Building a School in the Cloud – Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra, famous for his Hole in the Wall Experiment, gave a TED talk in which he talks about self-organizing schools in the cloud, and how we need to just pose the big and interesting questions to children, make the internet available to them, and get out of the way.

He starts off by pointing out what he thinks is wrong with our education system today:

[I]f you look at present-day schooling the way it is, it’s quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago, and it came from the last and the biggest of the empires on this planet. [“The British Empire”] Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data handwritten on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It’s still with us today. It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people: the school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional. The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists. The empire is gone, so what are we doing with that design that produces these identical people, and what are we going to do next if we ever are going to do anything else with it?

And, he goes on to give an explanation of why students don’t learn very well in our existing schools with their exams and tests and punishments:

The reptilian part of our brain, which sits in the center of our brain, when it’s threatened, it shuts down everything else, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the parts which learn, it shuts all of that down. Punishment and examinations are seen as threats. We take our children, we make them shut their brains down, and then we say, “Perform.” Why did they create a system like that? Because it was needed. There was an age in the Age of Empires when you needed those people who can survive under threat. When you’re standing in a trench all alone, if you could have survived, you’re okay, you’ve passed. If you didn’t, you failed. But the Age of Empires is gone. What happens to creativity in our age? We need to shift that balance back from threat to pleasure.

So, what should we do, according to Mitra? Based on his Hole-in-the-Wall experiences, he is obviously in favor of self-organizing schools where the teacher just poses the questions and gets out of the way:

I think what we need to look at is we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then she stands back in awe and watches as learning happens

So, what’s the job of the teacher? Asking the questions.

I think we need a curriculum of big questions. You already heard about that. You know what that means. There was a time when Stone Age men and women used to sit and look up at the sky and say, “What are those twinkling lights?” They built the first curriculum, but we’ve lost sight of those wondrous questions. We’ve brought it down to the tangent of an angle. But that’s not sexy enough. The way you would put it to a nine-year-old is to say, “If a meteorite was coming to hit the Earth, how would you figure out if it was going to or not?” And if he says, “Well, what? how?” you say, “There’s a magic word. It’s called the tangent of an angle,” and leave him alone. He’ll figure it out.

I’ve tried incredible, incredible questions — “When did the world begin? How will it end?” — to nine-year-olds. This one is about what happens to the air we breathe. This is done by children without the help of any teacher. The teacher only raises the question, and then stands back and admires the answe

Here’s his final vision – school in the cloud:

So what’s my wish? My wish is that we design the future of learning. We don’t want to be spare parts for a great human computer, do we? So we need to design a future for learning. And I’ve got to — hang on, I’ve got to get this wording exactly right, because, you know, it’s very important. My wish is to help design a future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their wonder and their ability to work together. Help me build this school. It will be called the School in the Cloud. It will be a school where children go on these intellectual adventures driven by the big questions which their mediators put in. The way I want to do this is to build a facility where I can study this. It’s a facility which is practically unmanned. There’s only one granny who manages health and safety. The rest of it’s from the cloud. The lights are turned on and off by the cloud, etc., etc., everything’s done from the cloud.

See the full transcript or the video for more details.

It is interesting to note the contrast between what Sugata Mitra says, and the contrarian view from Fredrick DeBoer, who argues that online-only self-service education will never work, and that students, even good students, need to be “dragged” to learn.

“Free Indian Science from Bureaucracy” – Mathai Joseph & Andrew Robinson

Nature has an interesting article by Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson who argue that Indian Science is being stifled by government bureaucracy and needs to be freed.

First, the government claims to care about science, but is not willing to invest in it:

Sadly, science and its administration, once seen as central to Indian development, are not currently on the agenda, despite some trenchant critiques from scientists and science policy-makers. Repeated government promises to increase the expenditure on research and development (R&D) to 2% of India’s gross domestic product have not been kept. R&D spend remains at about 0.9% of GDP — compared with 1.12% in Russia3 (down from 1.25% in 2009), 1.25% in Brazil and 1.84% in China2 (see ‘Brick benchmarking’).

And whatever science that does happen in India is limited by bureaucratic rules:

The basic problem is that Indian science has for too long been hamstrung by a bureaucratic mentality that values administrative power over scientific achievement. And, to preserve local control, research is still done mostly by small teams working in isolation rather than through collaboration — a key generator of impact

And the results of this bureaucracy are clear enough:

Today, although India ranks tenth in the world for output of scientific papers, it ranks 166th for average citations per paper (see go.nature.com/xl3ldg). Almost 20% of patents filed at the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2010 were from China, with just 1.9% from India (below Russia’s 2.1% but above Brazil’s 1.1%)

In other words, our scientific community is reacting as happens in any situation involving inflexible bureaucratic rules – by following the letter of the policy, but not the spirit.

Why is our scientific output so bad? The authors specify three important reasons:

First, scientists are promoted on the basis of years of service, rather than achievement, and once at the top they stay until retirement age; long after, in some cases. Even at the prestigious Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, which is less rule-bound than many other institutions, research groups are almost invariably headed by those who have been there the longest.

and:

Second, although research in the leading institutions is well funded — with more money available than requested in credible grant applications, a striking contrast to the situation in many nations — the funding is subject to unsuitable restrictions applicable to the entire government bureaucracy. These include limited foreign travel and no travel support for research students, ruling out regular participation in leading conferences and research gatherings.

and finally:

Third, the movement of researchers from one institution to another is discouraged, because administrators prefer senior positions to be filled by internal promotion rather than lateral hiring.

Is there a solution?

More than two decades ago, the threat of imminent national bankruptcy forced India’s government to liberate its economy from the notorious ‘licence–permit raj’, which had strait-jacketed commerce and industry since 1947. What will it take in 2014 to reinvigorate India’s decrepit scientific empires, trapped for decades in a similarly rigid bureaucracy?

Instead of just complaining, the authors give 4 specific suggestions on what can be done:

The first step towards reinvigorating Indian science must be to create an empowered funding agency, staffed by working scientists, some of whom could be non-resident Indians

and:

A second step must be to ensure planned rotation of institutional roles and responsibilities.

and:

Third, the formation of trans-institutional groups that can undertake coordinated work in a few well-chosen areas should be encouraged at the funding stage.

and finally:

Fourth, how to spend that 2% of GDP when it finally materializes? Leading institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and many others are already well provided for, by any standards8. New research money should be spent on regenerating the scores of poorly provided university laboratories that lack the funds to procure and maintain modern scientific equipment; they currently receive only around 10% of the R&D budget but are expected to produce most of the country’s PhD

Read the full article – it has far more detail.

“@Seema10Singh: Why The New IISc Director Has His Work Cut Out For Him

Anurag Kumar of IISc has just been appointed the new director of IISc.

Seema Singh has an interesting article in which she lists the challenges that will face him

IISc needs to change:

What worked for IISc for the last 100 years will not carry it through even in the next quarter century, let alone the next 100 years. And while rankings are a function of many things – number of PhDs, faculty, budget, etc. – and not really reflective of the true value of the institution, the 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings shows that IISc has slipped in ranks, from 130 to below 200.

Seema argues that IISc needs to start focusing on applied research – research that results in new products.

In the past when I raised the issue of quality research resulting in products, Balaram told me I was “soft” on the industry (and hard on the academics) in not asking them to invest more in R&D. He is right to the extent that journalists cannot question industry’s poor investment in R&D, it’s their money and if they don’t see merit in R&D, their short-sightedness will come to haunt them. But institutions like IISc do research with public funds. Frankly, it’s not about value for public money, it’s about regard for public need. India needs scientists and engineers working on Indian soil to solve its problems, particularly in game-changing fields like energy, healthcare, water, and so on.

IISc scientists focus far too much on getting papers published. This needs to change:

Career scientists and engineers in research institutions like IISc have thrived mostly by publishing papers. That calls for a change. Peer review is ailing and collapsing under its own weight.

and:

The head of an Indian arm of a large publishing house tells me how “vanity publishing” has proliferated in India as the entire reward system is based on paper publication.

What should the new director do?

The new director must pick a bunch of faculty and their research groups, seek bold ideas, and back them to the hilt. If India waits for agencies like DARPA or ARPA in the US, another century will go by. The much-celebrated role of private finance (or venture capital) role in innovation and economic development is debunked by economist Mariana Mazzucato in her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Myth, clearly establishing the solid role that government labs, engaging in high-risk research, have played in the global economic boom of past decades.
This means many will have to get out of their comfort zones, stop playing safe and do risky research. Only a director can ensure such research reaches a critical mass in a short span of time.

And increase collaboration with industry:

At any given point, there are more than 150 companies working with IISc researchers. But most of those are can be categorised as projects, hardly any would qualify as big, ambitious goals.

The full article has a lot more interesting stuff to say. You should read it.