Collected thoughts on Sugata Mitra at IATEFL

In one sense, for me, it all started with this tweet:

(BTW why didn’t he do a Q&A session immediately afterwards?)

It came up in my timeline, quickly followed by others like this one:

And this:

I think it was around this point that I watched Mitra’s talk and then read Wiktor’s blog post in which he said this: “Clearly, when you ask about how learning can improve – and try to discuss the future of education – you’re becoming very unpopular.” This was problematic because not only did Wiktor apparently not question Mitra’s constant assumptions and generalisations (e.g. all ‘good’ teachers in India want to live in Delhi*), but he was piling on more assumptions and generalisations: that the negative reaction to Mitra’s talk was because we were ‘not prepared to have our minds changed’ and we were ‘expecting to hear that the lessons we’re teaching are just fine’. 

There were several other blog posts and many tweets along similar lines. Another common theme (along with the implication that some of us ELTers were scared of the ugliness we might see if we looked in the pedagogical mirror) was that we were scared of losing our jobs or becoming obsolete. By this time it probably would have been wise to disconnect and do some gardening or something constructive but instead I decided to vent my growing frustration:

I think that the criticism of Mitra is easily misunderstood as simple concern abt job losses when the concern really is much broader and deeper: teachers applauding the further encroachment of neoliberal ideology into education under the superficially appealing guise of ‘learnification’, with no real evidence [given] or asked for. What are Mitra’s education credentials really? His background seems more that of a technologist. Also, Microsoft are one of Schools in the Cloud’s key partners – what do they stand to gain frm Mitra’s edtech advocacy? These are the questions which get lost when Ts stand and applaud Mitra & dismiss critics as simply being afraid of losing their jobs or having to [face] the reality that they’re obsolete and/or ineffective.

A couple of themes in post-Mitra IATEFL discussion that are really starting to grate: 1) That if I reject Mitra’s evangelism that I’m having difficulty dealing with having my beliefs and practices challenged. Sanctimonious garbage. 2) The suggestion that we should at the very least be grateful to Mitra for triggering this debate. Rubbish. It’s proved to be needlessly polarising and I think that’s largely due to the disingenuous and simplistic nature of Mitra’s IATEFL talk – so much glossed over and taken for granted. It’s also an insult to the great work of many others in our profession and PLNs to suggest that we needed Mitra to lead us forward to the promised land of student-centred education.

Many of the ‘others’ had presented earlier in the conference and I wondered, “If we want to give standing ovations to academics who are making us think deeply about troubling questions, why not David Graddol?” It is a bit unfortunate that all the ‘debate’ about Mitra’s talk distracted from issues raised in Graddol’s plenary. (As an aside: Mitra came to IATEFL after TED. Do you think Graddol would get a TED gig if he wanted one?)

Then there was the #eltchat during which:

My response was:

Who says it IS a choice between grannies and nothing or even Ts who aren’t good enough for Delhi? I think that’s a faulty proposition. There are perhaps other ways to address inequality in India or elsewhere  and, more than anything, it takes political will. We shouldn’t swallow the economic rationalist argument that there isn’t enough money to fund public education properly so we’ll let private interests ‘disrupt’ it. Rather than reducing inequality in education, there’s a chance that Mitra’s proposition will actually serve to further entrench it. 

I elaborated on that in a blog comment:

One of the prominent themes in the discourse of edtech-as-a-movement is the inevitability of reducing expenditure on education globally. It comes up again and again, often accompanied with references to the global financial crisis. If something like that is repeated often enough, the result is what Freeden calls an “impenetrable and non-transparent shield of self-evidence” (quoted by Neil Selwyn, in Distrusting Educational Technology). That shield could also be called ideology and there is a strong ideological, neoliberalist imperative for reducing public expenditure on education and allowing private enterprise to take over.

But I don’t see it as inevitable that nations should be reducing expenditure on education. I see it as just one possible government response to changing demographic and economic circumstances but, again, that ideological shield of self-evidence masks this. In the case of Australia, where I’m from, our government could reduce funding for education to help address our budget deficit. Or it could raise the GST to generate additional funds for education – if it feels that widening access to high quality education is a high enough priority for the nation. Or it could increase the tax burden on coal-fired electricity generators. And so on and so on.

To link this discussion to another heated discussion that’s arisen out of the IATEFL conference, the inevitability of reduced expenditure on education was also a theme of Sugata Mitra’s talk. If you assume that, globally, the ability of governments to fund public education is decreasing, then Mitra’s work might seem like a very pragmatic and innovative response. To me, even if I accept that assumption, there’s a sour note of fatalism in what Mitra is saying: we can’t afford to invest in good teachers, so let’s try to get by without them. Shouldn’t we be calling for a change of economic priorities and INCREASED public funding of education?

This criticism of Mitra and edtech more broadly does not imply that education in its current form cannot be improved. I think the key point, which is easily missed in discussions of edtech, is that we should really be asking what education could be globally if we TRULY made it a priority and funded it properly, as opposed to surrendering it to private enterprise in the midst of neoliberal post-GFC rhetoric. If we really want a more equitable world, where everyone has access to high quality education and the economic opportunities that provides, should our governments and we as citizens not take more responsibility?


A bit of background: When the IATEFL Harrogate program first came out, I saw that Mitra was on it but wasn’t particularly interested in watching his talk. I watched his TED Talk and read his TED Book about two years ago, and at the time I found it all quite thrilling. If he’d spoken at IATEFL a year or two ago I probably would have responded very differently.

However, my perspective on educational technology really changed earlier this year though following the #AusELT chat with Scott Thornbury. It made me question some of my assumptions and encouraged me to read Philip Kerr’s blog posts on adaptive learning in ELT. Before doing that, I thought I knew what adaptive learning was all about – reading Kerr’s posts I realised that I didn’t have a clue. I then went on to read Neil Selwyn’s Distrusting Educational Technology. I’m currently reading Joel Spring’s Education NetworksThese are both books that I think are highly relevant to the discussion of Sugata Mitra’s talk and educational technology in general – I strongly urge anyone interested enough to read this post to read at least one of them.

On page 7 of Distrusting Educational Technology, Selwyn writes:

So why do so many intelligent and well-meaning people appear to suspend their disbelief when it comes to digital technology and education? Is educational technology really…a ‘consensual hallucination’ on the part of techno-romantic educationalists? Is educational technology a bold but ultimately doomed attempt by those who are brave enough to ‘dare to dream’ of a better educational future? In my mind, it is all too easy for the critical onlooker to excuse the field of educational technology in these forgiving terms

The standing ovation following Mitra’s talk seemed to me to be a startlingly vivid realisation of this ‘consensual hallucination’ (although I’m sure not everyone who applauded could be described as ‘techno-romantic’).

'Untitled' by Akue,
‘Untitled’ by Akue,

[* Lindsay Clandfield ripped into this one in his blog commentWhat if this thinking were extended to other professions? e.g. We know it’s difficult to get good doctors in remote places. We know it’s difficult to get good cops in remote places. We know it’s difficult to get good services in remote places. If we look to replacing these human services with tech fixes that enable us to keep the good teachers, doctors, cops etc in the wealthier cities then what are we doing to our citizens in remote places?]

My favourite blogposts on this topic:

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