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Reimagine the Concept of Education

Web Foundation · March 1, 2013

From Rosemary Leith, Founding Director of the World Wide Web Foundation. This article originally appeared on theHuffington Post.

Look out your window at the slum over the wall in New Delhi and imagine how you can change the way the world educates.

Armed with the world-changing practical philosophy of Internet pioneers before him that a computer can do anything you can imagine, Sugata Mitra is showing that if you pose a big question to children, give them access to the Web, they will self-organize and solve the problem. Mitra will now use the TED Prize money to build a School in the Cloud in India and disseminate SOLE toolkits for anyone in the world to initiate their own self-organized learning environments.

At a time when educators everywhere are struggling to modernize an education system that was developed by and for an outdated British empire, Sugata provides a bold starting point. The real significance of his work is probably less about solving the problem of access to education for the underprivileged than it is about re-imagining the whole concept of education in the digital age. In a Forbes interview, he says, “our current definition of education is to produce individuals who can fit into a bureaucratic machine. Education prepares to be one piece of a machine. … Everything falls into place and that is why everyone dresses the same way and why everyone is taught to know the same things. The result is a society that creates identical factory workers. The day of the factory is done. The West needs a fresh model.”

Can we create new learning formats based on co-creation and collective problem-solving — ones that are designed to help our youngest generation navigate the new Internet-connected economy and society in which information is limitless? Mitra’s work shows us that (even in the most unpromising settings and with a shoestring budget) education, like the Web itself, can be “a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.” Not only will kids teach themselves how to use the computers, but those who catch on the fastest will teach the others how to do it.

It is interesting how well all of this resonates with the ideas of the educator Paolo Freire, who inspired a generation with his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to teach illiterate adults in the Brazilian favelas. Once dismissed as a dangerous revolutionary, Freire’s ideas are now coming to life on the Web through initiatives like Mitra’s.

Freire called traditional education the “banking model” because it treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, like a piggybank. He said that instead we should treat the learner as a co-creator of knowledge.

Mitra has pushed Freire’s ideas even further, away from individual brains acquiring skills and towards collective creation of knowledge. He says, “we know that interconnected switches are the basis of thought. Every neuron is a switch. We know we think. But we already have billions of interconnected switches outside of the brain — that is the Internet. At the moment I believe 2 billion nodes. It’s easy to imagine 3 trillion in a decade’s time. Is it thinking? Is it the new learner?”

Mitra’s initiative for both the developing and developed world needs three things — 1) Broadband 2) Encouragement and Administration (by an army of supportive “online grannies”) and 3) Collaboration. Lack of broadband is an issue to be overcome in the developing world and certainly some areas of the developed world. Only 5 percent of the developing world has fixed line subscription broadband and only 8.5 percent have mobile access. In Africa alone, fixed line broadband is 0.2 percent and mobile broadband is 4 percent. And broadband, where it does exist, is expensive: UN Broadband Commission has found that in 19 of the world’s least developed economies — mostly in Africa — the cost of broadband is actually more than 100 percent of average monthly earnings.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet, an emerging global coalition coordinated by the Web Foundation, seeks to make this goal a reality by advocating reforms that will allow for healthy competition and innovation in the marketplace. This includes an end to luxury taxation on telecom goods and services required for Internet access, innovative uses of spectrum including “white space,” an end to monopolies in end user service provision, regulator independence and transparency, and greater infrastructure sharing.

There are many ways for naysayers to downplay Mitra’s vision of implementing Self Organized Learning Environments. Many around me here at TED that I talked to last night could think of several reasons why it wouldn’t work. “Could you imagine hiring a lawyer who was schooled in a Self Organized Learning Environment?” one said. Yes I can. We need a new education system that prepares our young people to succeed in a global, fast-changing world of tomorrow, not the world of yesterday.

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  1. John Graves

    March 15, 2013

    Self Organized Learning Environments can grow where broadband, encouragement, collaboration and a willingness to share come together. If you take the scale and economics of Wikipedia (over 480 million monthly visitors, annual budget under $40 million) and apply that same idea of collaborative content creation to learning materials (which students can help with), we could have the same abundance of free learning materials as we have for free reference materials (50x Britannica). Please learn how to collaborate in sharing what you know today.


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