Cloud Based Education

Is a “Cloud based” educational system a real possibility, or the mere dream of a utopian future? In hid TED talk, educator and activist, Suguta Mitra asserts his optimistic vision of access to learning for all. His enthusiasm for a global cloud based education is not without experiential foundation. Mitra relates how his experiments of placing computer terminals in remote locations with the particular intention of engaging children with the machines, lead to some astonishing discoveries and insights about the nature of learning.

Mitra started by placing a computer terminal in a slum neighborhood in Delhi. He wanted to see how the local children, most living in poverty with no exposure to technology, would respond to an essentially alien device. The children he found in the city were fast adaptors, mastering the computer in a few months. Some attributed this to the urban atmosphere in Delhi were the kids were probably instructed by a local technologist. Mitra was not convinced. Determined to prove his findings, he next placed a computer 100 miles outside Delhi in the remote village where most of the population did not even speak English. Again he did not instruct the children, shrugging off questions with responses like “well, it is.” Months passed and when he came back he found the children playing games. They were irritated with him “you left this machine here with instructions in English so we had to learn English,’ they said. They also requested a faster processor and a better mouse.

In the final level of this experiment, Mitra decided to leave a computer loaded with esoteric explanations of DNA all in a non-English speaking Tamil town. “It has lots of important information on it,” he told the curious local children. He had no expectation they would be able to decipher any of the scientific content. Months later he again returned and it seemed his anticipated result of no progress was indeed the case. “We study it every day,” the children said, “We know nothing.” Mitra was ready to accept this failure and then, a small girl piped up in broken English “Yes, except for the fact a broken DNA strand leads to disease, we have learned nothing.”

In continuing cases Mitra found the same results. He also discovered the children learned more with some interaction with an adult. These adults, however, did not take on a formal teaching role, but instead acted in what he describes as the “granny approach;” standing behind the children and asking questions like ‘OH, what is that?” “What do you think it means?” He even employed a whole retinue of English grandmothers to interact with village children via the internet.

The implications Mitra’s experiments have for the use of the Cloud as a provider of knowledge, and the educational process itself are remarkable. In the past citizens were educated in many basic clerical skills, reading, writing etc., which in many ways have been replaced by machines. The population of the future will be more focused in understanding and interpreting information, rather than more rudimentary tasks. With the simple access to information an abundance of true thinkers can be developed.