What does ‘Learning’ mean?
Cloud Computing Children, given access to the Internet in groups, can learn anything by themselves. Indeed, ‘learning’ itself may no longer be as important as it used to be.
I knew nothing of this when I did an experiment with children and computers in the slums of New Delhi. It was January 1999, and all I wanted to find out was whether these children who knew nothing of computers or the Internet (and, indeed, knew almost no English) would make any sense of a digital environment. The computer was embedded in a wall of the slum, like a crude, ‘do it yourself’ ATM.
The children began to surf and teach each other to surf in about eight hours. There was nobody to show them anything. They learnt how to play games, paint and finally how to look for information. They learnt some crude but workable English to enable them to do all this. We, admiring adults, were astounded. The press called it the ‘hole in the wall’.
‘How can they do all this, with nobody to tell them anything?’, we wondered. It would be years later that I would realise that they learnt so quickly because there was no one to teach them.
We (my research colleagues and I) repeated the experiment many times over in the slums and villages of India. The results were always the same – digital literacy out of nowhere.
The children began to use the Internet for their homework. They copied down things from websites and took them to their astounded teachers. ‘This is not learning’, everyone admonished me. They, and I, had missed a vital point, a mistake that would cost me several years. The children were, almost always, copying the right things down. How did they find the websites that were relevant? How did they find the right answers?
We continued with several years of experiments until it was clear that children in groups do have an understanding that is much greater than that of each individual. It was this collective ‘hive’ mind that was working like an efficient teacher. I had seen nothing like this before and it took me years to realise that what we were witnessing at the ‘holes in the walls’ was an example of a self organising system – where spontaneous order appears out of nowhere.
I brought the results to England in 2006. There, with the help of a teacher, we created the hole in the wall inside the classroom. We called it a Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE). It consisted of a mildly chaotic situation caused by a few Internet connections, about a quarter of the number of children present. The children formed groups and milled around, much as they did in the Indian experiments. They began to answer questions years beyond their time. We admired them – they laughed and went still further.
I made a ‘Granny Cloud’ for children in India, consisting of people who had the time and inclination to talk to children over Skype. Children who are in places where good teachers do not, or cannot, go.
In 2013, TED gave me a million dollar prize. I am using the money to build ‘Schools in the Cloud’ – spaces where SOLEs and the Granny Cloud come together. In a few years we will see what that does to education – not just in remote places, but everywhere.
By 2014, teachers in all five continents were making SOLEs in their schools. I have lost count of how many they are. Collectively, they are changing the nature of education.
When automobiles took over from horse drawn carriages, the coachmen went away and the passengers became the drivers. Eventually, cars will drive themselves and ‘driving’ will become an obsolete skill. A child, 20 years from now, will ask, ‘what does ‘driving’ mean?’
When the Internet takes over from ‘taught’ schools, the learners become their own teachers. But only for a while, until the immense network drives all learning and makes ‘learning’ itself obsolete.
A child, 20 years from now, may well ask ‘what does ‘learning’ mean?’