Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Teach Yourself and Change the World

Sugata Mitra noticed a problem--the children who needed education the most were the least likely to get it.  Where teachers were most needed, they would not or could not be.  Therefore, he set out on an experiment to see if children could teach themselves:

Ted Talk

Mitra embedded computers into walls in the slums of India and South Africa.  He gave the children problems and left them to figure things out for themselves.  Using just an Internet connection, Google, and Google translate, the children were able to learn a remarkable amount of information.  In some cases, the children tested as well as those instructed by real teachers.  Weeks earlier, the children had never used a computer.  When he followed up, they were teaching each other how to take photos with the computer, do Google searches, and much more.

Mitra's conclusion was that given the right conditions, education and knowledge are a self-emergent, self-organizing phenomenon.  Which brings us to the the interesting proposition that formerly information was a scarce commodity.  Not every community could afford libraries.  Disseminating information via paper costs money due to its physicality.  The digital age has made information practically free, assuming you have Internet access and a computer.  For thousands of years, poor children in poor countries were shut out from the vast breadth of human knowledge.  Their mental powers were essentially wasted.

Mitra's experiments show that when children are given access to the right tools, they can and will teach themselves some amazing things.  Knowledge itself tends to be empowering.  This is the idea behind the One Laptop Per Child Project, which attempts to provide computer access to the poorest of the poor children around the world.

Imagine the ingenuity and brainpower that can now be utilized now that technology makes information access affordable.  Combine this with the power of these tools to allow children to create their own content, and you might have a real revolution in our world.  This is why the open source movement is so important.  When people can share information, great things can result.  Examples include the open sharing of courses taught at MIT and Stanford.  One can follow along and "take" classes in biotechnology, computers, and mathematics and receive the same information as those in the Ivy League paying $50,000 per year.  You don't get a degree, but you do get the education.

In a world now dominated by information and knowledge work, education is a great levelling factor.  The potential for empowerment here is very exciting.  Will it be a cure all for vast inequalities?  Of course not, but it certainly cannot hurt, and each step in the right direction is one step away from falling backward.

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