Professor with his head in the clouds wins award

8th March 2013 at 00:00
'Hole in the Wall' pioneer handed $1m to develop new India project

Sugata Mitra is a pioneering academic, an innovative thinker and an engaging speaker: he now also has $1 million (#163;660,000) to make his dreams a reality.

Professor Mitra, whose educational experiments inspired the book on which the film Slumdog Millionaire was based, has been given the money for winning the 2013 TED Prize, awarded annually by the non-profit organisation to a "visionary leader".

The winner is handed the money to spend on their "wish to change the world", which in Professor Mitra's case is to support children's learning through a "school in the cloud" - an online learning lab in India where children can connect with information and mentors via the internet. It will also act as a research facility.

The school in the cloud is the most recent development in Professor Mitra's groundbreaking work on self-organised learning environments, which began in 1999 with his celebrated "Hole in the Wall" experiment.

The initiative involved putting a computer with internet access into the wall of a Delhi slum at child height and leaving children to work out its functions for themselves - which they did successfully. This experiment in self-directed learning inspired the book QA, which director Danny Boyle later turned into the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

The academic also pioneered the "granny method" to help children learn about biotechnology. Under the scheme, adults offer children encouragement and ask them to explain what they have learned, which improves their understanding. In the Indian village where the method was trialled, children's test scores rose to the equivalent of school-taught children.

Professor Mitra, born and raised in India, came to England in 2006 to become professor of educational technology at Newcastle University. He has been described by fellow Newcastle academic James Tooley as "probably a genius".

But the Hole in the Wall project is not without its critics, with some fearing that the experiments could be used to justify delivering education on the cheap by cutting out teachers.

In an interview with TES in 2011, Professor Mitra said that this was not the case. "A way of misrepresenting the work is to say 'therefore a teacher is not required', which is absolutely untrue," he said. "We have curricula, we have examinations, and children desperately need their teachers to handle the system. Until the system itself changes, there is no question about the teacher's role."

The professor writes in his latest book, Beyond the Hole in the Wall, that some headteachers have been inspired by the idea of self-organised learning environments and have integrated them into regular schools in a way that he could not have done. But he admits that in other places the approach has not been embraced and has fallen into disuse.

The question nagging at him now, he writes, is what constitutes "deep learning". Professor Mitra suggests that what children need to be taught can be condensed down to how to read, how to search for information and a rational belief system. But to go further, he believes, children need a learning environment and a source of "rich, big questions". "Hence, the teacher's role becomes bigger and stronger than ever before," he concludes.

Sugata Mitra CV

1979-80: Research associate, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IITD), where he had previously earned his MSc and PhD

1980-81: Research fellow, Technical University of Vienna

1981-83: Senior scientific officer and product development manager, IITD

1983-87: Head, technology division, United India Periodicals

1987-90: Director, publishing systems, United Database India

1990-2006: Chief scientist, Centre for Research in Cognitive Systems, NIIT

2006-present: Professor of educational technology, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University

2011-12: Visiting professor, MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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