Saturday, March 9, 2013

Clouds and Knowledge Extinction

I recently discovered Sugata Mitra's thought-provoking TED talk, "Build a School in the Cloud."  If you haven't seen it yet, you absolutely should:

Mr. Mitra's vision is inspirational and aspires to answer a central question of modern day education: how do we prepare and educate the children of today for their jobs in the future, many of which do not exist yet?  Mr. Mitra's answer is to develop Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) environments where inquiry-based learning is not only the foundation, but the linchpin of the learning experience.  Mr. Mitra's experiences with his "hole in the wall" experiments offer compelling evidence for students' ability to take ownership of their learning and think critically.

In the midst of all of these positives, I find myself returning to one of Mr. Mitra's central questions: Is knowledge obsolete?  Of what value is knowledge, if computers can recite any fact much quicker and more accurately than the human memory?

I agree with Mr. Mitra that most of traditional educational pedagogy is centered around either learning facts or the application of rote procedures to solve problems.  The creation of the type of dynamic learning environment that is central to Mr. Mitra's vision represents a significant break from this traditional approach, where the teacher is the center and appraiser of all knowledge in the classroom.  Herein, however, lies the conundrum.

How does the learning in the SOLE environment happen without that knowledge source in the classroom?  While a computer can introduce a task, it is the human element that assesses student need in real time, asks the appropriate guiding question to refocus the group, and provides words to reassure or challenge students based on individual needs.

Technology can do a great many things, and that number of things increases exponentially with each passing year.  However, it cannot yet diagnose a student's academic and social-emotional needs in real time and know exactly what to ask or say to comfort, challenge, or motivate a student whose learning has stalled (e.g., the "encouragement" and/or the "granny cloud" that Mr. Mitra references).  It is the human connection that matters most.  What will those connections look like in the future?

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