By Jim Shimabukuro
We might disagree with Sugata Mitra’s SOLE, or Self-Organized Learning Environment, on specific points, and we might say that his arguments may be oversimplified, but it’s tough to disagree with the idea that teaching could be boiled down to an intriguing question, a computer with internet access, and an encouraging adult. In this scenario, schools and teachers are absent. Students, naturally motivated to discover the answers for themselves online, are intermittently cheered on by adults, who don’t teach but simply encourage, and this intervention, if you can call it that, could easily be from a distance via untrained but caring adults.
“Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the Cloud” was uploaded to YouTube by TED on 27 Feb. 2013.
More important, though, are the implications, and for me, the one that surfaces at the top is, Can we, educators, imagine a future without traditional schools and teachers? The same can be asked of higher ed, Can we imagine a future without traditional colleges and professors?
And the answer?
Actually, we’ve already begun the imagining, and the early prototypes are completely online courses and, more recently, MOOCs.
The unavoidable realization is that the architecture of knowledge has changed and the media for knowing has leapfrogged schools and teachers into the hands of students of all ages. Students can pursue knowledge on their own or with peers, 24/7, from anywhere. They don’t need to sit obediently in a classroom to be rationed knowledge by a trained adult. They can get all they want by themselves, anywhere — instantly.
Can, though, and will are the issue. I think most will agree that, yes, students “can” learn on their own or with peers, but the problem is “will” they? In fact, the argument repeated most often by educators to justify traditional schooling is that students lack the “will” to learn on their own and, therefore, need teachers as task masters. Left alone, they would play games, socialize, daydream — but they wouldn’t learn. Even if they wanted to learn, they wouldn’t know how. Therefore, classrooms and teachers are vital.
If this is true, then I can’t help but feel that this is an indictment of traditional schooling. Years of regimented schooling has succeeded in creating regimented students who are unable and unwilling to learn on their own. Needless to say, this is contrary to all the stated goals of education.
The ultimate goal of education is independent learners, and Mitra’s gift to educators is the realization that students are intrinsically wired to be independent learners and schools can either nurture and encourage this natural tendency or squelch it in the name of teaching.
The challenge for educators in 2014 is to see if we can’t create learning environments that can facilitate the way students naturally learn in a world where knowledge and knowing are no longer limited to teachers and classrooms.
MOOCs are the first big step away from the spatial limitations of classrooms, and educators the world over are gaga over the experience. I haven’t seen this much excitement about teaching — ever. And the irony is that it’s more about learning than teaching, more about students than teachers. Aware of this unintended consequence, some prominent MOOCers are desperately scrabbling backward to reestablish the importance of teachers and F2F classroom interactions by advocating blended approaches, but the landslide has begun and going back is not an option.
At the end of the first month of 2014, we’re standing on the edge of a vista that staggers the imagination. We can either be paralyzed by fear or awed by the possibilities. Either way, there’s no turning back. The future is now.
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