Self-Organized Learning Environments

Self-Organized Learning Environments

Author: Evyan Wagner

Learn about Sugata Mitra's philosophy, the structure of a SOLE, and create your own SOLE. 

Learn about Sugata Mitra's SOLEs--Self-Organized Learning Environments. A great resource for teachers looking to flip their classrooms, Sugata's talks and writings on SOLEs can be inspirational and guiding.

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A School in the Cloud

Sugata Mitra shows how SOLE (Self-Organized Learning Environments) can change the way kids learn--and how we teach.

Creating a SOLE

The SOLE Toolkit provides information and resources to creating your own SOLE.

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The Sole of a Student

The Sole Of A Student

From Plato to Aurobindo, from Vygotsky to Montessori, centuries of educational thinking have vigorously debated a central pedagogical question: How do we spark creativity, curiosity, and wonder in children? But those who philosophized pre-Google were prevented from wondering just how the Internet might influence the contemporary answer to this age-old question. Today, we can and must; a generation that has not known a world without vast global and online connectivity demands it of us.

But first, a bit of history: to keep the world's military-industrial machine running at the zenith of the British Empire, Victorians assembled an education system to mass-produce workers with identical skills. Plucked from the classroom and plugged instantly into the system, citizens were churned through an educational factory engineered for maximum productivity.

Like most things designed by the Victorians, it was a robust system. It worked. Schools, in a sense, manufactured generations of workers for an industrial age.

But what got us here, won't get us there. Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain -- to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.

We need a pedagogy free from fear and focused on the magic of children's innate quest for information and understanding.-- Sugata Mitra

Today we're seeing institutions -- banking, the stock exchange, entertainment, newspapers, even health care -- capture and share knowledge through strings of zeros and ones inside the evolving Internet... "the cloud." While some fields are already far advanced in understanding how the Internet age is transforming their structure and substance, we're just beginning to understand the breadth and depth of its implications on the future of education.

Unlocking the power of new technologies for self-guided education is one of the 21st century superhighways that need to be paved. Profound changes to how children access vast information is yielding new forms of peer-to-peer and individual-guided learning. The cloud is already omnipresent and indestructible, democratizing and ever changing; now we need to use it to spark the imaginations and build the mental muscles of children worldwide.

This journey, for me, began back in 1999, when I conducted an experiment called the "hole in the wall." By installing Internet-equipped computers in poor Indian villages and then watching how children interacted with them, unmediated, I first glimpsed the power of the cloud. Groups of street children learned to use computers and the Internet by themselves, with little or no knowledge of English and never having seen a computer before. Then they started instinctually teaching one another. In the next five years, through many experiments, I learned just how powerful adults can be when they give small groups of children the tools and the agency to guide their own learning and then get out of the way.

It's not just poor kids that can benefit from access to the Internet and the space and time to wonder and wander. Today, teachers around the world are using what I call "SOLEs," "self organized learning environments," where children group around Internet-equipped computers to discuss big questions. The teacher merges into the background and observe as learning happens.

I once asked a group of 10-year-olds in the little town of Villa Mercedes in Argentina: Why do we have five fingers and toes on each limb? What's so special about five? Their answer may surprise you.

The children arrived at their answer by investigating both theology and evolution, discovering the five bones holding the web on the first amphibians' fins, and studying geometry. Their investigation resulted in this final answer: The strongest web that can be stretched the widest must have five supports.

Today, I launch my SOLE toolkit -- designed to empower teacher and parents to create their own spaces for sparking children's curiosity and agency. My team and I are excited to see more educators trying this future-oriented pedagogical tool on for size and then sharing their learnings are insights so we can all benefit from the hive mind.

Meanwhile, with my newly bestowed TED Prize, my team and I will build The School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online. Technology, architecture, creative, and educational partners will help us design and build it. Kids will help us explore a range of cloud-based, scalable approaches to self-directed learning. A global network of educators and retired teachers will support and engage the children through the web.

We need a curriculum of big questions, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems. We need children from a range of economic and geographic backgrounds and an army of visionary educators. We need a pedagogy free from fear and focused on the magic of children's innate quest for information and understanding.

In the networked age, we need schools, not structured like factories, but like clouds. Join us up there.

Watch Sugata Mitra's interview with HuffPost Livehere.

TED and The Huffington Post invite you to take theSOLE Challenge, a unique contest in which we're asking teachers and parents to create child-centered learning labs in their homes and schools. Write an 800 to 1,000 word blog post on your experiences and send it totedweekends@huffingtonpost.com. Three winning submissions will get to attend TED Youth 2013.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or emailtedweekends@huffingtonpost.com to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.

This story appears in Issue 39 of our weekly iPad magazine,Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 8.

Know the opposing arguments:

Sugata Mitra: Slum chic? 7 reasons for doubt

This is a Sigatra Mitra ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ site in India. Literally just three holes in a wall. That’s because it failed. The community can barely remember why they were installed or what happened. They do remember that they were vandalised (a known problem with unsupervised children?).
Here’s another, set in a school playground, the computers long gone. “What we see is the idea of free learning going into free fall” said Payal Arora. When Arora came across these two ‘hole-in-the-wall’ sites, accidentally in India, she discovered not the positive tales of self-directed learning but failure. One was vandalised and closed down within two months, the other abandoned and, apparently, had been mostly used by boys to play games. A real problem was sustainability, as no one seemed responsible for the electricity and maintenance bills.

My own doubts arose when I gave a TEDx talk and the speaker after me was an academic from Mitra’s department at Newcastle University. She was well versed in Indian education, and went on to talk at length about feckless third world teachers and state schools, but she was also scathing about the hole-in-the-wall research, not only the research methods and conclusions. This made me more than a little curious. Sugata Mitra is treated by the educational world as some sort of saint. Otherwise smart and reasonable people go gaga for Mitra. Hailed as the ‘hole-in-the-wall hero’, few question his questionable research or even more questionable recommendations. Academics, who would go to the wall to defend the ‘lecture’, will hail the idea of replacing schools with hole-in-the-wall computers, not of course in their own institutions but certainly for poor people. Now I’ve spent the whole of my adult life creating and evangelising online learning but even I draw a line at his utopian vision. Here’s why I have doubts.
1. Funding.
Few realise that hole-in-the-wall funding came originally from from NIIT then the International Finance Corporation, a commercial Indian e-learning company and the for-profit side of the World Bank. I know them well and believe me, this is no charitable institution. As Arora (2010) points out, there is little real independent evidence, other than that provided by HiWEL itself and one must always question research funded by those who would benefit from a positive outcome. The lack of independent research on the sites is astonishing, something noted by Mark Warschauer, one of the few critics who have actually visited a site.

2. Holes in the research
Arora exposed a glaring weakness in the design of the experiment. The 75 days of learning (with a mediator) was compared to the same period in the local school but like was not being compared to like, so the comparison was meaningless. It was not comparing the amount of time spent on the hole-in-the-wall material with the same or similar amount of time in school. This is also true of Mitra's compadre at MIT Negroponte in his Ethiopian work.
3. School in disguise?
“Schools are obsolete” said Mitra – oh yeah? Far from being sited in open places, HiWEL sites are now invariably in school compounds. By being in the school it is difficult to do research that isolates the experience from the school, difficult to disentangle the role of the school (teachers, books etc.) and the hole-in-the-wall computers. Indeed, as HiWEL has explained, they involve ‘teachers’ in their implementation and mediation, making it almost impossible to isolate the causes of educational improvement. One could say, with Arora, that this has become “self-defeating”. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ has become the ‘computer-in-the-school’. This is a subtle switch - evangelise on one premise, deliver on another.
4. Mediators
As HiWEL makes extensive use of mediators (teachers), the real lesson of the hole in the wall experiments is that teachers, or at least mediators, seem to be a necessary condition for learning to combat exclusion, mediate learning and avoid the vagaries of child-centred behaviour. Yet this is not really what the TED talks and hole-in-the-wall evangelism suggests. Another problem is that by seeing teachers as ‘invasive’, such initiatives can antagonise teachers and educators, leading to poor-support. Arora concludes are that these experiments do not work when not linked to the local schools and that, far from being self-directed, the children need mediation by adults. Arora goes further and claims that disassociating learning from adult guidance can lead to uncritical acceptance of bad content and bad learning habits.
5. Low level learning
Warschauer (2003) is even more critical than Arora. He claims that “overall the project was not very effective”, with low level learning and not challenging. In addition, he found that some of the many problems were the fact that the internet rarely functioned, no content was provided in Hindi, the only language the children knew, and many parents thought that the paucity of relevant content rendered it irrelevant and criticised the kiosks as distracting the children from their homework. Sure they learned how to use menus, drag and drop but most of the time they were “using paint programs or playing games”. This is hardly surprising and seems to confirm the rather banal conclusion that when you give kids shiny new things, they play with them. 
6. Peer pressure
Notice two things about this image – no girls and big boys at the screen. You get an odd skew in the data based on the fact that the few successes tell you nothing about the absent children, that got nowhere near the kiosks – these missing children turn out to be the many, not the few, and lot of girls. We should be careful about saying, like Mitra, that schools are obsolete, as they are our best bet in providing universal access and participation. Unmediated peer learning among children can be difficult as “self-organising children” are rarely optimal learning groups. Indeed, they are more commonly, narrowly defined peer groups, built around class, background, locale, a musical style, fashion, even power. The school playground is a competitive space that many children fear. It is, for many, a place of social isolation and exclusion. Most teachers and parents have experienced the evils of self-organised ‘peer groups’ not just on terms of pressure but also of exclusion and bullying. Indeed Arora (2005) has evidence that boys playing games was the real net outcome in Andhra Pradesh.
7. Educational colonialism. Mitra has been criticised for a form of educational colonialism. Who among you in the developed world would abandon all teaching and install ‘hole-in-the-wall’ learning for your own children? We are being asked to believe that the solution to the lack of opportunities in third world education are computers in walls? Are we really going to dangerously divert funding from rural schools into these schemes? Is this poorly designed research and exaggerated conclusions, from an educational department in a European University, used to justify an approach to education that no parent, even in impoverished countries, would consider for one minute? If Mitra has children, I wonder if he’s allowing them to learn in this way?
Conclusion - a little learning is indeed a dangerous thing
Based on scanty evidence, funded by parties who have a lot to gain then shifted away from hole-in-the-wall to computers-in-schools. Like Slumdog Millionaire, the movie inspired by Mitra’s work, it beggars belief. There’s no silver bullet here and we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking this is the answer. The real danger is that we get carried away by under-researched ‘feelgood’ initiatives. Slumdog Millionaire is typical of the utopian nonsense that can emerge. An overly romanticised, rags to riches, Bollywood Cinderella story that is an assault on probability. Is Mitra’s story also one of ‘Slum chic’? Perhaps the most disgustingly contrived moment of the film is when Jamal says 'You wanted to see the real India' and the US tourist, hands him a $100 note saying ‘Now we'll show you the real America'. This, for me, was reminiscent of the TED Prize.
Arora, P. (2010), Hope-in-the-Wall? A digital promise for free learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41: 689–702.http://www.payalarora.com/Publications/Arora-HopeintheWall.pdf
Koseoglu, S. (2011). The hole in the wall experiments: Learning from self-organizing systems. Retrieved from http://umn.academia.edu/SuzanKoseoglu
Mitra, S., & Rana, V. (2001). Children and the Internet: Experiments with minimally invasive education in India. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32 (2), 221-232.
Mitra, S. (2003). Minimally invasive education: A progress report on the ‘Hole-in-the-wall’ experiments. The British Journal of Educational Technology, 34 (3), 367-371.
Mitra, S. (2005). Self organising systems for mass computer literacy: Findings from the 'hole in the wall' experiments.  International Journal of Development Issues, 4 (1), 71-81.
Mitra, S. (2006). The Hole in the Wall: Self-organising systems in education. Noida, UP: TataMcGraw Hill.
Mitra, S. (2009). Remote presence: ‘Beaming’ teachers where they cannot go. Journal of  Emerging Technology and Web Intelligence, 1 (1), 55-59.
Mitra, S., Dangwal, R., & Thadani, L. (2008). Effects of remoteness on the quality of education:A case study from North Indian schools. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24 (2), 168-180.
Mitra, S., & Dangwal, R. (2010). Limits to self-organising systems of learning - The Kalikuppamexperiment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41 (5), 672-688.
Warschauer, M. 2003. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Warschauer, M. 2009. ‘Digital literacy studies: Progress and prospects’. In The Future of Literacy Studies, edited by Baynham, M; Prinsloo, M. London: Palgrave Macmillan: 123–140.


Using the SOLE Toolkit as a guide, CREATE your own SOLE. 

Choose a big concept or lesson in your content area. Create several broad questions that will lead students to important information in that concept. SOLE away!