The opening of a “learning lab” in India is the final piece in the jigsaw for a Newcastle professor’s bid to re-design the future of learning. Education reporter Ruth Lognonne finds out about Area Zero.
When Sugata Mitra, a professor at Newcastle University, won the $1m TED prize in 2013, he set himself a not unambitious aim: to re-design the future of learning.
Prof Mitra was struck by a radical idea to drag education into the 21st century, both in the Western world and developing world. The idea idea that children can teach themselves pretty much anything, from playing games to particle physics, is one that Prof Mitra has been convinced of for decades.
But it was in 1999, working for a Delhi software company that he saw his chance, installing a “hole-in-the-wall” computer in a slum.
The children didn’t speak English, barely went to school, but they taught themselves to use the computer. And then they taught their friends.
It made headlines across India, and his idea went viral, inspiring Vikras Swarup, the author of the book Q&A which would become the film Slumdog Millionaire.
Since then, Prof Mitra has become more ambitious, using his TED award in 2013 to build seven “schools in the cloud”, where children from across the planet can teach themselves anything, and then teach what they know to their friends.
Not yet two years later, this extraordinary vision has been realised with the opening of the final and flagship learning lab – Area Zero – in West Bengal, India.
There are now five cloud classrooms in India and two schools in the North East: George Stephenson High School, in North Tyneside and Greenfield Community College in Newton Aycliffe.
With Area Zero, Prof Mitra is providing an epicenter to further test, evolve and share his method of self organised learning.
Area Zero will accommodate up to 48 children at any one time on 12-15 computers. It is the largest self organised learning environment (SOLE), and was created specifically for learning in which children are prompted to teach themselves.
“I am incredibly excited to see this vision come to life,” said Prof Mitra. “Area Zero is the first facility of its kind, and I’m proud to bring it home to India.
“My objective for the flagship centre is for children to learn and engage – while also examining and documenting the advantage of self organised learning environments.
“Here, children will be able to engage with teachers from around the world who can prompt them with big questions that encourage the exploration of a vast array of subjects.”
The solar-powered Area Zero is set in lush greenery and made almost entirely of glass, jutting out between two ponds with verandas on either side.
Its hexagonal shape represents two things: the chemical compound benzene, which consists of six carbon atoms joined in a ring, with one hydrogen atom attached to each of them; and the basis of honeycomb, which is an engineering marvel, according to Mitra.
“How bees create honeycomb is one of the best examples of a self-organised environment in nature,” continued Prof Mitra. “A single bee has no knowledge at all about how it works or comes together, but as a hive they can create this phenomenal structure.
“And the benzene ring is the basis of all organic life - without it there would be no life at all. I hope this symbolism inspires limitless learning in the lab.”
The opening of Area Zero is complemented by what Prof Mitra has already achieved with his 2013 TED Prize and revered position as professor of educational technology at Newcastle University.
“The purpose of the TED Prize is for one remarkable individual to create a project with a global impact,” said Anna Verghese, director of the TED Prize.
“Our 2013 recipient, Sugata Mitra, has done precisely this with his School in the Cloud. The opening of Area Zero is another manifestation of Mitra pushing the bounds of how we can educate in the 21st century.”
After the hole-in-the-wall experiement, Prof Mitra, who joined Newcastle University in 2006, expanded on his findings and created a ‘Granny Cloud’ of online e-mediators (largely retired school teachers) who could Skype into learning centers and encourage children with questions and assignments.
As a leading proponent of self-organised learning, Prof Mitra developed the concept of SOLEs, where teachers spark curiosity by asking children to explore a ‘Big Question’ using the Internet and working together in small groups.
Since launching his TED Prize wish, the SOLE toolkit has been downloaded more than 67,000 times and hundreds have applied to become Skype Grannies – in which they video conference with students, and encourage them.
Critical to mobilising this effort is the school in the cloud online community, which launched at the TED 2014 conference.
Microsoft and Skype stepped in to provide core technology and innovated the global community. Made By Many, the product design partners, co-created the experience with Prof Mitra’s team.
The platform was recently transferred to Newcastle University’s ‘Culture Lab’, where it is under further development.
The first TED prize was awarded in 2005, born out of the TED conference and a vision by the world’s leading entrepreneurs, innovators, and entertainers to change the world – one wish at a time.
What began as an unparalleled experiment to leverage the resources of the TED community has evolved into an ambitious, million-dollar award to spur global-scale change.