Sugata Mitra's TED Talk starts with these words: "There are places on Earth, in every country, where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go...." From this jumping-off point, Indian education scientist Mitra shows us a variety of experiments in which he placed computers with internet access in contexts where kids could experiment with them on their own -- without teachers. "At the end of [the early experiments], we concluded that groups of children can learn to use computers sand the internet on their own, irrespective of who or where they were. At that point I became a little more ambitious, and decided to see -- what else could children do with a computer?"
This talk is frequently surprising and delightful, partly because Mitra's experimental design is delightful on its own (he tends to give kids a simple starting point and then, without much explanation, simply leaves for a few weeks). While it is not about replacing teachers with machines (despite what Arthur C. Clarke suggests during the talk), it's all about how kids can and do teach themselves about topics that interest them. It isn't always positive (there's an amusing bit around the six-minute mark about kids using the web to cheat on homework assignments), but it's certainly an impressive story and a worthy set of experiments. Particularly interesting is when Mitra attempts to figure out which topics must be taught with the aid of a teacher.
What Have You Taught Yourself?
After watching this talk, I'm reminded that in many cases, the computer skills I use daily are mostly self-taught. In many ways, I was like the kids in this experiment -- as a young kid, a computer showed up in my house (and to some extent in school and the library, though access was limited) and I was encouraged to play with it. From there came skills like touch typing (which I only truly learned when I got a job as typist), software development, graphic design, computer repair, and, I'll admit it, a fair number of games. How about you?