The idea of providing access to the Internet to illiterate street children to enable them to learn by themselves was popularised by Sugata Mitra, currently Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. Professor Mitra installed a computer in a wall and allowed illiterate children with no prior instruction on what to do, to access the computer. In less than a day, he found children learning how to use the computer, in a language they did not speak (English), in an alphabet that they had not previously seen (The Roman alphabet). When he repeated these experiments in other places, the same occurred. In each case, children not only learned without adult assistance, but also helped other children to learn.
Professor Mitra describes the concept as 'self-organised learning'. He says it is "about sparking curiosity, about asking smart questions and then sitting back and letting kids get to the answers with the help of their peers." He says his wish is to help design a new way in which children can learn. This could help not only those children who are fortunate enough to get into a school, but also those who are not in school and have little chance of accessing formal education.
If children who are not in school are given the opportunity to access online resources, could they do more than they might have done without access to those resources? Many children around the world have little or no chance of getting into a regular school and the current approach of providing a comprehensive school or nothing may be just the barrier that locks them in a generation-to-generation cycle of poverty. The big question is: 'can education happen without teachers?'. If we use the supportive technologies that have emerged over the last 15 years or so, such as online learning, open educational resources and massive online courses, could we face up to the challenge of providing education to many poor communities that suffer from limited or no access to education?
Professor Mitra's 2013 TED Talk about the school in the cloud and self-organised learning has attracted significant interest with over 2.1 million views. While many technology projects have focused on the delivery of technology to poor communities, few of these projects have focused on providing the enabling online environment where children can learn. The simplest way to support the project is to 'like' the Facebook page. A pragmatic way to help more children access a self-organising learning environment and have some chance of escaping illiteracy and poverty may be to support the establishment of more schools in the cloud at https://www.theschoolinthecloud.org.
Submitted on 19 October 2014. First published on AfricaEducation.org.
Is a school in the cloud possible?