TED Talk Meets Global Education: Keeping Your Kid’s Head in the Clouds

How TED Talks have become a major vehicle for learning

by Dr. Rod Berger

I sat down with Professor Sugata Mitra, TED Talk 2013 winner, and current Principal Investigator at the School in the Cloud to discuss how TED Talks have become a major vehicle for learning. Mitra points to the significance of allowing children to “research the researcher” to gain further knowledge on TED Talk presentations. By allowing children to investigate who is speaking and the motivation behind the speech, they become further engaged and inspired.

Mitra became well known for his 1999 Hole in the Wall experiment that revealed how children could learn by themselves if given Internet access and the ability to work collaboratively. The research led to a winning presentation in 2013, and eventually the formation of the School in the Cloud program - which makes internet accessible to all children around the globe

According to Mitra, networks rather than technological machines stand out as the greatest changing force facing education today. Technologies should not be defined as objects in and of themselves. The non-material aspect of an interconnected cyber network and the collective power of collaboration is how large scale transformation is taking place. The skill set of comprehending and presenting material to a growing global body of people will become increasingly critical to the success of students in the future. TED Talks can act as supportive tools to the learning process..

Many believe changes in education need to take place, but most are perplexed as to a common voice or pathway. Mitra points to assessment as a possible catalyst - get rid of the old bureaucratic evaluation process and reform in education can begin.

At the end of our discussion, I was struck by an answer to a question I posed. I asked Sugata Mitra to share an imaginary title of a TED Talk that might be missing from the educational conversation. The answer was shocking - “Do We Need An Education Anymore?” It was an honest yet troubling title to imagine, but one that requires us to dig deep and ask, “Are we selling our children short with an outdated model of education?”

Interview

Rod Berger: Sugata, this is a real treat to talk to you about the power of the TED Talk and understanding how it is impacting learning. To open up the discussion broadly to the way in which we think about young people and the way that they think about educational environments. Have you ever given thought about the power of the TED Talk from a delivery vehicle in the ways in which we can learn in the 21st century?

Sugata Mitra: Yes, I have often thought about TED Talks in that context. I’ve used TED Talks with children as well as adults. In the middle of a conversation, you can say, “Hey, that reminds me of a TED Talk. Let me see if I can show it to you.” It’s entirely possible with TED Talks, because of their timing; they are usually 15-20 minutes long.

I have experienced situations where I’ve wanted to watch a TED Talk but could not because I didn’t have earphones or I didn’t want to disturb other people. I wish there were a synopsis below the talk, which I could read if I can’t watch it. But that’s another point. (laugh)

RB: Given your experience with the TED Talk and their power, how can we translate that to classroom activity?

I agree with you. To be able to sit at your desk as an adult learner and take information from an expert is one thing. But what can we take if think about young people in the way that they might want to incorporate video, asynchronous learning into what we would think of as a typical school day around the world?

SM: I have a personal experience that I can relate to you which might be interesting. There is an area near Newcastle, England called “Longbenton.” It’s sort of a lower middle-class area. There’s a community center there.

I did a set of experiments on children’s aspirations. I would ask the children, “What do you want to become when you grow up?” and they would say something.

And then, I would show them a TED Talk. I would show them the TED Talk on a pretty large screen, maybe a 10-foot diagonal screen; so one wall of the classroom is the TED Talk.

I showed them a TED Talk and asked, “Let’s watch this and see if you like it.”

Once they’ve watched the TED Talk, then I would ask them a different question. I would say, “Did you like that? The guy who was doing the presenting, what do you think made him give the speech? Who is he? Where is he coming from?”

So instead of researching the topic of the talk itself, we would research the researcher.

I did this for about six weeks. I haven’t published the results, but there were distinct changes in what the children wanted to become.

They changed from footballer to primatologist. (laugh)

I don’t know if this is going to last, but obviously, there are two aspects to a TED Talk. I realized that from that experiment.

One is what the subject matter of the TED Talk is; the other is who is saying it and why.

RB: What does it say about the value of presentation skills?

I feel that we are now in an age where it’s a skill that we want all children to be able to develop regardless of whether they’re going to become an engineer, an entertainer or an academic. The ability to get up and convey your ideas is powerful because it means you also have the ability to put different points of information into one concept that can be consumed by other people.

Do you see it the same way?

SM: Yes. I think there are actually two abilities which are now universally required.

One is reading comprehension. I say “reading” for lack of a better word. I’m speaking of comprehension of all media, whatever it might be. To “Comprehend” as opposed to “understand,” if I might claim that distinction.

The second is - once you have comprehended, then you communicate that clearly and effectively to someone else.

I think both abilities are desired actions. They’re critical in our complex world where some people understand some things and other people understand other things.

The trick of development is for the two to be able to combine their comprehension together if that makes sense.

I often work with children and try to see the ways they are communicating and then look to improving that communication.

RB: Let’s take a different path in our discussion, Sugata. Let’s look back on your experience with the Hole in the Wall experiment, the TED Talks, and the fame that resulted. I know that was not the intent of what you were doing or Sir Ken Robinson for that matter. But I’m curious because we did a story recently where an educator said that the education world is looking for its Martin Luther King, Jr. ─ for a voice, a mouthpiece, someone to motivate and inspire.

I wonder where you are in that discussion in the way that you think about the need, globally, for us to be able to look at one person or a group of innovators to create a path that we can all strive to succeed in forming.

SM: I think there is a need to have a common voice. That common voice could be an individual, or it could be a group of individuals, or it could, perhaps, even be a government somewhere.

But we need a common voice that addresses the issue of change in education.

What I find interesting is that from the time I started working with the Hole in the Wall experiments back in 1999, I needed to start by saying, “A change is needed in education.” And then, there were other things.

I find the need to say that has diminished over time. Almost everybody agrees that a change is required, but there isn’t a common voice that says what the change should be. And, perhaps, none of us is very clear.

If you were to ask me today, “Do you know what the new system has to be like?” to be very honest, I would say “no.” I would say, “I know some things about what’s wrong with the existing system. I know some things about how we might correct those things. But do I have a unified future scenario in my mind? I don’t, and I don’t know if others do either.”

RB: To the point in your TED Talk, you talked about the bureaucratic administrative machine. Has the machine changed at all or is it the same machine that you and I grew up with?

SM: It has changed in certain respects, and whatever has changed has changed because of the Internet.

Banking, for example, is much less under that bureaucratic heavy machinery.

I’m from the generation where I used to sit in a bank with a token, waiting for my money to be delivered to me as though the bank was doing me a favor. (laugh) Those days are gone.

It has changed in those directions but, in certain other ways, it hasn’t. You could still take the matter to court and ensure that for the next century, nothing will happen using the power of a bureaucratic system.

Many countries use that. India is famous for that. If you tell somebody in India that the matter is in court, it’s assumed that nothing will happen for the next century. (laugh)

We are still very much in the grip of the old system simply because the old system was so tremendously efficient and effective at the time it was created.

RB: What is the implication? We say that human beings do not cater well to change. It is not something that our species does well ─ understanding change.

There has to be a value there. There’s got to be some concern. There are a lot of bright people around the world. There’s a lot of money. You would think that we could establish a biosphere of some sort and say the bureaucratic administrative machine could not enter.

I would argue that there would be parents who would contribute their children to that experiment to see what the learning environment would look like if it were void of that machine?

SM: Yes, there are people who would gladly participate in an experiment of that kind. But, with education, there is a different problem. In education, if it’s your child, then you are extremely risk-averse.

I’ve heard this over and over again with parents: “Sugata Mitra, you’re doing wonderful work.” But they don’t say, “Don’t try it with my child.”

It’s a hard nut to crack unless we can change the assessment system.

And I’ve said this over and over again now for several years that the assessment system is holding us up, and the assessment system is a product of the old bureaucratic system.

RB: Is it fair to say that maybe our attention has been pointed to the wrong group of stakeholders or people being the “system” and the “bureaucracy” when; in fact, we should be looking at the culture change within risk-averse parents?

If we think about marketing and messaging to parents about what could exist with their support and buy-in - is that a path that we should be looking into?

I often feel that parents are the ones that we leave out when we’re talking about what we want to do in changing education.

SM: Yes, we often do. I’m sure we should include the parents in deciding. But there are things that are engraved in our minds?

Let me give you an example: The ability to write by handwriting.

Most people would agree that their children are going to do very little of it when they grow up in the future. But, if we take the next step and say, “Why don’t you just stop your child from learning how to write by hand at all because it’s of no use?”

Well, then the old habits kick in, and the common response becomes, “You really should be able to write by hand.”

That’s where it gets stuck. It’s just not writing by hand. It’s about basic arithmetic. It’s about certain skills that everybody thinks you should know.

For example, you really should know how to tie your shoelaces. But something tells me that’s not a life skill anymore. (laugh)

RB: You can get that from informal research, right? (laugh)

SM: Exactly. (laugh)

RB: Sugata, I’d love to know where you see hope from education. As you look at what’s going on right now globally, what inspires you when you think about education technology. I know it’s an area of focus for you from the academic side and continuing with the Hole in the Wall. What innovations do you see that you think can have real institutional change or an impact across the world from a technology perspective?

SM: I have mixed feelings about the use of the word “technology.” It used to be a pretty clear word. It used to be things ─ machines.

When it comes to education, the role of the machine (itself) is actually minimal compared to the role of the network; and the network is not a machine. The network is not a thing. The network doesn’t have any special place it must be.

I often make fun with my students by saying, “Do you agree that the Internet exists?” and, of course, everybody says, “Yes, of course, it does.”

And then, I say, “Well, where is it?” (laugh)

To my mind, that’s a really important distinction. If I say, “Does a computer exist?”

“Yes, it does.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s standing here in front of me.”

But the Internet is not like that. Networks are not like that. Networks are, in a way, non-material.

So it’s like saying, “Are you conscious?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Well, where is it?” (laugh)

RB: It’s in my pocket (laugh)

SM: (laugh) We’ve ended up with a world where I feel that the role of the machine will increasingly become taken for granted. You’ll have a machine doing this, and you’ll have a machine doing that. You’ll have a car that drives on its own, a plane that drives itself and machine that operates and does open-heart surgery on you without any human intervention.

We will have all of that.

But what will shape our destiny, as a species, more than anything is the fact that we represent a network of billions together.

I don’t think we quite understand the meaning of being networked in that way. I believe some of the things in our present world that we struggle with - the huge political and socio-political problems that certain parts of the world are facing; the sudden eruption of religious tension; or young people behaving in a peculiarly primitive manner ─ are, perhaps, the consequences of a young but gigantic network.

RB: It’s very powerful to think about the network in that way and understanding where it fits in our lives.

And if we close with this, Sugata, the TED Talk, is another way to be networked into understanding what is going on and not being tied to a machine.

If you could order a TED Talk to be presented around education where we stand now, what TED Talk is missing that you think we need to hear that would either inspire us or inform us as to where we need to go in the future of education?

SM: Let me see if I can put this into words. I’m hesitating not because I don’t know but because I’m trying to figure out how to say it.

Okay. You asked for it.

The TED Talk that’s missing is “Do we need an education anymore?”

RB: That’s a very, very powerful question to ask.

SM: It troubles me as much as it troubles most people who will hear it. But could education as it exists today be one of those things that we used to need for our survival and the survival of our society?

It served its use for many years when we were single individuals disconnected from each other with the only way of storing information being through books.

But in this world where we’re all connected, has education served its purpose?

RB: That’s an incredible place to leave our discussion today, Sugata. We appreciate your efforts in global education. As I was saying earlier, I think we can all agree that we need our own Martin Luther King, Jr. (not to be U.S. specific) but a voice to wrap our minds around and challenge us.

You do that consistently, and I hope that people continue to support your work with the School in the Cloud. I’ve personally been there, and we have talked a great deal about it off-air. It’s a wonderful place of inspiration, creativity, and learning.

Thank you so much, Sugata.

SM: Thank you for having me.

About Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra is Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University.

His “Hole in the Wall” experiments, begun in 1999, revealed that groups of children can learn almost anything by themselves given Internet access and the ability to work collaboratively. He developed this original idea into the SOLE [the Self Organized Learning Environment] approach, reaching out to children with minimal or no educational opportunities, in remote corners of the globe.

He has driven research into making this approach part of mainstream education. At TED2013, Sugata Mitra made a bold TED Prize wish: to revolutionize the future of learning. The School in the Cloud is making this possible with self-organized learning and Sugata’s methodologies at its heart.

Sugata has home bases in Newcastle, UK and West Bengal, India, his ideas are having an impact world-wide.

Follow Sugata Mitra and School in the Cloud on Twitter

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post by Dr. Rod Berger

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