The Big Idea
In February, Prof Mitra was awarded $1 million at the main TED conference (Technology, Education and Design) to start-up a series of cloud schools. He plans to establish 3 in India, including one in the remote village of Korakati, and 2 in the UK, including one near his place of work – the University of Newcastle.
Cloud schools are important for a number of reasons – some areas lack teachers, some lack good teachers, and sometimes children are better suited to independent learning.
Prof Mitra’s idea for the design of his cloud schools is certainly a unique one – he visualises a large glass pod, filled with computers and one large screen, so that teachers or moderators can use Skype and interact with the students. The moderators will consist of retired people from the UK, who will volunteer their time to help out or read the children stories.
According to Prof Mitra, the most important aspect will be to let the children self-organise – there will be no timetables or curriculum. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but Mitra is basing his expectations for the cloud schools on a past project – in 1999, the professor set up hole-in-the-wall computers in the slums of India. The children were left to experiment for themselves, and quickly acquired skills at a rate that astonished Mitra.
“In the first few weeks they will go berserk with games. Then one child will discover Paint and the others will copy. After four months they will discover Google,” he says.
The only hard and fast rule will be the closing time of the school – at sun down. Prof Mitra explains that he doesn’t want to be hounded by angry mothers. Comical moments have also emerged in the process of organising the cloud schools – after Mitra explained what he was trying to accomplish, some of the villagers of Korakati got the impression that their children were going to be taught by ghosts.
A Virtual University
Prof Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor, runs a non-profit online university where students can study courses from some of the most prestigious education institutions in the world. The online school has over one million students enrolled, and 27 university partners who offer courses in various subjects.
“Education has not changed in 500 years – we still herd children like cats into classrooms at 9am,” says Prof Agarwal. This system, however, is not the most effective method of education in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries. Prof Agarwal’s cloud university offers a completely different educational process, and poorer students have the opportunity to learn from some of the best lecturers and universities.
The cost of running the online university has been supplemented by a $60 million investment from MIT and Harvard. In future, Agarwal hopes to relicense some of the courses back to the universities as a way of generating money and offering students a blended learning experience.
Cloud service providers and applications alike can clearly be used as a force for good, most especially in the vital field of education. Even better, it’s not just limited to the richer schools that are able to afford the technological infrastructure, but can also aid those in some of the most unprivileged regions of the world. Cloud-based education is certainly an effective solution for the times that traditional education systems fail or simply prove ineffective.
Grace Matthews is a London-based lifestyle blogger whose Nasstar virtual desktop enables her to access and share work documents from wherever in the world she might be.