Monday, 17 June 2013

Cloud Gives Rise to New School



When you were in school, did you ever have a teacher tell you to "get your head out of the clouds" and pay attention? That age-old saying may take on new meaning if the vision of MIT professor Sugata Mitra is realised. Mitra recently laid out his ideas at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh.

TED conferences are events held all over the world to introduce innovative ideas across a wide range of sectors. Some have likened the conferences to a combination of educational lectures and live white papers. Mitra's "school in the cloud" presentation certainly fit right in with what previous TED conferences have touched on.

The subject of Mitra's presentation was a cloud-based school similar to another platform already in use. Known as edX, the platform is the brainchild of Professor Anant Agarwai, and has already enrolled one million students from underdeveloped countries around the world. Some of the biggest names in higher education are providing the materials for the online school.

Agarwai started the cloud-based school as a non-profit enterprise out of a sincere desire to change the current educational model. Agarwai believes continuing the centuries-old practice of bringing students together in a brick-and-mortar classroom is to waste the advantages offered by today's high-speed data communications.

By providing computer technology and Internet access to underdeveloped countries, the cloud makes it possible to offer a comprehensive education in places where it would otherwise not be possible. The edX platform goes beyond cultural and economic barriers to offer educational programs from a list of partners that now numbers more than two dozen.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the platform is the fact that education powerhouses like Harvard and MIT have contributed tens of millions of pounds. If plans go forward as envisioned, edX will eventually be self-supporting through course licensing fees. For now, however, it will continue to operate through the generosity of its financial partners.

Getting back to Mitra, he was recently awarded a prize in excess of £630,000 to set up a series of similar cloud schools. The TED award will be used to set up three schools in India and an additional two in the UK. The schools will be built as individual buildings with one central room housing student computers and an oversized computer monitor. The schools will utilize Skype and other technologies to communicate with students remotely.

The Good Side of Technology


It is good to see individuals like Sugata Mitra and Anant Agarwai present their ideas to such receptive audiences. It shows that technology has a good side, despite all the stories we hear about negative things like hacking and cyber-spying. Here is a case in which the finest the IT industry has to offer is being put to the best possible use.

If the cloud school idea goes well enough to make the organisation self-sufficient, that would be optimal. However, here's hoping the generous donations keep flowing just in case. It would be unfortunate to lose such a valuable resource over lack of funding.

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