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Combining your talent with the digital world

Do we really need teachers any more? That question may not be as crazy as it was in the past. Professor Sugata Mitra has gained global attention for his "Hole in the Wall" project, which has helped children in slums and villages in India to make astonishing progress simply by teaching themselves using computers built into kiosks.

However, it was the research he did next in Britain that may be even more intriguing - or scary - for teachers. In primary schools in Gateshead, Mitra put 10-year-olds to work in groups on laptops to figure out the answers to GCSE questions. Not only did they nearly all find the right answers, but when they were tested again without computers two months later, their recall was far more impressive than if they had covered the topic in a traditional lesson. Mitra has stressed repeatedly that he believes teachers are still needed. But the results must make us think again about the roles of teachers and technology.

Much of the debate about technology in education has been polarised. In one corner we have the tech-evangelists, who believe ICT will transform every aspect of learning. In the other we have the neo-Luddites, who are not sure that moving from blackboards to whiteboards was a good idea, let alone making the things interactive. The latter are right when they point out that the billions spent on classroom technology do not yet appear to have led to a sufficient improvement in pupils' results. However, the former are right when they say this does not necessarily matter - schools could be justified in installing technology just to keep pace with the world in which their pupils live.

The answer lies somewhere between the two factions' extreme perspectives. Here is where "blended learning" comes in (pages 4-7). The phrase describes approaches that mix digital material from outside the classroom with real-world learning in a building that we might call, say, a school. In this model, teachers still have a place.

Of course, it may just look like an educational fad. Worse still, without careful safeguards it could exacerbate the digital divide between richer and poorer students. However, it can only be a short while before we stop calling it "blended learning" and simply call it "learning".

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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