Education on a Cloud

What has become one of my favorite Sunday morning habits–besides coffee, the New York Times, a good solid run, a walk with the dog–is to watch a TED talk. This weekend, I was, as educator, immediately drawn to Sugata Mitra’s “Building a School in the Cloud.” Not only does Mitra have an engaging speaking style that permits his audience to feel completely at ease and thoughtfully entertained, but also his talk is part of a wave of discussion about the future of learning and the future of schools. It’s great food for thought, and as someone who likes to think of himself as progressive and forward thinking, on first pass, I thought that Mitra nailed it. Certainly, as I lounged about my house on a Sunday morning in my PJs, it was nice to think education occurring where this was the dress code.

Mitra’s talk is clearly trending. My father, an educational consultant, watched it when I emailed him the link, and when I spoke over the phone with him about it, he told me that six of his colleagues had also sent him the link. As of today, just over 400,000 people had seen it.

When we consider the future of education in the twenty-first century, Mitra’s ideas clearly give us pause to consider: Are schools obsolete? Are the teachers and the materials once used to educate now becoming dodos?

As part of the blogosphere, noted educational blogger Vicki Davis, in her Cool Cat Teacher blog, pointed out that she had problems with Mitra’s research. Beyond this, Davis points out that while TED is thought provoking in its design and concept, it does not offer a chance to question. I have to agree. For all its slick panache, its cool stages, lighting, integration of speaker and presentation, we must just listen to the TED speakers. When is there the questioning? Where is the dialogue that might come of such ideas?

I use TED talks frequently in my classroom as models of research and as examples of great inquiry. At these times, the talks are not left simply to play. I’m there to facilitate some discussion and learning towards particular outcomes that I want kids to walk away with or as part of the inquiry in which we’re engaged.

Let me get back to talking about the cloud.

There needs to be a general call to warning about the stream of conversations that Mitra is part of. Do we really think that we can educate without teachers? It’s nice to think of adolescents as fully motivated to learn all of what we need them to without teachers. Is it really possible?

Are all of us that motivated? You can’t think of a time where you didn’t need a teacher to help motivate you or clarify your learning? Furthermore, how many people use the Internet for learning? Give an adult an iPad for an afternoon and are they going to read molecular biology? Or, will they surf their Facebook page and Amazon for the best deals and play cool word games with college dorm mates? I don’t mean to nullify the benefits of this technology, but I don’t think that we use the, in the ways the Mitra suggests we will.

While Mitra’s learning networks call them Grannies, they are still teachers who motivate and monitor the children as they learn. Smiling, grey-haired ladies pose little threat and certainly pose a warm, fuzzy feeling we believe would be the nicest of environments to learn inside of; however, sometimes I find students need something more forceful to motivate them. It is nice to think that all students, given a computer, will be motivated enough to learn the most complex of subjects, whether its molecular biology or the intricacies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Is it plausible?

Additionally, we’re not looking to create a world of call centers where we need learning networks to help people improve their English pronunciation. The higher ends of Bloom’s taxonomy tell us that higher level think is more than just parroting. While in India, answering phones at a call center may be a job of status, if the United States is going to regain its position as a global leader, we have to ask more of our students than being operators.

It’s easy in the new knowledge economy, with a prevalence of technology in offices, stories about flipped classrooms, and schools that have moved to 1:1 technology programs for the public to misrepresent what teachers do in the classrooms. It’s false to think that teachers stand at the front of the room and lecture endlessly and act as the sole holders of knowledge. Education is in a better state than that. Beyond being content holders, they are also facilitators of that content. They have been trained to recognize when a student has not gone far enough in understanding a topic, they identify the gaps in these knowledge and skill levels, and then they prepare further facilitation to get the kids to continue to develop. This is the unique training that teachers are given that does not exist in other professions. Not all students are able to identify these gaps on their own.

Educational researchers and pundits and techno-savvy gurus love the idea of the utopia where everyone’s got a tablet and access to all of human knowledge paired with the cost savings of not paying for teacher’s salaries or pensions. However, let’s remember the place and work of what it is that teachers really do.

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