Sugata Mitra, Education Researcher Won The $1 Million TED Prize

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 Sugata Mitra

Sometimes, a hole-in-the-wall is all you need to get a deep insight into education and — attain worldwide recognition.

When Prof. Sugata Mitra installed a computer in a slum in Kalkaji, Delhi, in 1999 in what came to be known as a “hole-in-the-wall” experiment, it led to a fundamental reappraisal on his part of the formal education system. Surreptitious monitoring of what followed showed the power of what he would later call “Minimally Invasive Education.”

Left to themselves, kids anywhere, from any background, even without knowing English, seamlessly learn to use computers and the internet. Particularly if they are working in groups, they can figure out complex subjects such as DNA sequencing, trigonometry, and avionics, as Dr Mitra found in similar experiments he has conducted across the world.

These experiments, soon repeated around the world, led Mitra to come up with a whole new theory of education. He calls it SOLE, for Self-Organized Learning Environments. Give kids a computer, ask them a serious adult-level question, encourage their efforts to answer it, and stand well back.

For his revolutionary work in this area, TED, the multidisciplinary conference of brainiacs, on Tuesday awarded him its $ 1 million prize at its annual mindfest here in Long Beach, California. Cheered with gusto by the cream of world intelligentsia and geek power, Dr Mitra later told ToI that the prize money would go to further research in non-formal, minimally invasive education “that should rid us of a system that is fast becoming obsolete.”

“The results broke every learning hypothesis in my mind,” said Dr Mitra, adding that such alternatives could have happened only at this time with the arrival of computers, internet, and broadband. “There is no need to carry data in our head as if it is a pen drive, because information is available at our fingertips. Instead, children should be challenged to understand and express ideas and concepts.”

Dr Mitra has since expanded on his findings and created a “granny cloud” — online moderators of retired teachers — who could Skype into learning centers and encourage children with questions and assignments. He now wants to build a “School in the Cloud,” a learning lab in India, “where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online.” He is particularly keen on schools and teachers NOT depriving children of smartphones, laptops, and other connected devices in the classroom.