Follow the Sun with Sugata Mitra

One of the highlights of the ALT-C conference this year was the keynote by Sugata Mitra, whose famous ‘hole-in-the-wall’ projects in India, Cambodia and Africa have provided astounding evidence of how children can teach themselves, given access to a computer with an internet connection and little or no structured guidance from any adults. Children, it seems, have a remarkable ability to transcend language barriers and lack of technical know-how, in their desire to satisfy their curiosity.

Beyond Distance's very own Highly Commended Terese Bird with Sugata Mitra

Beyond Distance's very own highly commended Terese Bird with Sugata Mitra at ALT-C

One of the most interesting aspects of Sugata’s research into how children teach themselves is his focus on ‘self-organising systems’, particularly the systems that emerge when children are left to their own devices to find information to solve a problem – for example, how the labour is divided up, and how each child’s strengths are brought into play. He has found that, whether in rural India or suburban England, optimal results are obtained when children work in groups of four around a single computer.

We at Beyond Distance are thrilled that Sugata has accepted our invitation to be a keynote speaker at our next Learning Futures Festival (13-15 April 2011), ‘Follow the Sun’. As Emma has mentioned, this non-stop 48-hour online conference, hosted in collaboration with our colleagues in USQ, promises to be a great opportunity for knowledge sharing across the globe. It will be organised and managed along the same lines as the hugely successful LFF 2010, one of the projects for which our colleague Terese Bird was Highly Commended in the ALT-C Learning Technologist awards last week.

Thanks to Mark Gregory for the picture. (More ALT-C photos available here.)

Gabi Witthaus, 16 Sept 2010

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Disseminate from Day One

I recently attended the ALT-C conference “Into something rich and strange – making sense of the sea-change” (7-9 September in Nottingham). As usual, it was a really good conference; I felt that every session was packed full of information on good practice, experimentation, research, and innovation in learning technology. Although I heard a most inspiring keynote from Sugata Mitra on his life’s work beginning with the installation of ‘hole-in-the-wall’ computers for children in rural India, and although I heard the winning research paper about 5 years of data-gathering on students’ use and purchase of mobile devices, probably the most practical take-home message I received was from a ‘graveyard-shift’ session by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on the importance of dissemination and sharing our findings. The HEA was asking us, “What else can we do to get the word out regarding some of the great work that is being done?” They pointed out that many funded projects treat dissemination as something done only at the end of the project, when a paper is written and presented at a conference. In fact, there is so much lost with that approach, so much discussion that is forfeited, so much networking and reflection which could enhance and improve and extend the reach of the study. Dissemination should be done from day one.

This resonates with the drip-drip theory of publicity — that if you often, even daily, put out little drips of information about a project or event, it is more effective than just a few big informational outputs.

I’ve had opportunity to discuss these issues with postgraduate students, especially those working on PhDs.  I often hear them say that they don’t think they should talk about their work at all with anyone outside their team. I can understand not wanting to reveal one’s research secrets in advance of publication. However, I think this reticence denies them valuable opportunities to bounce ideas off other experts and receive support from others.

I for one left ALT-C realising that I need to approach each of my projects with the willingness to ‘disseminate from day one.’ We at Beyond Distance are pretty good at disseminating our findings, with this blog and blogs for each of our research projects as well as workshops and other activities, but we can always improve. I need to be much more faithful in my blogging. A little bit, and more often is better than stressing over fewer, bigger communications. Twitter, of which I am already an avid user (I am tbirdcymru and the Beyond Distance Media Zoo is BDMediaZoo), is built for exactly this. Because the bottom line is: if we do great work but don’t effectively communicate it, have we actually completed the great work?

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant Media ZooKeeper

Beyond Distance Research Alliance

Pianos – New Facebook? A Story About Non-Digital Disruptive Innovation and Bishops Itchington

It is hot, hot, hot, isn’t it? And with everyone trying to make the best out of the British summer while it lasts, people are crowding the Great Outdoors – i.e. any horizontal patch of grass they can spot.
Take Leicester Square in London. On Tuesday it contained hoards of people, certainly equivalent in numbers to the population of Bishops Itchington (I have no idea what that number actually is, and if you insist, yes, I did choose it as example because of the name, and yes, it is a real place.)
There were people sitting on the benches, lying on the grass, splashing in the fountain, presumably some were pick-pocketing while others were buying ice-cream, smudging ice-cream on their clothes, removing ice-cream smudges from their clothes – the usual pastimes. And then, there was someone playing the piano. Only in this case, it was not the usual street performer. It was a young guy, looking a bit shy and a bit like a tourist and playing a bit out of tune a Rihanna tune. And yet, he was surrounded by people, listening intently, smiling, applauding him encouragingly, some recording his performance on their phones. Passers-by stopped, joined the little crowd surrounding the piano, listened and started conversations with other people. When the player finished, he got up and his place was taken by a girl who had been standing in the audience, until her friends pushed her forward. She played beautiful classical music, attracting more people to the little crowd. What was going on?
It was all part of an art project – Piano in The Street – by the artist Luke Jerram. The project involves placing 30 pianos in open public places. Anyone can play them. On his website the artist says that the pianos in the street are meant to be an interconnected resource for people to express themselves, and like Facebook, to connect and to create. This is what Luke Jerram says on his website:
“Why is it that when I go to the laundrette I see the same people each week and yet nobody talks to one another? Why don’t I know the names of the people who live opposite my house? Play Me, I’m Yours was designed to act as a catalyst for strangers who regularly occupy the same space, to talk and connect with one another. ..Disrupting people’s negotiation of their city, the pianos are also aimed to provoke people into engaging, activating and claiming ownership of their urban landscape.”

In Leicester Square it was fascinating to watch how a piece of technology without a single computer chip in it, a technology which has existed for the past 300 years can be re-invented to bring people together in an innovative and creative way. Especially as the little old piano, covered in stickers and graffiti, was surrounded by the big billboards of the cinemas in Leicester Square, with the images of the super-tech, overpowering Transformers 3 and Terminator 4 staring down coldly at the busy chattering human crowd. I couldn’t help but connect the little piano’s magnetism to the playfulness, inquisitiveness and social learning in human beings, beautifully illustrated by Prof. Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall. And it made me think – how much space is there in the pedagogies of today for curiosity, experimentation and creativity by the learners? How much do we want it to be tomorrow?

02/07/09 University of Leicester BDRA
Sandra Romenska

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