COMMENTARY | What if someday schools were little more than computer labs with minimal teacher oversight, youth allowed to learn as fast as they wanted via Internet connection? Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra, the $1 million winner of the 2013 TED Prize, has found that students may learn better and faster if allowed to explore and engage via computer than if forced into the bureaucracy of traditional classrooms, reports CNN . Mitra’s research in India found that children respond better to freedom and praise in Internet-based learning than to discipline and punishment in standard classroom-based learning.
But let’s not throw out classroom teachers just yet. Mitra’s research is not yet complete, and the tentative results from the slums of India may not translate well into Western classrooms. A high school social studies teacher’s critique of excessive independent-based learning:
First, allowing too much freedom of learning will result in a poor societal allocation of knowledge and skill. Too many students will likely study a narrow range of subjects, pursuing only those that are considered most fun, interesting, prestigious, or lucrative. Without traditional teachers and schools and school districts teaching diverse and comprehensive curricula, far too many high school graduates could leave school with considerable knowledge in A, B, and C but little or no knowledge of X, Y, and Z. By not getting “the basics,” the students who failed to get a job in their chosen field would be left with few options.
Secondly, without traditional teacher guidance and oversight, what becomes of academic integrity? While high-performing students might undoubtedly learn better and faster without school bureaucracy, is this true of all students? Is Mitra’s research controlling for academic dishonesty? Copy-and-paste? Without routine oversight or bureaucratic rules it may appear that an independent-learning classroom is making faster gains, but many of those gains may be gotten from top performers who allow others to copy. What will happen when “copy-and-paste” independent learners enter the real world and can no longer rely on their buddy’s computer screen for guidance?
Third, shouldn’t students be able to do some basic things without modern technology? I have enough trouble in economics trying to get students to put answers in terms of “million” or “billion” instead of scientific notation, as their calculators give it. Can tech-obsessed independent learners operate if and when they lose Internet connectivity? What if the power goes out? We need workers who can function and improvise even when tech gets glitchy.