learn something online is clearly superior to nothing (Clay Christensen's non-consumers). However, the best answer is technology and a great teacher. Great teachers, when they are available, can inspire, help students find their passions, create a culture of high expectations, and many things that may or may not happen with a self-organized group of students. For those of us in the developed world though, it is worth thinking about the fact that children are capable of amazing things all on their own, so we should spend more time setting up those opportunities for self-directed learning and less time standing at the front of our classrooms.

2 -- Give students a problem and let them figure it out for themselves with no assistance.

Giving students a problem is clearly a better way to learn than giving students a lecture. If Dr. Mitra can end the myth that online learning is a videotaped lecture, he will have done the world a great service!

The question of whether to leave students alone or not is more complex. Clearly, in many environments, there is no access to a great teacher, so there will be no adult (other than Dr. Mitra's brilliant "Granny Cloud" which consists of online grandmothers saying words of encouragement to keep students motivated). On the other hand, software is free, so is the browser the best learning tool, or should we give them more assistance than that? At Rocketship, we spent years figuring out the kind of system that would help us do online learning better. Unfortunately, that system does not exist yet, but it could.

To give an example, if Dr. Chandra asked a student to build a house, they would have to figure out things like multiplication to figure out how much material to buy. Let's say that some of the students are just learning their numbers, so they need to first learn to add single digits, then two digits, then perform repeated addition... all significant efforts. For highly motivated children or children with enough time (the non-consumers), they will eventually figure out all of the pre-skills they needed to do multiplication and solve the house problem. And no doubt, there is some character building in making them struggle through it.

On the other hand, I am a big believer in what Geoff Colvin finds in his book, Talent is Overrated. When he studied experts, he found that they became experts because they practiced their skill over and over in a deliberate and focused manner, and received frequent positive feedback for their success. So when we are talking about young children learning basic skills, providing as much scaffolding for them to achieve success online and get on the positive feedback loop Mr. Colvin describes is more important than the struggle.

3 -- Knowledge is obsolete.

His point in that statement was that you can look anything up on the Internet, so the value of memorizing facts is low. On this point, I strongly disagree. While the facts themselves are easy to get, the fluency you develop by working with them in deliberate practice is not. So knowing how to add quickly because you have done it for 80 hours in second grade means that your brain can do it automatically and you can think about more sophisticated applications of your skill than before you became fluent. Deliberate practice of the skill gets you to fluency much faster than learning it in the context of larger problem solving. You need to develop both skill fluency and problem solving ability to have a chance in the 21st century.

Dr. Mitra's Wish

SOLE forms the basis for the professor's wish, which is to create a "School in the Cloud," a physical space where students will be able to go to get online and learn together. I am a big believer in providing the raw hardware and connectivity to children because the software will be developed, so making sure the students have access is most important. I would, however, discourage creating a separate physical space with the prize money. Instead, I would leverage the thousands of affordable private schools costing as little as $4/month in India, which are dying for technology. Instead of spending money building classrooms, focus on providing the technology to these schools and let the children do the rest.

As the second part of his wish, Dr. Mitra encouraged everyone to focus on student-centered learning with their own children. I strongly agree with his encouragement of parents and communities to take learning into their own hands. The faster that parents and students around the world take ownership back from institutions and feel in control of their own learning, the faster we will get to Online Learning 2.0.

I think it is fantastic that TED has awarded the TED Prize to an educator who thinks so far outside of the box of traditional learning. My hope is that it will help all of us to reexamine what parts of traditional education we think are important to keep online, and which parts are best thrown away. Online learning will not be a simple re-implementation of today's institutional education system online, and Dr. Mitra's award is our wake-up call to begin thinking differently.

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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