Sugata Mitra’s Shattering Discovery and Its Implications for Extension

Virtually all of us in Cooperative Extension know that our 100-year-old outreach model is under the proverbial gun and that something must be done, some strategy or new way of thinking employed, to stave off extinction.

Believe me, after viewing Newcastle University Prof. Sugata Mitra’s 2010 TED lecture, I’m more convinced than ever that this new strategy or way of thinking had better come sooner than later.  Mitra’s remarks not only underscored the hard realities we face as an organization but also filled me with an even grimmer sense of urgency.

A few years ago, Mitra, a world-renowned educational technology expert, came up with an extraordinary idea.

He embedded Internet-accessible computers in remote villages throughout India and ultimately in locations throughout world to see how children with no previous exposure to computers or the Web would react.

The results pointed to something equally as extraordinary: The kids learned from the computers by themselves, with no adult oversight.

Video recordings Mitra shared from one village showed an 8-year-old boy demonstrating to a 6-year-old girl how to browse the Internet.  In another village, children, after only four hours of exposure to the Internet, learned how to record their own music and play it back to themselves, sparking a reaction of awed delight.

All of these experiences, Mitra says, demonstrate the awesome power of collaborative learning.

“Groups of children can learn to use the computer and the Internet on their own, irrespective of who or where they are,” he said.

Buoyed by these initial results, Mitra resolved to push the envelope, to see what other challenges children could overcome using Web 2.0 technology.

In a Hyderabad-based experiment involving children who spoke English with a thick regional accent, he turned over a computer equipped with an English-to-text interface, casually informing the children that he was leaving and that they were on their own.

Initially the computer responded to the children’s thick accents with gibberish, Mitra recalls.

However, upon his return a couple of months later, he discovered that the children had learned to speak in a manner remarkably similar to the neutral British accents the computer was designed to detect.

In what is now called his Kalikkuppam Experiment, Mitra set out to determine whether Tamil-speaking Indian children in a remote village could learn biotechnology on their own, even though all the online instruction was in English.

Two months later, he noted that the children had increased their scores from zero to 30 percent.  After enlisting a volunteer teacher who employed the “granny method” of teaching —merely looking over the children’s shoulders and providing frequent encouragement— Mitra observed that the average score increased to 50, which is “what the posh schools in New Delhi with trained teachers are getting,” he said.

Some of the most remarkable results of all were secured in Turin, Italy, in 2010, only minutes after Mitra walked into a class of Italian-speaking ten-year-old children and wrote the following phrase in English on the chalkboard: “How did dinosaurs die out?”

“The children asked, ‘What?’ I said do it,” Mitra recounted.

The youngsters secured the answer after 15 minutes by typing the English phrase into Google for the Italian translation and then Googling the translated Italian phrase.

Mitra followed this with a somewhat more challenging question in English: “Who was Pythagoras and what did he do?”

Twenty minutes later, right-angled triangles began appearing on the screens.

“It just sent shivers up my spine,” Mitra recalled.

The parallels to Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey are unmistakable.  As a matter of fact, Clarke was an eager follower of Mitra’s efforts before his death, drawing two lessons from them: first, that a teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be, and, second, that if children have interests, education happens.”

For his part, Mitra says these experiments have driven home one critical insight, which he hopes to investigate more closely in the future.

Based on his research, Mitra believes that education, thanks to the advent of Web 2.0, now bears all the hallmarks of a self-organizing system — one in which “learning is an emergent phenomenon.”

He describes a self-organizing system as a structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Ponder Mitra’s insight for a moment: Education is now a self-organizing structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Simply put, people, using online resources, are fully capable of learning on their own without human intervention.

Speaking of shivers, if this insight has not yet sent a shiver up your spine, it darn well should.

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