“Early one morning last February, a man turned up on my doorstep who had travelled through the night to get there,” said Sugata Mitra, the education reformer who received the 2013 TED Prize. “This schoolteacher wanted to do something positive for his village, which had no electricity, health care or primary education … It was just the kind of place I was looking for.”
Korakati is a remote village in one of the poorest parts of India, in the middle of a mangrove swamp. It’s hardly the place that most people would seek out to try to build a high-tech learning lab. But then again, Sugata Mitra is not most people. Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the CloudAt TED2013, Mitra shared his long-standing dream—to build a School in the Cloud, where children could ask big questions and explore the answers themselves using the vast resources available online.
A leading advocate of the self-directed learning movement, when Mitra arrived in Korakati upon this schoolteacher’s suggestion, his reputation preceded him. Many had heard about the man from Calcutta, 800 miles to the east, who was trying to revolutionize education, making it accessible to all children, not just the privileged few. This local schoolteacher had made the long trek, crossing miles of rugged terrain on a rickshaw, in order to meet India’s beloved education pioneer face-to-face.
It didn’t take much to convince Mitra that Korakati would be the perfect spot to build a location of the School in the Cloud. With his $1 million TED Prize seed money, Mitra planned seven of these learning labs across India and the U.K. The first opened in in Killingworth, England in November of 2013—inside George Stephenson High School. A second lab has since opened in the U.K., inside a school in Newton Aycliffe. Meanwhile, two additional labs have opened in classrooms in Delhi and Chandrakona, India. But the Korakati lab is unique. It’s the first independent School in the Cloud, constructed from the ground up.
Just last week, Mitra — a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University — unveiled the fruits of his labor. Located in the heart of the world’s largest mangrove forest, the stark new learning lab stands out against the lush backdrop, like a cloud in fact. Inside, children buzz around computers, their eyes wide with fascination and disbelief. Many of them had never seen a computer before, but that didn’t matter. Within hours they would teach themselves how to use it.
“If you give a group of children a set of questions and a computer with an internet connection, they will be able to find answers — whatever the difficulty level. Interestingly, the more random the group, the better,” said Mitra, who speaks with passion and conviction, which is probably why his TED2013 talk has garnered nearly 2 millions views.
Mitra’s work is motivated by his belief that children are perfectly capable of teaching themselves almost anything when left to their own devices and access to a computer. He knew this from his 1999 “hole in the wall” experiment, in which he placed a free computer in a Delhi slum. To his surprise, groups of street children, with no knowledge of English, taught themselves not only how to use the computer but a new language. It’s this startling research, which he later repeated, that inspired School in the Cloud.
At School in the Cloud learning labs, children embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information. These Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs) stimulate curiosity and inspire learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge. But at the same time, students get mentoring and encouragement on the way. Mitra designed this learning platform to include a Granny Cloud, a consortium of teachers who are available over Skype from a remote location to help mentor the children as they explore information.
“What we are looking at is minimally invasive learning, and not unguided learning,” says Mitra. “Until it can replace the conventional learning system, it can complement it.”
After all, why not reach for the stars?