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Learning at the edge of chaos

By Aimee Riordan | March 20, 2014

Imagine a school without walls, textbooks or teachers, where children are inspired to learn by their own sense of wonder. That’s what Sugata Mitra dreamt when he first placed a computer into a hole in a wall in a Kalkaji, Delhi slum.

In doing so, Mitra, now a professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, discovered something extraordinary: Without any outside instruction, the students used the computer, and its connection to the Internet, to teach themselves about the world around them.

What’s more, they taught each other.

Fifteen years later, Mitra is embarking on an ambitious mission to bring the School in the Cloud and the Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) to students around the world. And he’s using Microsoft technology to make it happen.

Mitra won the 2013 TED Prize, from the nonprofit devoted to cultivating ideas about Technology, Education and Design. This week, at a TED conference in Vancouver, B.C., he’s announcing the opening of five School in the Cloud labs in India and the United Kingdom and launching the accompanying digital platform, made possible by Microsoft, which enables anyone anywhere to host cloud-based learning.

Filmmaker Jerry Rothwell chronicles Sugata Mitra’s efforts as part of a documentary he plans to premiere at the TED global conference in 2015.

Mitra calls self-organized education “learning at the edge of chaos.”

“There is a space in between the complete order and the complete chaos, where something strange happens, the kind of environment that causes dust devils to form,” he says. “When you look at children learning by themselves, it’s so non-intuitive. It struck me that if you create a chaotic learning environment with children, a situation with just the right amount of chaos, you get spontaneous order.”

Mitra recalls a SOLE session in the UK where he wrote a quadratic equation on the board and asked the students, none of whom had ever been exposed to algebra, to answer this: What is the value of “x”?

“They came back 15 minutes later and said, ‘That is algebra. That’s a quadratic equation. And x doesn’t have one value. It has two.’ That coming from 12-year-olds was too much for me.”

While we think of traditional learning happening over months or years, in self-organized learning, it happens in minutes, Mitra explains. “When children work in groups in the presence of the Internet, SOLE acts as a lens, a magnifier of intellect.”

The School in the Cloud is a unique Microsoft effort, not only because of its groundbreaking philosophy, but also because of its reach. With Skype, Office, Azure, Bing, Xbox, Surface and OEM partners, the project touches nearly every corner of the company.

Wendy Norman, director of social good at Skype, calls it an unprecedented cross collaboration.

“Many areas of the company are reaching out as they hear about this and wanting to be a part of it,” she says. “This is truly one of the largest One Microsoft deployments around social good.”

Students use Skype to connect with each other and with retired teacher volunteers the children call “Skype Grannies.” They employ Bing for search and Office products like PowerPoint to help them distill and present what they learn. Ultimately, Xbox or Surface, with Skype built in, may house the entire experience.

As part of the Self Organized Learning Environment, students can interact with mentors via Skype. These “Skype Grannies,” as the children like to call them, are retired teachers living around the world. Video courtesy of Jerry Rothwell.

Mitra says he uses Windows because students like the operating system and find it intuitively easy to learn. He adds that Skype was a natural fit because of its video presentation capabilities.

School in the Cloud fits squarely within the mission of YouthSpark, Microsoft’s corporate citizenship initiative, says Akhtar Badshah, senior director, citizenship and public affairs at Microsoft.

It’s another example of how technology can transform lives.

“This is a great partnership that allows us to bring our resources and our technology to a platform that may have global impact,” Badshah says, adding that the School in the Cloud will likely evolve in ways we can’t yet imagine.

It could become a tool to teach children the basics of programming, for example. “Not about just writing code, but fundamentally changing the way people learn,” he says.

Microsoft funded construction of the platform: a website intended to connect and extend the community. It features information about how to get started and guidance for asking the big questions while searching the Internet. “This is what children want,” says Skype’s Norman. “They want to solve big problems. They don’t want to be talked to. They want to be a part of it.”

School in the Cloud is a great equalizer, she adds. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the richest area of the world or the poorest. Children can still gain value.”

Cloud-based learning may be the only classroom for a student in rural India. While, in an American city, it might enable an after-school program to offer more than just playtime in an open gym.

“This is taking the simplest thing about children, that insatiable curiosity, and bringing it to life,” Norman says.

A student at a SOLE lab at George Stephenson High School in England exploring Windows 8 on computers donated by Microsoft.
A student at a SOLE lab at George Stephenson High School in England exploring Windows 8 on computers donated by Microsoft.

Amy Dickinson has seen this happen first hand. She’s head of design, technology and art at the UK’s George Stephenson High School, home to the first School in the Cloud lab.

There, the children “have the opportunity to use SOLE to develop their collaboration skills, independent learning styles and give them the love of learning and curiosity they need to be successful in school and beyond,” she says.

Dickinson adds that students are much more engaged when they are allowed to be in control.

“It’s unique. It’s simple. It’s for the kids by the kids,” she says. “It allows them to explore, share information, and there is no threat of failure. They motivate each other.”

Suneeta Kulkarni, the India-based research director for the School in the Cloud Project, agrees that allowing children to discover an idea and arrive at their own conclusions is a “tremendous motivating factor.”

Kulkarni says the broader impact of the School in the Cloud initiative will likely be seen 5, 10 or 15 years down the road, but she notes that there is already anecdotal evidence of the approach’s success.

One student, who participated in a 2008-2009 SOLE in Hyderabad, India and continued to be mentored by a Skype Granny, is now studying medicine in the Philippines.

“And it’s not just a question of what he’s studying,” Kulkari says, “But the way it has impacted his orientation, the way he learned to see life and the acceptance he now has for many different cultures and ways of thinking.”

Sugata Mitra in front of one of the newest School in the Cloud labs in Korakati, India.
Sugata Mitra in front of one of the newest School in the Cloud labs in Korakati, India.

The UK- and India-based schools in the cloud are part of a three-year research project during which data will be collected on reading comprehension, ability to search the Internet and overall problem-solving skills.

As the results become known, Mitra hopes governments will be inspired to fund more of these brick-and-mortar extensions that bring self-organized learning to remote areas of the world.

In the meantime, anyone with an Internet connection can conduct a SOLE using the platform released this week. Its availability is uniquely in step with an evolving theory of how children learn.

“As we continue to drive education forward, we’re going to see the learning environment evolve from a physical location to an anywhere, anytime experience,” says Anthony Salcito, vice president of worldwide education at Microsoft. “A cloud-based school is one example of how we’re taking that step beyond the classroom, into an environment where students can learn the 21st-century skills that will be critical to their success.”