Virus versus the internet — education during and after the pandemic


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Anu Nathan, itslearning

Sugata Mitra is a well-known education researcher and is currently Professor Emeritus at NIIT University. He spoke at an itslearning event in 2017 in Bergen, and with so much having changed in the field of education since then, we invited him back to talk about the future of learning, what we have learned from keeping education going in the midst of a pandemic and how we could improve education. Here is a summary of the presentation he delivered at our global online event — itsConvention 2021.

We asked Sugata (as he prefers to be called) to talk on rebooting education after the pandemic. Covid-19 triggered a huge transformation in education, pushing schools to adopt remote and hybrid learning around the world. We wondered what Sugata made of that. Since his Hole in the Wall experiment in 1999, the former University of Newcastle professor has been a proponent of self-organized learning environments (SOLE) and learning by using the internet.

That has not changed.

‘When we go back to normal – what normal are we talking about?’

Sugata Mitra, education theorist

‘These last 2 years of the pandemic, where the world was going through this huge transformation, I thought a lot about what would life have been like if we didn’t have the internet. I think you would realize that the reason we can continue to do the things that we do is because of the internet. The internet has changed everything — healthcare, how we buy and sell things, travel and education.

image of sugata mitra facing camera

‘Groups of unsupervised children, using the internet, can learn anything by themselves. I have not found anything to suggest otherwise.’

SOLE solution

‘In the early days of the pandemic all education shut down. Then we picked it up — we self-organized to reboot education and keep learning going.

‘I’ve been talking about SOLE for more than 30 years, ever since my Hole in the Wall experiment. But I believe it hasn’t really caught on, because SOLE doesn’t teach students to answer exam questions, certainly not how exams are set now. But it is not enough for students to just remember what they have learned. Exams, as we know them, are tests for memory not knowledge.’

What Sugata would rather see is students being tested on what they have understood. Can they communicate and explain their understanding of what they have learned? And he says the reason SOLE has not caught on is because such tests are much harder to set.

Educate to be future-proof

He wants to see education going forward, rather than returning to normal.

‘What I could not do in 30 years — the virus did in months — it changed the system. We all moved into SOLE. Unfortunately in the beginning there were mistakes because we tried to recreate the classroom on the internet. Instead of 24 learners in front of you, teachers now had 24 learners connecting via the internet and the teacher would lecture and show them slides.

‘How about instead of lecturing, ask a question? Questions that are carefully designed — that cannot be Googled in 2 seconds.’

What he would like to happen more is group work, getting students to collaborate and then presenting a report. The listener (teacher) listens to the groups’ reports and summarizes. This is the essence of SOLE.

In 2017, he raised some eyebrows in our convention hall when he said: ‘Unsupervised groups in the presence of the internet can learn almost anything by themselves if they wish to.’

He has not wavered from that belief and says the role of the teacher must be of the person raising that interest in the question.

‘Groups of unsupervised children, using the internet, can learn anything by themselves if they want to. I have not found anything to suggest otherwise. But a 9-year-old will learn it differently from an adult; they will learn in their own way.’

The pandemic and beyond

With coronavirus cases spiking in Asia, he adds that we may never go back to how education was before the pandemic, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

‘Why should we? The big change in education is the shift in the things we know and what we don’t know yet.’

He says it is important to teach students the fundamentals that will help them live happy, health and useful lives in the era that they live in. And that means teaching them the skills for tomorrow, teaching them to seek information rather than memorize and pass examinations.

Attitudes for today’s educator

In his presentation, he outlined 15 attitudes for educators of today including the flexibility of hybrid learning and shifting ‘from making it happen, to letting it happen’ to nurture students to become seekers of knowledge. He believes that education systems around the world that are still rooted in the 19th century education model do not benefit us, because this model worked when we could predict the problems we might face, when change wasn’t so abrupt as it is in today’s world. He wants to see teachers teach for today’s world by teaching students how to figure things out and look up information, while also being able to distinguish the fake from the real, and then present their findings similar to how PhD students do.

Here are some other key points he suggests teachers adopt to prepare students for the future.

  1. Understand that the purpose of education is to enable people to live happy, healthy and useful lives.
  2. Shift from ‘just in case’ to ‘just in time’. Use the internet to learn the answers to questions we have at the time.
  3. The ‘you go and I will follow’ method. Let your learners explore and take the lead.
  4. Do not teach learners what they can learn by themselves.
  5. Computing, comprehension and communication are all that we need to assess.
  6. Allow the use of the internet during examinations. Set questions meant to show understanding.
  7. Conversations with the teacher can provide an accurate assessment of learning. Why don’t we ask the teachers for an assessment of what a student understands rather than testing their memory skills?

Sugata has expanded on these ideas in his book ‘Virus vs. The Internet’ which is available on online bookstores.

If you’d like to know more about hybrid learning and how itslearning supports student-driven education, read our free Hybrid Learning Handbook for educators.

Remote learning starter kit image

Free Remote Learning Starter Kit


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