School in the cloud: right atmosphere for collaboration

Our contributor discusses the future of higher education

The annual TEDxQueensU event encourages the Queen’s community to come together and share ideas about education.
The annual TEDxQueensU event encourages the Queen’s community to come together and share ideas about education.
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Aditya Varambally, ArtSci '14

Sugata Mitra, an educationist at Newcastle University, was named the winner of the TED Prize this past year. His ideas on making education completely virtual won him the million-dollar prize to “build a school in the cloud.”

Mitra’s TED talk looked at how learning and knowledge acquisition doesn’t require an educator, but only the necessary tools to facilitate learning. By embedding a computer into a hole in the wall in a New Delhi slum, children were able to self-educate, even on the basic principles of genetics.

It seems that a textbook is no longer the same resource it used to be.

Along with projects like massive open online courses (MOOCs), “cloud schools” are transforming the way we learn. Online educational video series, such as Khan Academy and Udacity, continue to make waves because they allow learning to happen at an individual level and outside a traditional classroom.

Using resources and projects released by not-for-profits, individuals are able to learn through examples of topic-based content or take an entire course on a certain subject.

The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference has a reputation for encouraging the diversification of education. Even these talks, focused on innovation as they are, have had to adapt to keep up with current challenges.

The offshoot of TED, TEDx (the x means that it was independently organized), allows individuals to host an event in their community.

TEDx events such as TEDxQueensU are rooted in collaboration. The premise is simple: bring together passionate community members (students, faculty, alumni) under one roof, introduce diverse speakers bringing about change in the community and let the discussion flow.

The government of Ontario recently invested $10 million in funding the MaRS project Studio Y, a five-year innovation initiative for young adults aged 18-29. Studio Y looks to bring together at least 25 mold-breaking young people each year in an effort to nurture the next generation of leaders.

Studio Y is guided by Ontario’s strategic framework paper Stepping Up , written as a guide to support collaborative projects designed to assist Ontario’s youth. While infrequent, pilot projects such as Studio Y look in the right direction to bring about creative exploration.

However, just last September, the Ontario government had a framework proposal in place to encourage universities and colleges to specialize their programs. Institutions of higher education are so driven towards efficiency that the focus of education can often be lost or diluted.

Instead, I propose we take a cue from TED and Studio Y, and seek to further the collaborative effort in bringing about future leaders. This collaboration approach would need to be encouraged in coursework regardless of study.

Education systems need be reshaped to blend democratized learning, like watching online videos, with more traditional coursework so that students have a say in how they learn. The archaic “learn and regurgitate” method can no longer be used. Students need to have the opportunity to connect and design with other students on a regular basis if Queen’s hopes to stay current.

Moreover, what if courses were no longer limited to a faculty? A shift in the division of courses could provide students with more of an opportunity to take a select number of design-based courses that bring together studies of all disciplines.

Through such courses, students could learn to apply their core knowledge. One single design course on creating tools for exercise could involve implementing a student team pulling from skills of marketing, programming and anatomy.

A Moscow subway station has recently implemented something as innovative. Through computer visual recognition, passengers can pay for a train ticket by doing 30 squats in two minutes.

If done with purpose, dynamic thinkers may be the result of such an opportunity. Post-secondary education systems need to reconsider what type of environment best facilitates learning and how they can act to promote collaboration.

Aditya is the director of TEDxQueensU.

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