SugataMitra has argued and demonstrated at TED that for a certain age group (8 to 12 years), Self Organised Learning Groups (SOLEs) do work. Students teach themselves how to use technology and the World Wide Web to find the answer. So learning becomes a by-product of a treasure hunt, where the teacher's 'sole' job is to frame the big question, and gently encourage students as they hunt for an answer. School in the Cloud is a disruptive approach, and if it works at scale, it may hold the answer to affordable high school education.
On the integrated side of the spectrum are entrepreneurs Rajeev and Suryaprakash. Recently I had the opportunity to meet them and dig into their product 'FunToot', a fun learning application that's now replaced one weekly Mathematics class in several premium Bangalore schools. Rajeev's inspiration comes from teaching his children, which led him to ask - why is the most inept teacher still better than the best e-learning software out there? His team's vision is to build something that's not predictable; just like a human teacher, it can adapt and create a unique question or a clue on the fly. Imagine your son solving mathematical problems on the concept of time using an example of a train since he admires trains, and your neighbors' kids are learning the same concept with an example of a watch. Bringing each child closer to his or her unique context forms the core engine of FunToot. This cannot be done by an isolated disruptive approach. That's why Rajeev and his team co-created FunToot in collaboration with many schools, to ensure they never lose sight of the real world - the teacher, the classroom, and ultimately the child. Usage data shows that a co-created solution works well, and children look forward to that special class every week. The teachers seem to like it too, which explains why it has a place in the school curriculum. No stakeholder is unhappy.
There is one more side of education - affordability and scale. The context of most startups that tackle education is closer to the problems faced by the top-tier schools. In this segment of the population, parents believe that nothing is too expensive when it concerns their child's education. I took a step back, and reflected on the day I spent at Parikrma, a complete K-12 school for Bangalore's urban poor. The children here mostly belong to poor homes with single mothers who have not paid a penny to Parikrma for education. The mid-day meal is provided by Akshayapatra. The school is a blessing for these children, a much-needed retreat from the harsh world they will return to at 3.30pm every afternoon.
If I evaluate Parikrma's children by themselves disregarding their circumstances, I would not find the children very different. They are enthusiastic, their English is fluent, and despite the lack of tables and chairs, they learn in peer groups and engage with their teacher at all levels. That brings me to the one difference I cannot ignore, even with shut eyes. The teacher at Parikrma is not merely a teacher or a subject expert. She is a parent, a mother, a friend, a role model, almost every relationship that children depend on when growing up is being fulfilled by her. Who else is there? That is the sad truth of the under-served population. Technology, even with the best of intentions and funds, is far from replacing such teachers for such students.
The current reality of education is that each new solution comes within its own context. On one extreme is home schooling in the West - several moms and dads who practice it believe that's the most adaptable way forward, but it requires one parent to be qualified and willing to take it up. FunToot like solutions as a middle path may work well but we need lots of schools and lots of computers. SOLE will work too but we need to impart learning at a reasonable pace and children from all segments of society must learn more than problem solving. We need to lead them to their livelihood, eventually to live a life of dignity and respect for the planet.
What is the soul of education? How much of it should be based on 'understanding' and when should we depart from knowledge alone? When do children start creating along with learning? How many of Life's pursuits are really soft skills vs. hard? How early should we shape passion, or influence vocation? Why or why not?
Some believe schools will exist forever, some believe they are outdated, while a few others including myself believe they will morph into something less daunting, more experiential, and most importantly - not compulsory. I believe schools will become a matter of choice. Some may choose parents, grandparents or local mentors as teachers, some may choose broader institutionalized formats, while some will take up an experiential apprentice driven approach. New role models will come on the scene - the next iteration of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Roger Federer, KalpanaChawla, J.K. Rowling, or Muhammad Yunus will come from one of these learning formats, and will influence parents to choose accordingly.
Whether the next iteration happens through disruption or integration is a matter of chance. The soul of education is the question - 'Why', and its answer will guide us to the school of the future.
I have been exploring this question for a while due to a variety of unplanned reasons which include - my work with ispirt.org to create a Learning program for product creators, my parent-biased research to find the right preschool for my son, my work with startups where I have a personal passion for seeking out mavericks in education, and finally my serendipitous search for a model for mass literacy for the under-served of India (which happens to be my father's area of work for the past few years). I don't have many answers but I thought it would be worthwhile to integrate the learning so far.