This blog post originally appeared on The Huffington Post on 3/4/2013.
What enables you to read this blog post? Your desktop PC? A smart phone? A tablet computer? However you've stumbled across this, odds are it was not in some printed binding of The Huffington Post's latest blog entries.
You probably do much of your reading on monitors and touchscreens, and that makes complete sense. It's 2013, and though we're not where popular science fiction of the 20th century had us (Skynet has mercifully not become self-aware… yet), our capacity to access and disseminate data has experienced two decades worth of revolution in growth of scope.
As much makes Sugata Mitra's TED Prize wish — that we build a school in the digital cloud, a "Self-Organized Learning Environment" (SOLE) in which children can teach themselves and each other — a completely reasonable, and important, goal.
The potential of collaborative, technologically-driven learning environments to drive success in education lies in their capacity to create community. Dr. Mitra's formula of broadband + collaboration + encouragement and admiration is an effort to create a community for a student that is highly favorable toward and supportive of learning. Education research indicates that such environments can have a positively significant impact on a student's education outcomes than any other factor.
What concerns me as an education reformer about Dr. Mitra's aspirational position is just that: it is still highly aspirational. Why, when we have such incredible technological resources at our disposal, have we been so slow to implement technology in many of our schools?
The barriers vary. In some areas, especially poorer and more remote ones, funding and infrastructure are a challenge that must be overcome. Here, where we have an abundance of both those things, a very different barrier exists. It's one that should be beatable and yet remains a serious obstacle to any education reform, technology-driven or otherwise: fear of change.
Dr. Mitra's assertion that our school system is out of date rings especially true in the United States. As much shows in our slipping global education rank; according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, we now treat our students to the 17th best education in the world. Among OECD countries, our math testing scores dipped to 25th out of 34 countries in 2009. Those are not terribly impressive numbers for a global superpower.
In spite of this, we remain largely committed to an education model implemented during the Cold War. Students come to school for 6 or 7 hours a day. Teachers talk at them. They go home. While lectures have their merits, this environment hardly mirrors the modern working world, of which technology usage is often a major part.
Many American students use computers and smartphones daily. Exploiting these technologies in the learning environment — technologies with which today's learners almost innately engage — is vital to the construction of the learning environments Dr. Mitra aspires to create. Some states, like Florida and Utah, have embraced learning technologies and seen them flourish. In 2010-2011, the Florida Virtual School served over 148,000 students.
Other states have been slower. In Texas, where I'm from, we have been hearing that learning technologies are the future of education for a decade. Yet efforts to expand such technologies are frequently met with so much caution from members of the education establishment that the inertia becomes too much to overcome.
While caution is necessary in any decision that affects the education of our next generation is important, so is boldness. The idea that students can use technology to self-teach is bold. The notion of a network of educators working together to bring high quality learning opportunities to children worldwide is bold. The SOLE is the kind of idea our education communities should be embracing to modernize global education.
The wonderful thing about technology is that it can work fast. Dr. Mitra's idea, with enough buy in from the education community as well as those among us who might have knowledge worth sharing with today's students, could be implemented quickly. Quickness to embrace such ideas, to use the technology at its disposal, has not always come easily to the education community, especially in the United States. A willingness to do so, to be bold, will be key in the execution of Dr. Mitra's vision. A vision with the potential enhance learning opportunities for students the world over.