Training & Learning

From Trainer to Community Leader: Sugata Mitra and the Future of Remote Learning

Educational Researcher Sugata Mitra’s famous educational experiments are paving the way for the future of learning. This work examines the effectiveness (and best practices) for online learning and remote training and offers guidance for how collaborative learning can work in practice.

While some may argue that remote learning is less effective than traditional face-to-face instruction, recent experimental studies from Mitra suggest otherwise. In fact, when the instructor is excelling in her role, remote learning can be even more effective.

In this article, we’ll take a look at Sugata Mitra’s work, and what this can tell us about the future of remote learning. This is part of our blog series celebrating the science behind learning.

Increasingly connected world favors remote learning

We are living in a remote world. Working from home is on the rise, and more and more companies are allowing employees to work from anywhere with flexible time schedules. And yet, with the digitalization of the business world, we are no longer restricted by time or location.

Instead, we’re more connected than ever before. But how can we use these connections to train learners remotely?

remote learning
Remote learning is more popular than ever before.

In the past, an instructor would act as a lecturer: the sole voice of the classroom leading through a series of speeches explaining the information, in a one-sided dialogue. But in 2018, we don’t need instructors the same way we used to. Instead, we need them to curate conversations and foster human interactions.

This is where Sugata Mitra’s revolutionary theory of online collaborative learning comes in.

Related: 4 Benefits of Collaborative Learning, Backed by Science and Psychology

Sugata Mitra’s revolutionary theory of online learning

Humans are hardwired to learn: it’s in our DNA to constantly gain knowledge, improve, and flourish.

But how powerful is this instinct of ours? Is it powerful enough for a group of students, for example, to teach themselves a complex subject in another language? It sounds pretty unlikely, but that’s exactly what happened in the first of a series of experiments conducted by Education Researcher Sugata Mitra.

Known as the father of educational research for the 21st century, Sugata Mitra’s work provides the most revolutionary insights into learning available today. His Hole in the Wall and Granny Cloud experiments are the two most significant educational studies of the last decade, and his conclusions have gained the attention of scientists, educators, human behaviorists, and psychologists worldwide.

Mitra believes that through human interaction with technology, students can learn effortlessly. He challenges the notion that transfer of knowledge must be difficult, and much of his work is dedicated to making education opportunities available to students in rural or isolated parts of the world.

But his findings have done more than prove that education can happen remotely: he has proven that technology can be more effective and lead to lasting comprehension. The following examples show how technology has empowered long-term learning achievements.

Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment in action.

The key to effective remote learning? Setting expectations

In his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment, Mitra supplied a computer with internet access to several rural areas around the world and left it for the local children to play with.

In each location, the children managed to teach themselves how to use the computer within hours and were observed recording each other singing, sending emails, and playing games on websites – all on a computer with the language set to English, a language they did not know.

Pleased with how successful these experiments were going, and happy to find that learners are able to succeed in unlikely circumstances, Mitra wanted to test the limits of this phenomenon. What he found in this next experiment is truly remarkable:

I set myself an impossible target: can Tamil-speaking 12-year-old children in a South Indian village teach themselves biotechnology in English on their own? And I thought, I’ll test them, they’ll get a zero — I’ll give the materials, I’ll come back and test them — they get another zero, I’ll go back and say, “Yes, we need teachers for certain things.”

He called upon 26 children and said to them “There’s some really difficult stuff on this computer, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t understand anything. It’s all in English. I’m going now, good luck!” and he left.

When he returned two months later their scores had gone up from zero to 30% – an educational impossibility given the circumstances. Not only had the students learned the complexities of DNA replication and genetic diseases, some of them had taken on the roles of instructor, and were helping the other students learn all on their own accord.

What does this mean for remote learning? It means that learners are capable of much more than they are given credit for and the instructor has more powerful leverage when viewed as a facilitator, not an education-provider.

It also means that we should set higher expectations for remote learners.

One other interesting takeaway from Mitra’s studies? You don’t always need expert knowledge to teach valuable skills.

Remote learning doesn’t always require expert knowledge

There may be times where you are tasked with leading a training on a topic that you yourself are not an expert in – and that’s okay.

While internal experts can shine within an organization by providing coveted resources and know-how, collaborative learning modules can be just as effective when lead by someone with baseline knowledge. Put simply, you don’t need to be an expert to help people learn.

Learners are capable of much more than they are given credit for.

Remote Learning with granny and children
Remote learning helps to connect teachers with students.

The findings from this study show that the level of engagement of a course depends on how inspired and encouraged the learners are, not how knowledgeable the instructor is.

When viewed it in this way, the possibilities for effective learning via online engagement become vast and reachable. It’s all about connecting communities of learners, and providing them with the resources they need to improve.

Remote learning works through encouraging discussion

It is our capacity to feel emotion that separates humans from other species. Many psychologists even go as far as arguing that every decision we make is driven by emotion on some level. And it makes sense – at our core, we all want the same things: to feel valued and important. So it should come as no surprise then that emotion is able to motivate us to do incredible things.

So what happens when you combine human emotion with learning?

Sugata Mitra had a hunch that encouragement and facilitation might help improve his student’s scores, so he tried a second approach with his biotechnology students. If you recall, their scores had gone from zero to 30 percent. But still, 30 percent is not a pass.

So I found that they had a friend, a young girl, that they played football with. And I asked that girl, “Would you teach them enough biotechnology to pass?” And she said, “How would I do that? I don’t know the subject.”
I said, “No, use the method of the grandmother. What you’ve got to do is stand behind them and admire them all the time. Just say to them, ‘That’s cool. That’s fantastic. What is that? Can you do that again? Can you show me some more?'”
She did that for two months. The scores went up to 50, which is what the posh schools of New Delhi, with a trained biotechnology teacher were getting.”

Their scores increased to 50% by simply having someone motivate them and ask probing questions, which tells us something important about the human condition: since the desire to learn is inherent in each of us, the likelihood of engagement and success is dependent on how inspired we are.

Positive reinforcement through human interaction helps learners to succeed. With this information, we can develop techniques and skills to help learners achieve their goals and targets.

remote learning on computer

Secret to remote learning success: your grandma

This revelation lead to what has become Mitra’s most famous achievement: the Granny Cloud. In an attempt to test the limits of online learning, Mitra created an online school where grandmothers from the UK volunteer one hour a week in an online course with students from around the world.

The role of the grannies? To encourage the students in whatever they are learning, give praise, and making the students feel proud in their work.

And just like in the previous example, these Granny’s have zero previous knowledge on the subject matter – their effectiveness lies within their ability to encourage and stimulate conversation, not lecture information.

So, why has this method been so effective?

It all comes back to what we know about human behavior: emotion is a powerful motivator, and positive reinforcement is a way to stimulate learning. By combining active learning with human interactions, we can drive learners to achieve results that would never be possible working alone.

The most significant part of this experiment was that the encouragement from the granny instructors took place remotely, through human interactions. This tells us how crucial positive reinforcement is - even from a remote source.

Remote collaborative learning leads to better outcomes

The findings from Mitra’s educational experiments are remarkable, but still we must ask the question: Does remote collaborative learning work in the long term? Is any of this information actually retained?

Surprisingly, yes. Knowing that critics might ask the same question, Sugata Mitra tested the students again two months after the original assessment. He found that their scores stayed the same, and in some cases actually improved.

How is this possible? Because the conversations that took place among the learners during the courses triggered a dozen different responses that make it more memorable. For example:

  • The memories from interacting with a person are stronger than memories of simply reading the material. By learning actively and collaboratively, the learning process became emotional.
  • By discussing with each other and their instructors online, the children were left with visual photographic memories to recall later on.
  • The students felt a sense of self importance and pride when they found the correct answers, which triggered a positive emotional response, strengthening the memory.

The learning process was a success as a direct result of the human interactions that took place, which tells us just how important these types of interactions are.

The instructors of tomorrow will encourage and curate conversations, by creating the setting and allowing the learners to interact, in remote settings. The role of instructor will become more engaging, as the job will be less administrative and more involved with the learning process.

And the best part? When the role of the instructor shifts to community leader, there is no need to have one instructor per topic, since strong subject knowledge is not necessarily required. You can let experts within your own organization take the reins with collaborative learning.

Related: 3 Data-Backed Ways to Prove Training ROI

Use the power of collaborative learning in your business

Sugata Mitra’s studies have a lot to tell us about the power of collaborative learning - even from a remote source. For companies looking for new ways to up-skill their employees and share knowledge and insights between teams, these studies are inspiring.

360Learning is the first digital learning platform designed to empower experts at scale. With our collaborative platform, every one of your teams can share their knowledge and expertise, and can engage with each other in real-time to develop engaging learning content.

Discover a world where experts publish new courses every day, employees are engaged, and learning becomes the new normal. Want to check it out yourself? Request a live demo here.

Try collaborative learning for your business