Today Dr. Sugata Mitra became the eighth winner of the TED Prize, which now consists of $1 million presented to social entrepreneurs to make their dreams huge. Past winners include Bono's ONE campaign, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, and artist JR.
Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiment, begun in 1999 and detailed in this Ted talk, has been on the minds of educational innovators ever since. He provided access to a computer connected to the Internet through a literal hole in the wall of his office in a Delhi slum, and saw how children who didn't speak English—and may have never attended school—taught themselves the basics of Googling information they needed, and even stumbled into interests like genetics.
He later built on the experiment, realizing the importance of creating a "granny cloud" of adults who could encourage and enable children in their self-directed intellectual journeys by asking them great questions, whether or not the adults were themselves subject matter experts.
With the prize, Mitra plans to build a "school in the cloud," essentially a computer lab in India staffed with one adult and open to children 8 to 12 to explore their interests. This will be achieved with the help of retired online volunteer mentors who will Skype in when needed—the "grannies in the cloud." He's also releasing a toolkit for others who want to adopt the setup themselves to create Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs) anywhere in the world.
"My wish is to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together," Mitra said.
In the world of education reform, Mitra's work falls squarely on the side of the conversation—along with longtime TED Talk all-star Sir Ken Robinson—that says what schools need most is to enable new kinds of creativity and learner-centeredness, without trying to micromanage the outcomes. The move to create "maker spaces" in U.S. schools equipped with 3-D printers and the like is another example of this line of thinking, which stands in stark contrast to innovators like Sal Khan of Khan Academy, who focuses on enabling students to learn traditional subjects like math more quickly and efficiently, with outcomes measurable on standardized tests.
In addition to the million dollars and international exposure, the TED prize this year brings with it a grant from the Sundance Institute: $125,000 for anyone who wants to make a documentary about Mitra's work.
[Images courtesy of TED. Sugata Mitra Photo: James Duncan Davidson]