As a first-year Student Innovation Fellow, I’ve been learning the ropes this past month. The projects that are encompassed in the SIF domain are multiple, collaborative by nature and design, and have more arms than a centipede. This kind of learning is, I have to admit, pretty new to me, at least in practice: there is no syllabus, no papers to write, no papers to grade. These projects–such as ATLmaps, Teaching Atlanta, 3D Atlanta, Unpacking Manuel’s, and more!–are on-going and generously inclusive in an effort to make them ever-lasting. And while I deeply admire this work and these methods, I quickly realized how easily I could allow myself to get lost in such collaborations (especially given that I am neither naturally talented nor formally trained in this unique kind of juggling).

So I’ve been thinking about the kind of learning–and leading, for that matter–in which SIF has invited me to participate. On the one hand, I’ve realized that the imaginative and collaborative work we do through SIF is highly translatable to non-academic realms as a sort of reimagined take on Public Scholarship (I’ll follow this thought up in a forthcoming post). On the other hand, I realized that the SIF model of learning unconsciously aligns itself to a pedagogical theory espoused by sociologist and education researcher Sugata Mitra, in what he calls “learning in the clouds.”

Mitra has rapidly become an international pedagogy rock star when he won the prestigous TED Prize in 2013 for his theory of “cloud-based learning.” If you have 20 minutes, his TED Prize recipient talk is worth a watch:

However, Mitra’s research and scholarship in non-traditional learning methods have long predated his recent popularization that came with his TED fame. Indeed, Mitra’s idea of self-directed “learning in the clouds” was first initiated by a simple social experiment he came up with over 14 years ago. (Side note: Mitra has two other previous TED talks that detail the journey of his research, “Kids Can Teach Themselves” and “The Child Driven Education”; I’m going to give a short-hand summary of some key anecdotal details from Mitra for the purpose of my musings about SIF in this post.)

In 1999, Mitra was working in New Delhi teaching adults how to write computer programs. The slums of the city were right next to the building that Mitra was teaching in, just on the other side of a boundary wall. While teaching his relatively privileged, educated students, Mitra became highly aware of the social classing and power dynamics of education. As he explains in his TED talk, Mitra began considering the pervasive hegemonic structure of learning and questioned its validity. He admits, “I used to think, how on Earth are those [slum] kids ever going to learn to write computer programs? Or should they not?”

So he decided to conduct what he termed as “an absurd experiment.” He dug out a box-shaped hole in the boundary wall between his computer programming building and the slums, about three feet from the ground; he then put a computer in that hole, conveniently at an accessible height for children. He told the excited, curious children that they could touch and play with the computer, and then he went away, though monitored the computer remotely. He found that within hours the children were browsing the computer and exploring its loaded contents, despite the fact that it was an American computer, programmed entirely in English, and the children knew only their local Indian dialect. These results were spectacular and shocking, to say the least, so Mitra repeated this experiment in many more rural villages throughout India, where children would never have even heard of such a thing as a computer or machine, and set more impossible learning tasks for the local kids.

The apex of Mitra’s pedagogical experiment came in the form of his ridiculous research question: “Can Tamil-speaking children in a south Indian village learn the biotechnology of DNA replication in English from a streetside computer?” As any scientist knows, an experiment should also be disproved—or at least its limits discerned––for holistic data analysis. When Mitra returned to the southern village a few months later, he found the children still gathered around the computer in the hole in the wall. When asked what they had discovered, they showed frustration and said that they had not learned anything. But they also said that they would continue to come back every day until they could figure it out. One little girl further explained in broken English she had taught herself, “apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes disease, we haven’t understood anything else.”

Again and again, children were proving Mitra wrong. There was not a single ridiculously impossible task that Mitra could devise that children would not find a way to engage and teach themselves. Mitra aptly calls this phenomenon of self-guided, self-inspired, self-teaching “learning in the clouds,” as it indicates the infinite learning possibilities and capabilities of this teaching model. In other words, Mitra’s most solid conclusion from all the data he gleaned from all the computers in all the holes in the walls in various Indian villages was that the learning potential of any given person is limitless, and this potential is an inherent human characteristic, not conditional to or tied down by an empire-driven prescription of “how to learn.”

What Mitra does not initially address in his findings, I believe, were that there are certain conditions of possibility for this potential of infinite learning. First, there must be an opportunity for engaging such alternative pedagogical strategies. Second, there must be a willingness to be driven by curiosity, on both “the teacher” and “the student” sides. And last, there must be a dedicated space for and privileging of collaborations.

The alignment I see between Mitra’s clouds and the work we do through SIF is in these conditions of possibility. And I’ll even hypothesize that, once my eyes adjust to the IMAX screen that is SIF, I can be just as successful as Mitra’s testers/students/kids. Now then, Onward!…to our own TED Prize?!?!