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‘Internet should be a formal subject in schools’

'Most people use WhatsApp, but don’t know how it works,' says Professor Sugata Mitra

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'Most people use WhatsApp, but don’t know how it works,' says Professor Sugata Mitra

The internet should became a formal subject on the school curriculum - just like physics, chemistry and maths - according to an education academic.

That’s because we live in an era where schoolchildren have “teachers and libraries in their pockets on their phones” and where the technology exists for them “to learn something in seconds,” says Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University.

Speaking at a public seminar at the House of Commons this week, he said there was now less need for pupils to learn hard facts “just in case” they might need them one day – and more need for pupils to formerly learn how to surf properly, buy a ticket, and make sure they don’t get ripped off with on-line banking, among other areas.

Professor Mitra is famous for his “Hole in the Wall” experiment which found that children were able to teach themselves how to use the internet, without any help, using a computer installed into a wall in a slum in Delhi.

Said to have inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire, his work also won the $1 million TED Prize with which he set up seven “cloud schools”, in India and England, in which children teach themselves, without teachers, using the internet.

"Let's introduce the internet as a formal subject in schools as opposed to it being learned outside the system," he said this week.

He told the seminar that schools were still relying on a curriculum set up by the Victorians which was “preparing children for work for employers who died a hundred years ago”.

“The Victorians put their latest technology into their schools, and we still carry that box with us with the compass, ruler and protractor, and the stuff they used to build bridges, and we say to our pupils ‘you can still have those’ but don’t bring your phone!

“Most people in this room use WhatsApp, but don’t know how it works. If you type a message into WhatsApp, you have no idea how is gets to the other side?

"But if I were to ask you how a steam engine works, many of you can think of steam pressure driving pistons, and you probably never ride on one!”

Professor Mitra is also advocating allowing pupils to use the Internet on their mobile phones in exams.  

He said: “We would need to make sure they know how to use their phone properly otherwise how will they pass their exam?”

Tim Oates, who led the government’s most recent review of the national curriculum, told Tes there was currently no view on whether the internet should be given specific time on the curriculum, but said one option might be incorporating it more into other subjects.

He said: “It might be the view that there’s no point in tackling a disease that doesn’t exist in that we could be spending money on teaching something  which, it turns out, is learned in society anyway."

Mr Oates, who is currently group head of assessment research at the Cambridge Assessment exam boards group, said the mechanisms of the internet, including coding, were already “well-covered” in the Computer Science subject area which replaced ICT.

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