Why the World is Shifting under Your Feet

AleX NetLit

This is part of the “Hi, AleX” series — advice to AleX NetLit about enhancing her levels of network literacy through day-to-day personal and professional social networking. AleX Netlit is a fictional persona created by Network Literacy Community of Practice to serve as a guide to Military Families Service professionals, Cooperative Extension educators and others seeking to learn more about using online networks in their work.

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Hi, AleX:

I know you’re dealing with a full plate struggling to acquire network literacy in the midst of daily work demands.

Still, I wanted to share another example to illustrate why acquiring literacy is critical to your future.  It involves the startling discoveries of a scholar named Sugata Mitra, a world renowned educational technology expert who now works at Newcastle University in England.

I can think of nothing that more aptly demonstrates the power of collaborative learning and networking.

A few years ago, Mitra wanted to see how children from remote villages throughout India with no previous exposure to networks reacted to embedded Internet-accessible computers.

What he uncovered both amazed and startled him: The kids began learning from these computers by themselves with no adult oversight.

Video recordings Mitra collected from one village show an 8-year-old boy demonstrating to a 6-year-old girl how to browse the Internet. In another village, children, after only four hours exposure to the Internet, learned how to record their own music and play it back to themselves, sparking a reaction of awed delight.

The discoveries inspired Mitra to create even more difficult challenges to see how quickly resourceful children overcame them.

His next experiment took place in Hyderabad among children who spoke English with an unusually thick accent.  He turned over a computer with an English-to-text interface, casually informing the children that he was leaving and that they were on their own.

The children were frustrated because the computer initially responded to their thick accents with gibberish, Mitra recalled later. However, when he returned couple of months later, things had changed radically: The children had learned to speak in a manner remarkably similar to the neutral British accents the computer was designed to detect.

Buoyed by these results, Mitra decided to up the ante. In what is now known as his Kalikkuppam Experiment, he wanted to determine if Tamil-speaking children could learn biotechnology on their own and despite all the online instruction being in English.

In only two months, he noted that the students increased their scores from zero to 30 percent.  After enlisting a volunteer teacher to employ the “granny method” of teaching — merely looking over the children’s shoulders and providing frequent encouragement — Mitra discovered that the children’s average scored increased to 50, which was what children in “posh schools in New Delhi” were earning.

Mitra turned up what are arguably the most remarkable results of all in Turn, Italy, in 2010.

Only 15 minutes after he walked into a classroom of Italian-speaking children and wrote the English phrase “How did dinosaurs die out?” on the chalkboard, the children secured the answer using Google first to translate and then search the phrase.

Mitra followed this with a somewhat more difficult request again phrased in English: “Who was Pythagoras and what did he do?”

Twenty minutes later, right-angled triangles began appearing on the screens.

“It just sent shivers up my spine,” Mitra later recalled.

Nothing I can think of better demonstrates the power of collaborative learning, AleX — the growing ability of ordinary people from diverse backgrounds to find answers on their own.

In fact, based on these new discoveries, Mitra believes “learning is now an emergent phenomenon.” In other words, thanks to the Internet and Web 2.0, education is now a self-organizing structure that appears without any intervention from the outside.

Think about that for a moment, AleX: Education is now a self-organizing system that is occurring on its own.

Back to that theme again: liberation.  Your clients are, frankly, no longer clients.  With each passing day, more of them are equipping themselves to learn on their own — with or without you.

There is still a place, a very valuable place, for you and other trained professionals in this new information landscape, AleX, so long as you step up to the plate.

The sooner you understand what’s happening — the sooner you understand how the world is shifting under your feet — the better equipped you will be to think, act and thrive within this new landscape.

Author: Jim Langcuster (@extensionguy)

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