Sugata Mitra: Let's Have Cloud Classrooms Without Teachers

Can a school exist in a cloud?

Is technology at such a remarkably wonderful place that we can simply let students learn on their own? No teachers, no books, everywhere, all the time; non-stop education. I suppose in a way, students (we) are always learning, but I mean this is a revolutionary way to restructure how we think of education: Students, no teachers, with encouragement alone, will never fail to unravel the mysteries of life.

At least this is the way that Sugata Mitra believes the world should be.

Sugata Mitra is the winner of the 2013 $1 million TED Prize because of his School in the Clouds concept. In a series of talks, he proposes the slow implementation of this system across all areas of social life. There would no longer be a structured time for instruction and answer, rather, students would let questions guide them and the teaching would be as simple as encouraging any way they choose to answer them.

Mitra proposes a world nearly devoid of the teacher the way we see him or her. There is no instruction, no decision as to what is the best way to teach, rather, it is a facilitator asking the right question and letting students run away with it any way they see fit; unaided and unguided.

The question we ask ourselves should not be, “Will this work?” The world is far too big and the scope of humanity is far too large for this not to work. When it comes to approaching education, nearly everything will work somewhere.

The real question is, “Are we too entrenched in the way things are to give such a new approach to education a chance?”

The School in the Clouds idea came about from a series of experiments Dr. Mitra conducted around the world that started almost by accident. While working out of a research center in New Delhi, India, Dr. Mitra decided to make a hole out of one of the walls of his facility that bordered a slum. His goal, as he states in a New York Times interview, was to answer the question, “What would happen if he provided a computer with Internet to students who never had one?” 

In the hole, he placed a computer (that was all in English) and he allowed it to be controlled from the outside by a mouse (keep in mind this was 1999). He expected it to stolen by the end of the day, however, eight hours later, he was astonished to discover children surfing the internet. With no help, assistance or instruction children had found the internet and were learning. The experiment became known as the Hole in the Wall experiment and it revolutionized the way that Dr. Mitra saw education.

Dr. Mitra took this experiment to mean that this kind of learning was not unique. If it could work in one place, it had to work somewhere else.

Over the years, he has continued to conduct this kind of experiment all around the world with all kinds of variables applied. The Hole in the Wall model of setting up the tools and letting it be, has seen students increase their English proficiency, reading comprehension and even learn the basics of coding DNA.

The argument is that in the dawn of new “raised with instantaneous technology” generations, the model of our school systems, across the world, has become outdated. Teachers and schools and lecturing, memorization and repetition are holdovers of a society we no longer inhabit: A society of a human computing machine where each part had to know the same information so that it could be relayed wherever humans chose to go.

Now, we have the internet.

We are everywhere and anywhere we want to be and this is the same for students. We are learning to learn and teach when all of the answers are public domain. Dr. Mitra argues that teachers choosing what is necessary for students to learn is getting in the way, it is time for adults to be facilitators of where learning might go, not dictators of what learning should be.

It is the kind of thinking that makes people hold strong and fast to their principles and the way they were brought up. There are things we should know and things that need to be taught and explained. It is enough to make any school administrator cringe.

When I first listened to Dr. Mitra, I was not very receptive of his ideas. I have close to three years of experience working in schools full-time and, while that is not much, it has been enough for me to make some immediate judgments about this approach. I thought it was too loosey-goosey, soft-ball, Montessori-ish. How could a classroom of students in elementary, middle, or high school be left to their own devices? How could they be given a question and nothing else? It simply wouldn’t work.

But, then I thought about it. All of it.

Education is a mess. It would be stupid not to try something completely from left field. The only thing holding an idea such as this from working is laziness and a refusal on the part of educators to accept that they would have to completely re-imagine what the job of a teacher is.

People come from all walks of life and go to school in all kinds of places and it is all crammed into one formula: Go to school, listen to a teacher and then go home. Note, I know this is not the way all schools work, but it is the basic framework.

It is a confused, complaining, massive blob that continues to sleek along, engrained in the way things are trying to introduce a new thing here or there, but ultimately returning to the teacher’s manual. Why? Because it is the source of knowledge; it is the way things should be. We live according to a teacher’s manual. A boring, obsolete, lazy idea of what education is.  

Dr. Mitra’s Cloud in the Sky blurs the almighty line that remains drawn between school and intrinsic learning. It makes learning an applicable process that does not only happen in a building, it gives a foundation for how to approach life as someone without all the answers, only the facilities to think critically and independently find the answers.

He argues that a system of learning such as this is necessary for the 21st Century student. Information is available, information is everywhere and the students know how to find it; someone just needs to give the right kind of encouragement.

Dr. Mitra’s vision is decidedly messy as there is not a full-realized plan of how it could be implemented on a large scale, but so is education as we know it. It is simply an idea and one that deserves honest consideration.

It is a system that might fix everything or at the very least show us what was working. It is a system that I thought could never work until I actually sat down to write about it. Our educational institutions need to be completely uprooted and re-approached in new ways. Maybe there is no right approach to education or a universal way. But, that is what education in the 21st Century needs to be. It needs to be fluid, malleable, adaptable, and unafraid to re-approach how we show future generations the world we live in.

For now, this is lofty talk. But, with this direction in mind, teachers and schools could really revolutionize how we learn. Our system of education (that reflects itself the world over, with slight variations) works to an extent, but it can be better. Whether Dr. Mitra’s vision is the right one or not, it looks to a new way of learning that is necessary.

We are not static beings; let’s not treat ourselves that way.