Feel good but feel challenged

The UDOL conference, held at the University of Derby on Feb 13th was led off by Philip Plowden, our PVC, with a few observations about how online technologies are changing education. During his presentation Philip showed a few minutes of a TED presentation done by Sugata Mitra,  Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, from http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html

Sugata Mitra’s is a heart-warming presentation that has universal appeal. It has the theme of how do we get education to some of the most deprived communities in the world: to the people who in Sugata’s words ‘need the best teachers’ but are in areas where no-one is willing, or able, to pay for the relevant staff to teach. Anything that can make people feel less despairing and guilty about the scandal of such international inequality is bound to go down well.

We might also ask questions about why the people in the UK who need the best teachers and resources don’t get them, whilst the already most advantaged increasingly get all the best. But even if we don’t look at that, there are other important questions that I believe Mitra is asking us to consider. For there are many challenging ideas in his work.

For example, in his published conclusions he writes “(i)t may even be possible to develop a model for future schooling where children working in groups with access to the Internet and a friendly mediator, can complete large parts of the school curriculum through autonomous or semi-autonomous study.” (Mitra, 2010, p685). This is clearly tentative and a great many more questions would be raised over whether this model would carry over in any way to other levels of education. I would argue that it can carry over with some caveats.

But the importance of this, as an area of research and innovation for education in HE, does need to be recognised and the premises upon which Mitra’s research is based need to be explicit if we are to do more than just view his work and feel-good. Hopefully these comments will spark some debate.

  1. Learning is natural and innate, we should help and trust students to find a lot of their own motivation for learning.
  2. Not only that, but the motivation and ability to learn is supported naturally and spontaneously by group formation and dynamics, the self-organising systems of learning as Mitra calls them.
  3. Learning is social. Students will contribute differently and need not understand every step on the way during a group learning exercise. Mitra clearly sees no problem in students copying the discoveries of others. The motivation for student exploration and research is in part maintained by the speed of the group’s collective discovery. And self-motivation is key to this project. As Mitra puts it “what children achieve routinely in hundreds of ‘Holes-in-the-Walls’ in some of the remotest places on earth is nothing short of miraculous—a celebration of learning and the power of self-motivation ” (Mitra, 2010, p680) my emphasis PR.
  4. Internet connectivity, communications and resources clearly contribute to the speed of discovery and understanding and impacts on all of the above in Mitra’s experiments.

The last item (4) I will come to later. But 1,2 and 3 need to be continually said. We could ask why. After all, for 80 years there has a widening consensual acceptance of the constructive and socially constructive nature of learning and, I think, these above 3 premises are an implicit part of that consensus.

In my view, the need for Mitra’s reassertion and development of this idea is a poor reflection on our education system, not on teachers so much but on the highly restricted nature of the curriculum and assessment methods which narrowly evaluate student achievement. For the last 30 years these things have generally been getting progressively worse. Much of the reason for this deterioration has been the over-emphasis on the standardisation of the curriculum and assessment as well as easing the management of the monitoring of that standardisation.

Our students may be learning an immense amount which we may not know about, merely because what they learn is not identified as an item of knowledge, or an aspect of that knowledge, that we are obliged to teach them. And we may not be giving them the opportunity to demonstrate relevant knowledge that they know because it is not in their assignment brief which is mapped to sharply defined learning outcomes.

Of course, standardisation is important and no University can ignore the growing commodification of education that drives it. That is said even if we recognise that, merely in the interest of educational effectiveness, we need to reverse that commodification. But standardisation, with its concomitant of competition, militates against innovation. It encourages people to cling to content-driven models of education and discourages students and staff from innovating generally but, in particular, it creates an institutional distrust of them forming the self-organising systems of learning that Mitra demonstrates the importance of so well. Why else, is the achievement of Wikipedia, the staple diet of autonomous student discovery, not widely celebrated by Universities?

There are cultural issues that carry over to the student body. Studies at University as well as earlier education have become unfortunately associated, and probably always have been, with the surrender of autonomous learning and creativity. In some ways universities are jumping from an outdated pedagogic didactic model to a competitive didactic model which ignores pedagogic findings such as Mitra’s.

And cultural expectations of learning are particularly challenging for those coming from very hierarchical and authoritative societies where students have been continually discouraged from asking questions.

Students are generally acutely aware that they need to demonstrate that they know what they have been told to know. How many believe that if they show initiative in their research and learning methods that they will get the appropriate recognition?

OK, we have modules in Independent Studies but that is individual research and is that sufficient? Many lecturers in a number of subject areas encourage group learning and, from my observations, do so very well. But they often feel they are swimming against the cultural stream.

The continuing impression is too often created or taken, that the only way the student learns is by listening to their tutor, reading the prescribed textbook and visiting the websites that have been approved and they have been directed to.

That has to change!

What has this to do with technology enhanced learning?

Well that is where item 4 comes in. Clearly collaboration and group discovery at HE can be made far more exciting with Internet connectivity. Critical evaluation of competing accounts, mutual criticism within the learning groups are more important, or at least very different, for Higher Education; the speed and the depth of the required learning is different; the mediator needs to be more than just friendly and re-assuring as are Mitra’s ‘grandmother mediators’.

I am not sure anyone at the moment could point to many comparable successes in HE at least in the UK.  We need to be able to.  If not, then  our students will not only complain that they paying too much for their education, they will also complain that they are not inspired  and, worst of all, they won’t learn a fraction of what they could.


Mitra S. &  Dangwal R. 2010.  Limits to self-organising systems of learning—the Kalikuppam experiment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41, 5, p672-688. Viewed online at http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/docs/Paper13.pdf

One thought on “Feel good but feel challenged

  1. I agree Pete that being inspired and motivated is an important part of learning. There’s no but 🙂

    It is also important to recognise that education should focus on the development of skills, rather than just focusing on subject based knowledge. Subject based knowledge is important to a student’s chosen profession. However, in some professions aspects of that knowledge may become outdated within a few years. Rapid innovations, in some areas, mean that old knowledge no longer represents best practice.

    So, in addition to teaching subject based knowledge, we also have the opportunity to give students the skills that may last a lifetime – such as the ability to research and keep up to date with new innovations; and the ability to find creative solutions and be innovative.

    Skills relevant to this century can be found here:
    https://sites.google.com/site/electronicacademic/Home/Projects/21st-century-skills

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