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A Hole in the Wall, Or Our Heads in the Cloud(s)?

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There are two recent cultural inflection points you'd be wise to check out if you care about the future of education: the first is Sugata Mitra's acceptance speech for receiving the TED Prize, in which he outlines his plan to "build a school in the cloud;" and the second is ed/tech writer Audrey Watters' article warning of the potential consequences that could follow an uncritical acceptance of Mitra's vision.

Mitra, in case you missed it, is the Indian computer programmer who in 1999 placed a computer in the hole of a wall facing a community of uneducated children in a New Delhi slum. Within weeks, the children taught themselves how to use it and surf the Web, with nary an adult in sight.

Since then, Mitra's work has involved other experiments in providing children with the space and a sufficient prompt to light their self-directed learning energy on fire. The culmination of this work (which he now has $1 million from TED to actualize) is the school in the cloud - a space where children can explore and learn on their own using resources from the worldwide web. "It's not about making learning happen," says Mitra, "it's about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion, and then she stands back in awe and watches as learning happens."

It's a provocative idea - albeit one that could just as easily describe thousands of well-run classrooms across the country right now. That's part of what worries Watters, a veteran reporter on the intersection between education and technology. "In the TED world of techno-humanitarianism," she writes, "this computer-enabled learning certainly makes for an incredibly compelling story. But once something becomes a TED Talk, it becomes oddly unassailable. The video, the speech, the idea, the applause -- there too often stops our critical faculties. We don't interrupt. We don't jeer. We don't ask any follow-up questions."

Watters then asks a slew of follow-up questions, but the gist of her argument is that ideas like Mitra's aren't "simply about the rise of the learner -- we'd be so naive to believe that's the case. It's about the rise of the technology industry alongside the collapse of the education sector. Take away the public school, as Mitra suggests -- it is a colonial legacy! -- and replace it with computers. . . The School in the Cloud project posits that education is a corporate (financial) investment rather than a public good. Why fund public schools when we can put a kiosk in a tech company's annex? Why fund public schools when you can learn anything online?" Indeed, she cautions, despite Mitra's "claims to be liberatory -- with the focus on 'the learner' and 'the child' -- this hacking of education . . . is politically regressive. It is, however, likely to be good business for the legions of tech entrepreneurs in the audience."

Who is right here? Are ideas like a school in the cloud indicative of the future of learning, the death of public education, both, or neither?

Since the article has come out, there's an interesting conversation, with lots of civil friction, unfolding on Facebook. "I've spoken with Sugata Mitra multiple times," said Nikhil Goyal, a 17-year-old critic of public education, "and he doesn't have a vein of profit intention. He's not advocating for the abolition of public schools. He's not advocating for the abolition of teachers either. He's providing a setting for young people to learn by means of networking and 'big questions.'" And besides, Goyal concludes, "school as an institution is obsolete. That must be transformed. We know that very well. It should be turned into a public space and learning environment. Nobody is saying that we should demolish public schools.

Veteran educator (and fellow Ed Week blogger) Nancy Flanagan isn't buying it. "I have a long-standing skepticism around The Magic of Technology, all the way back to the teaching machines that were introduced when I was in elementary school (back in the 1950s), up through Nicholas Negroponte and the one laptop/one child project. I've seen 'miraculous transformations' come and go, and still believe that Neil Postman is right: Americans love the idea of technology driving change, rather than change driving technology."

Once again, who's right?

Predictably (for anyone who reads me regularly), I see truth in both assertions. Sugata Mitra is right - learning needs to become more personalized, and great teachers create a spirit of curiosity and inquiry through questions, not answers. And he's right that the universal (and near-instantaneous) accessibility of information has irrevocably changed the way we think about knowledge, and learning, and school.

But Watters is equally right to remind us about the myriad forces at work that would love to see the complete dismantling of public education as we see it, that characterize education as a private commodity, not a public good, and that believe not just that technology is an elixir, but also that the nonlinear site-specific magic between adult and child (and child and child) is a fungible resource, easily outsourced and replaced by an army of Grannies in the Cloud.

For me, this debate surfaces a vital question: how do we maintain our commitment to education as the most invaluable of public goods, while also embracing the changing nature of the human relationship to information, accessibility, and self-direction? Goyal believes we should turn all public schools into public learning spaces, available to anyone and everyone. Mitra believes the very act of knowing, as we have previously understood it, is obsolete. And Watters and Flanagan see in ideas like Mitra's a profit-minded wolf in sheep's clothing.

What do you think? And where to from here?

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