UK

'Slumdog Millionaire' Professor, Sugata Mitra, Fixing Education By Bringing iPads Into Exams

18/05/2013 08:21 BST

Politicians are scared of fixing education, says Professor Sugata Mitra. When things go wrong, they think it can be fixed by doing things like "in the good old days", rote-learning dates and grammar.

"It's like trying to solve the traffic problem in London, there's too many cars. So the government says, 'OK, we'll bring back horses'," he says.

Mitra, a professor at Newcastle University, has a radical idea to drag education into the 21st century, both in the Western world and developing world. Governments should give children an iPad.

sugata mitra

Professor Sugata Mitra has a radical idea to change education

"I can fix the examination system in one sentence. You should be allowed to bring in an iPad," he said.

"People are adamant learning is not just looking at a Google page. But it is. Learning is looking at Google pages. What is wrong with that?

"Teachers say to me, the internet is full of rubbish, wrong answers. But you would be surprised how just long it takes to find wrong information on Google, and where it's not obvious that it's wrong.

"You might find a website that says the Earth is flat, but it is quite obviously rubbish when you read it."

The idea that children can teach themselves pretty much anything, from playing games to particle physics, is one that 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." His problem with the movie, he has said, was that it was not called Slumdog Nobel Laureate.

Since then, Mitra has become more ambitious, aiming to one day build a "school in the cloud", where children from across the planet can teach themselves anything, and then teach what they know to their friends. His idea has gone viral.

This year, he won the $1m 2013 TED Prize to help make his ideas a reality.

Finally, he told Huffington Post UK, ahead of his Google Zeitgeist speech in London next week, people are starting to believe him.

"Disbelief has followed me for 25 years. They say children will just use computers to play games all the time. And actually, they get tired of games in two or three months. They might play occasionally, but it's around this time they discover Google. They start googling anything at all. And they are learning.

"So then people say OK, so they are learning a few facts, they can't teach themselves mathematics. But they can, my experiments prove it. They can teach themselves higher mathematics, particle physics, genetics."

Sugata says that he fears for the future of education, that school will start to become irrelevant, with children forced to learn and employers frustrated with the lack of practical knowledge of their applicants. Unless how we learn changes - radically.

"You can force students to learn, to a certain extent, but students aren't happy and employers aren't happy," he says.

ma ideal school in central hyderabad

A group of female students during a 'Skype grannies' session where pensioners spend their free time reading stories and singing nursery rhymes to children living in Indian slums, one of Professor Mitra's ideas

"Go to a job interview and tell and employer that you can recite the 17 times table, they don't care. Why are we still teaching it?

"So if I am an employer at a big tech company, I'll ask in an interview, where can I get a three terabyte hard-drive?

"The answer is, it doesn't exist yet, for quite complex reasons. And if you said answered that correctly, I can see you'll be useful in the office. They don't teach it in schools. Schools must say to pupils, here's the question, find out for yourself, and you need to know how to do that."

What about plagiarism, students just copying out essay answers from online? "What's wrong with that? Tell students, get the three best essays on this subject, from the internet. Pick the best bits of all three, make your own essay, and explain to us in a presentation how you did it. That's a useful thing to learn how to do.

"Bring an iPad to an exam. That's what happens in the real world. What are you memorising for? For what, for whom? Using the same example, ask in the exam, why does a three terabyte hard drive not exist? The answer is in complex solid-state physics. Which you can use your iPad to be able to work out."

It is, Sugata admits, very difficult to overhaul a school system rooted deeply in society, established in the 19th century. It was one of the reasons he originally envisaged his "school in the cloud" to be entirely for the developing world.

In Victorian times, "knowledge was inside teachers' heads, and in big dusty books in libraries," he says. "You had to produce knowledge from your own head, so you had to memorise it. But all those conditions are gone now.

"The educational system teachers people to be clerks. To understand and follow instructions, to create clerks, factory workers, robots effectively.

"Yes, it was originally an idea for the developing world, but I move to England and started trying out the ideas in English schools, and a whole bunch of teachers said, 'oh my god, this works, this works fantastically'. This flies in the West."

Apart from dealing with concerned teachers who think they'll be replaced by robots ("that's not true, they are more important than ever, they just have to ask different questions," he says) Mitra says parents are inevitably concerned about safety online.

It doesn't particularly concern him though. "The internet is seen as being dangerous for children. So we lock up the child alone in a room, without access to anything in the outside world? There are dangers on the internet, there are dangers when you cross the road."

WATCH: Sugata Mitra: The Child-Driven Education (TED Talks)

Mitra knows that he cannot give every child in India an iPad. He isn't even interested in doing so. He just wants to see if it's possible or not. "I am not particularly interested in changing the world.

"I just want to know if it is possible to create a school, entirely on the internet? Can I teach children to read quickly, when they are young, so they can use the internet for everything else? And if that changes the world, good for the world.

"But you can leave me out of it at that point. I am just curious to know if it is possible. There are children who have nothing, absolutely nothing. And this facility might just be able to level the playing field.

"But it won't be ME, who levels the playing field. I make the method. Somebody else has to put it in the hands of the children.

"It needs the co-operation of governments, of teachers, and parents, otherwise the technology just lies around.

"But if it is good enough, and a few people see it, technologies just take off and no-one can stop them."