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How 'colleges in the cloud' could transform the FE sector

Adapting Sugata Mitra's 'school in the cloud' approach could bring innovative practice to the FE sector, writes Richard Bradford, managing director of digital marketing and development consultancy Disquiet Dog

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When you enter the classroom, it’s nice to imagine that you’ll be faced with groups of motivated and engaged students desperate to soak up new information. But could you ever envisage students who were sufficiently engaged that they taught themselves? And if so, would they learn more effectively?

Self-organised learning environments (Soles) are models of learning where students do just that. Professor Sugata Mitra’s award-winning 2013 TED talk on Soles, “Build a School in the Cloud”, continues to divides the world of education.

Mitra famously put a computer in the wall of a Delhi slum and left the children there to teach themselves. He argues that learning emerges when you allow students to self-organise. Applied in a UK context, lessons consist of the teacher or lecturer asking a “big question”, then leaving students to form groups, research using shared computers and relate their findings back. The teacher, still pivotal, plans the big question, facilitates around the findings, sums up, cross-relates, corrects, interprets and contextualises.

Mitra has a physical presence at Newcastle University, but also works through the virtual network that he envisioned: the School in the Cloud. Cathy Ellis, who is based at Highbury College, has carried out research considering how Soles can rise to support the FE sector. She argues that UK vocational education and training can apply schemes such as Soles to help students to foster the skills of creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and troubleshooting through agile and on-demand approaches. This, she maintains, is what will deliver the kind of “self-programmable” and resourceful workers that the UK labour market increasingly requires.

A more pressing issue for many colleges, though, is how to deliver high levels of attainment on low budgets, particularly in GCSE English and maths, where time and student motivation may be lacking.

One teacher at the centre of a two-year study in a Gateshead school concluded that with Soles, “Information is gathered quickly [and] can come to the aid of teachers with little time to complete a topic. A Sole is a useful way of introducing a new area, but it is equally useful at the end.”

Faced with demotivated students doing GCSE retakes, Dr Anne Preston, a research fellow at Mitra’s Sole Central in Newcastle, advocates big questions that stimulate interest and engagement. Aibhin Bray from Bridge 21 at Trinity College London proposes big maths questions such as “When and why should we estimate?”; “What do good problem-solvers do when they get stuck?”; “How do people use data to influence others?” In a Sole context, these questions can help learners to develop digital competencies and linguistic skills, as well as literacy, information-seeking and retrieval skills.

This is an edited version of an article from the 29 January edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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