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Online education wins big as TED awards $1 million to pioneer Sugata Mitra

Online education wins big as TED awards $1 million to pioneer Sugata Mitra


A boon for 'Slumdog Millionaire' inspiration and a statement on the future of learning

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"Big ideas" conference TED has awarded its 2013 prize to Sugata Mitra, a longtime educational expert and proponent of "minimally invasive education." The TED Prize is awarded every year to fund a project by its recipient, but in 2013, the award has been increased from $100,000 to $1 million. The money will help Mitra start the "School in the Cloud," a lab in India where students can try out a variety of online learning tools and receive online mentoring. These "controlled experiments" will help test the effectiveness of different educational methods, most presumably focused on testing Mitra's philosophy of self-organized teaching.

Since 1999, Mitra has championed self-directed, computer-based education

Mitra was one of the first major figures in the current wave of enthusiasm for free or cheap education that depends more on computers than teachers. He's best known for his "Hole in the Wall" experiments, in which he placed computers in kiosks or niches around underprivileged areas in India. Since the first computer was placed in 1999, the program has expanded to include more than a hundred kiosks, and academic research by Mitra and others concludes that students are able to effectively teach themselves computing skills without outside intervention, even in languages they don't understand. His work helped inspire the novel Q&A, which was later turned into Danny Boyle's widely praised film Slumdog Millionaire.

While much of the published research focuses specifically on computing skills, Mitra also tells more dramatic stories about his work. Students have also been able to teach themselves sufficient English to use chat programs or the web, he says, and a 2010 paper looked at whether Tamil-speaking students could learn basic molecular biology purely by computer. It concluded online learning was as effective as standard teaching of the subject in a government school. "What children achieve routinely in hundreds of ‘Holes-in-the-Walls’ in some of the remotest places on earth is nothing short of miraculous — a celebration of learning and the power of self-motivation," he wrote. The main human interaction in the experiment was with a 22-year-old non-expert, who offered praise and urged students to keep learning.

"What children achieve routinely in hundreds of ‘Holes-in-the-Walls’ is nothing short of miraculous."

Mitra's work is varied and long-running, and it's not surprising to see him given the prize. He's given two highly successful TED talks, and he currently serves as a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. But honoring him is also an arguably political move in the ongoing battle over MOOCs or massively open online courses. MOOC, a catch-all term used for anything from official MIT classes to videos by former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan, offer a fresh but polarizing model of education, in which traditional teaching and teachers are downplayed in favor of self-motivated online learning. Mitra's work isn't with massive online courses, but it's based on similar principles of self-teaching, and TED's official blog post lauds Mitra's "bold answer" to "the future of education."

"We don’t need [the education system] anymore. It’s outdated."

Supporters of MOOCs see them as a way to reach millions of underserved students worldwide, replacing educational systems that cost too much and offer too little. The areas Mitra picks are often slums with few opportunities to learn about computers, where schools are unable to provide enough resources for strong education. But he's also urged countries like the UK to move towards a less teacher-based model. He favorably quotes a conversation with Arthur C. Clarke, who told him that "A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be" — sometimes to reference replacing bad teachers, but also to discuss a future where experts need not be necessary at all. Mitra calls the current schooling system "Victorian" and "outdated," arguing that networks of teachers and administrators were simply a rudimentary version of the network that has now come to full fruition with the internet.

Outside its most obvious effects, self-organized online education also dovetails with current political and economic movements, in which unpaid or low-paid work enables smaller budgets and greater commercial efficiency. In one of his talks, Mitra discusses an experiment called the "granny cloud," a "community of retired teachers who Skyped into learning centers and encouraged children with questions and assignments." It's a substitute for casual mentorship programs... and a replacement for formal employees. As the debate over crowdsourced learning grows, Mitra's work will continue to remain a linchpin in how we conceive of education and social organization.