Living in the age where "knowing" may be obsolete

March 12, 2013 by EDEN Secretariat  

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Interview with Sugata Mitra by Steve Wheeler

The media and education worlds have been buzzing over the last few days about the work of a quiet, unassuming Indian born professor. Born in Calcutta in 1952, Sugata Mitra started his academic career in computational and molecular science. His later research also encompassed biological science and energy storage systems. Mitra has also researched diversely into areas such as medicine (Alzheimer’s disease and memory research) and psychology (perception in hypermedia environments) and he received a PhD in Physics for his studies into organic semi-conductors. It is not hard to see why some have hailed him as a polymath and even ‘something of a genius’. Most recently, Professor Mitra won the prestigious TED prize of 1 million US dollars acknowledgement of his work setting up computer kiosks in developing rural areas, and for his studies into ‘minimally invasive education’. He is now Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, in the North East of England. I managed to catch up with him to interrupt his busy schedule for a brief interview ahead of his keynote at the EDEN 2013 Oslo conference.


Steve: Sugata, thank you for taking some time out from your busy schedule to speak to me, and congratulations on your recent TED prize. You have been an inspiration to many through your research, but what is it that inspires you the most in your work?

Sugata: When the numbers from measurements come together I look for strong correlations - black and white with zero probability of error. Like in a Physics experiment. Sometimes I get results like that and I think, 'I guessed that one right'.

Steve: A lot of your recent work has been around the use of technology in education. What benefits do you believe technology is offering to learners, and what evidence is there that it is making a difference?

Sugata: In you will find several examples, including children teaching themselves to use the Internet on street side computers, and doing it well enough to pass a government examination on computers. Children in Kuppam teaching themselves biotechnology 10 years ahead of their time and children in Uruguay whose reading comprehension in Spanish has jumped several levels because of their access to computers.

There are many other published results. Anecdotally, a student from a village in Maharashtra, India, is doing a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology with a scholarship to Yale. He says he got there because he used to read New Scientist from a hole in the wall computer in his village. A child from a slum in Hyderabad, India, is studying medicine with a scholarship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He got there with encouragement, advice and support from a 'Skype Granny' from England. 

Steve: These are certainly remarkable results, leading me to think that education is in need of change. What do you think are the main constraints preventing any significant reforms of education? And what might be done to overcome them?

Sugata: There is a powerful belief that schooling should be done the way it is. All we need to do is improve classrooms, make teachers better and review the curriculum every five years. This is thinking from another century, so powerfully reinforced that we find it impossible to think any other way. Schooling does not need improvement, it needs to be reinvented. Every aspect of it - curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and certification. Some brave Government, somewhere, will have to take a plunge....

Let me give you an example. Here is one of today’s examination questions: How long will it take a 5 Kg mass to fall to the ground if dropped from a height of 20 metres? (Do not use computers, calculators or any other aids. Do not talk)

This could easily be changed to: Use the Internet to find out how long it will  take a 5 Kg mass to fall to the ground if dropped from a height of 20 metres. Discuss the answer with your colleagues and report the results of the discussion. Justify why you think the answer is right. 

Steve: That would certainly bring more relevance to learning, especially for children who have grown up with technology all around them. Let’s talk about your recent work. You are known worldwide for your groundbreaking work in minimally invasive education. Can you explain what this is and why you think it is so important?

Sugata: There are places on the planet where good teachers cannot or do not go. We have tried to level the playing field for a thousand years, unsuccessfully. We need an alternative. Children, given technology and left alone, seem to be able to level the playing field by themselves, probably because Computers and the Internet work the same way in the swamps of the Sunderbans as in Washington DC. Teachers don't work the same way, neither do parents. So, if there was a way of learning that had minimum dependence on parents and teachers, children everywhere would have a better chance. This is Minimally Invasive Education. 

Steve: You seem to have attracted the nickname of the 'Slumdog Professor' in regards to the influence your research had on the making of the Slum Dog Millionaire movie. Is this something you are happy with?

Sugata: I am happy that Vikas Swarup was inspired by my early work. I am not happy that self taught children should aspire to win game shows. They should do a Ph.D. instead, as, at least, one child from a hole in the wall computer has done. I love the name though!

Steve: You tell stories about your contact with learners in remote or under privileged areas of society, many of which are inspirational. Which story (or stories) inspires you the most from your many travels?

Sugata: There are far too many stories to tell, all of them incredibly inspiring. One incident came to my mind as I said the last sentence:

'You Sir, have crossed all limits of human decency!' said a child to another in a self organised learning session without teachers. The teacher and I giggled from the corridor for a long time. I don't know why I find this inspiring, but I like laughing. 

Steve: Following on from your hole in the wall projects in their various contexts, you developed the idea of remote mentors, popularly called the 'Granny Cloud'. Can you explain how this works and why it is important?

Sugata: As I previously said, there are places on the planet where good teachers cannot or do not go. But they can, using Skype. There are retired teachers who miss children. Grannies can accelerate self organised learning. Put it all together and you get the Granny Cloud. You can get further details about this idea from

Steve: Can you talk a little about your latest research interests?

Sugata: There are several research questions I’m currently pursuing. For example, can a facility for children be operated remotely over the Internet? What will it take to build one? How can we get Key Stage 4 (14-16 year old) reading comprehension in children of age six? Is there a math (formula) that will explain how learning works?

Steve: Those are quite ambitious research questions, and we will be very interested to hear of your results. I had dinner with Nicholas Negroponte recently and your name came up. He told me you have been involved with MIT, working with him and his colleagues such as Vijay Kumar in the Media Lab. Could you talk a little about your involvement there? Did your work there for example relate to Negroponte's one laptop per child movement?

Sugata: I was there as a visiting professor for a year. I am not now. My work with Nicholas was on whether children can learn to read by themselves. We don't quite know yet. Nicholas framed a question for me, 'is knowing obsolete?' It is my biggest take away from the Media Lab. 

Steve: What is your vision for education in the next 10 years? What do you think needs to be done next?

Sugata: We need to rethink the curriculum, rethink assessment and rethink certification in an age where 'knowing' may be obsolete. Homo Sapiens will transition to Homo Deus in the next 50 years. Our preoccupation will be with meaning and creation. Knowing will not be our main interest - creating will. In order to create we will need to know things. When we need to know something we will have the means and the capacity to do so in minutes. A page of erudite text may take an educated person an hour to understand. A century ago it would have taken a month. A thousand years ago, a year or more. We could extrapolate to a time when it will take us a minute to understand. A generation or two later, one second. 

The human brain is evolving faster than anything has, ever before.   

Steve: Sugata, thank you for sharing your thoughts.


Steve Wheeler is Associate Professor of Learning Technologies at Plymouth University, in South West England and a passionate blogger. Originally trained as a psychologist, he has spent his entire career working in media, technology and learning. He is now in the Faculty of Health, Education and Society. He teaches on a number of undergraduate and post-graduate teacher education programmes. He specialises in research on e-learning and distance education, with particular emphasis on social media and Web 2.0 tools. Steve is elected Member of the EDEN Network of Academics and Professionals Steering Committee and was named as the world's 4th most influential Twitter personality on the topic learning technology in 2012.


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