More than surfing: The Web brings innovation to the poorest classrooms

Instead of learning on by rote, children engage and teach each other as part of a community of learners through the internet.

Sarah Best Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor/File
The first class of students lean over computers for a portrait at Lake Elmo Elementary School in Stillwater, Minn. Disadvantaged students throughout the developing world, and now the UK, help design their own classes with the help of the internet.

The UK is getting a healthy dose of much-needed innovation as a number of schools take on lessons from the research of Professor Sugata Mitra. SOLE (Self-Organised Learning Environment) is a truly radical experiment that takes the pedagog out of pedagogy, relying instead upon children’s natural curiosity.

The hole-in the-wall experiments have been a phenomenon in India, across the developing world and now in Gateshead. It originates from when Professor Mitra decided to knock a hole in the wall of Delhi office, install a computer, hook it up to the internet and observe. As Professor Mitra explains, “Groups of Indian children were able to organise their own lessons using a single computer through unsupervised access to the world wide web.”

Now children living in some of the most deprived areas of the UK are benefiting: “When I tried a similar approach in Gateshead it worked even better, for the simple reason that English is their native language, so they don’t need to struggle to overcome that barrier before they can begin to learn from the web.” Mitra is a model entrepreneur. Before entering this exciting world where education and technology meet, he started the database publishing industry (particularly the Yellow Page industry) in India and Bangladesh. That he is also applying the skills to the UK, as Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, is to be celebrated.

Professor Mitra’s findings show how children socialising around technology can have impressive results. There exists an unhelpful disagreement between those that are wedded to the ideals of a liberal or progressive education. Instead, we should be focussed on what works. The entrepreneurs who are working towards the spread of this technology are heralding an exciting future, in which many of the poorest and most neglected have access to the same raw information as those of the most privileged. And instead of learning on by rote, children engage and teach each other as part of a community of learners. We need more innovation of this type.

Sadly though, such entrepreneurship is the exception, rather than the rule. This will be the case until state schools are unburdened of their stultifying regulation, re-oriented through the profit motive towards success and are bring greater competition to bear on public and private schools.

Read about it in The Guardian here, and The Telegraph here.

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