Radical learning with ICT eclipsed the conference controversy for Bob Harrison
Professor Sugata MitraProfessor Sugata MitraWhile Donald Clark's iconoclastic prediction of “the end of the lecture” polarised the 750-odd delegates from universities and colleges around the world, it was Professor Sugata Mitra’s latest research, challenging the wisdom of “teaching”, that caught their imagination at ALT-C 2010 in Nottingham.

Titled “Into something rich and strange: Making sense of the sea-change”, this annual gathering of Higher Education’s digital thinkers (FE was almost invisible) staged the usual sharing of projects and research findings in ICT for learning. But the challenging keynotes prompted one leading academic to suggest: “I am not sure we are making sense of the sea-change or re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Sugata Mita made news with his 2007 TED Talk (see below) about  his work in India and the “Hole in the Wall” project which gained worldwide fame and linked with the hit movie “Slumdog Millionaire”. But it was his recent work around the world and as Professor of Education at Newcastle University, that inspired the academics at ALT-C 2010.

His theories begin to challenge some of the fundamental assumptions about learning in general, and learning with technology in particular, that underpin most of the formal systems of education. Sugata was at pains to point out, however, that computers should and will not replace good teachers: “When I met Arthur C Clarke some years ago when he was interested in the “hole in the wall” experiment, he told me, ‘A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.’ The second thing he told me was, ‘If children have interest, then education happens."

TED video of talk at LIFT 2007: 'Sugata Mitra shows how kids teach themselves'

At the heart of Sugata Mitra’s work is his dramatic exposition of the fact that children are highly capable of organising their own learning. “I thought, 'What would happen if you just leave a computer with them?' and I have discovered from similar results from around the world that children can achieve on their own…” he says. “If they have a reason to.”

This has inspired him to form a theory about “self organising systems for education” which, if fully developed, appear to have profound consequences for teaching and learning in schools, colleges and universities and the education system world-wide. And his emerging work in England is already beginning to support this.

Sugata has begun to test this theory in the North East of England in Gateshead where he placed 32 10-year-olds in eight groups of four, each with just one computer, a netbook, between them.

“My hardest job was just getting the teachers out of the room,” he said, “and it is really important that the pupils have to share the computer; they can switch groups, observe other groups and learn from each other. Interestingly one child responded “You mean cheat sir!”

The children were set real questions, including six from last year’s GCSE exams, and the outcomes were astonishing. “The quickest group produced a full and correct answer in 20 minutes… The slowest group took just 45 minutes and this demonstrates that groups of children can navigate the net to achieve educational objectives on their own.”

He added that, once they had solved their own problem, the first group happily went about the other groups helping other learners who had questions and problems.

The teachers were sceptical however. “Is this learning though?” they asked, after he had eventually persuaded them to leave their classroom to the children ("We don't do that in the UK.") and watch proceedings through the window.

TEDGlobal 2010: 'The child-driven education' (includes Gateshead work)

Sugata Mitra suggests that the education of all children has two major challenges: “Problem one for educating the world’s children is related to relevance and aspiration… Problem two is related to available resources.” As only 50 million children have access to ample resources, 200 million have access to adequate resources and a massive 750 million have inadequate resources then perhaps a “self organising system” with the use of digital technology is the only way forward (including using the Guardian to recruit UK grandmothers to support Indian children's learning over the 'granny cloud' via Skype).

It immediately prompts the following questions:

  • So what if pupils and students can learn effectively from each other as long as they have a device to share and an internet connection?
  • What pedagogical implications does that have for schools and colleges?
  • What skills do teachers and lecturers need to create effective learning?
  • What are the implications for the assessment system?
  • What place is there for “curiosity” in the current curriculum?
  • How will Initial Teacher Training support this development?
  • What is the future role for teachers and lecturers?

These are the sea-changes the ALT-C audience were grappling with in the break-out sessions and informal spaces of the East Midlands Conference Centre. But for keynote speaker Donald Clark, who opened and challenged the conference with, ironically, his own lecture entitled “The lecture is dead”, the world of higher education needs to take a long hard look at itself and how it uses (or mostly doesn’t) digital technology. This irritated one delegate to contribute to the very lively Twitter stream “Which planet is this guy on?” (Check out Twitter hashtag #altc2010.)

There are some who may ask the same question about Academia. A very high proportion of lectures are said to be grey implementations of the ‘broadcast’ form of teaching that doesn’t appear to have changed much since the time of the ancient Greeks. How many university and college lecturers can engage their learners with the provocative, funny, media-rich delivery style of a Sugata Mitra?

So “different planet”, “sea-changes” and “deck chairs on the Titanic” might be interesting metaphors. But at a time of economic constraint, when the majority of the world’s children have inadequate resources for learning and those that do have them also have issues about aspiration and relevance, can we really ignore the potential of Sugata Mitra’s self-organising system where “the structure appears without explicit intervention from outside the system”?

It certainly sounds like an improvement on “Big Society” to me, irrespective of which planet you are on.

More information

ALT-C 2010
Join ALT
Professor Sugata Mitra
ALT-C Reflections stream from Matt Lingard
Audio of Sugata Mitra's ALT-C presentation
Donald Clark Blog

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services (and is a contributor to its Future website), the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) and Toshiba UK. You can read his blog on the Futurelab Flux website. He runs Support for Education and Training.