How necessary are classrooms, books, and teachers?

Children in a New Delhi slum playing with one of Mitra's "Hole in the Wall" computers.

Children in a New Delhi slum playing with one of Mitra's "Hole in the Wall" computers.

Teachers like to think about the learning that happens inside classrooms. Really, though, we've always known that education can happen anywhere. Herman Melville is my favorite example of a towering intellect who owed nothing to university training. And he didn't just pull off the feat because he lived in the 19th century, when college was less accessible. Researchers, educators, and entrepreneurs today are finding intentional ways to create spaces where learning can happen without a classroom, textbook, or even teacher. 

In Sugata Mitra's TED Talk, he describes an experiment he did in the slums of Delhi and in remote villages in rural India: he put computers with no keyboards three feet off the ground, where children could reach them. From his office in the U.S., on his own computer, he would watch what was happening on the children's computers. Over the course of nine months, these children living with no electricity or running water, with no previous exposure to computers or the internet, taught themselves how to use Microsoft paint, the computer's character map (a keyboard substitute), and the internet. All of this required the children to teach themselves English, the language in which the computer was programmed. In his TED Talk, Mitra concludes that, "We need to think about learning as the product of educational self-organization." To hear what Mitra plans to do with his discovery, check out his TED Talk, as well as the TED Radio Hour episode "Unstoppable Learning," where Mitra is featured.

In an age when MOOCs can bring the lectures of the world's greatest scholars to every sub-Saharan smart phone, and when Moody's has rated the American higher ed business model financially unsustainable, what is the new role of the university? Will campuses across the country one day be like the aging suburban shopping malls that have been displaced by Amazon.com?

Are we returning to a Romantic view of education as an enterprise best achieved through the unstructured experience of life itself? William Wordsworth, while a student at Oxford, would skip classes to go swimming, claiming to learn far more that way. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1836 essay Nature  that we can learn endless lessons merely by attending to our experience of nature: "Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces, give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited." 

What do you think? What kind of learning, if any, still depends on the old classroom-book-teacher model? How should people in higher education re-imagine and reinvent themselves as their institution adapts to a new world?

Posted on June 12, 2013 .