The Soul of a SOLE Classroom

In my last blog post, I encouraged parents and teachers to share their concerns and questions about education in the digital age. As a graduate student working on my Masters in Education, my aim is to navigate the current state of schools and learn about blended learning right alongside you as we “Debunk the Dialogue About Digital Learning.” I learned so much during the research that resulted from the following thought-provoking comment that I thought it warranted another whole post.

Alex, please elaborate on the effectiveness of the Self-Organized-Learning-Environments (SOLE) championed by Dr. Sugata Mitra. A recent news broadcast featured his first School-in-the-Cloud Learning Lab at a NY City elementary school. Please comment on the role of the skilled teacher facilitating advanced thought processes when students are using technology to explore their questions. As a parent grateful for the teachers who have sparked my son’s critical thinking skills via human interaction, I am concerned that the perception given by the broadcast was that providing a curious group of students access to the internet and engaging educational games was all that was needed for educational success.

I definitely understand your concern. A few years ago, I stumbled upon Dr. Mitra’s TED talk, “Build a School in the Cloud,” wherein he proposed the idea of spreading Self-Organized-Learning-Environments (SOLEs) across the globe. I think it’s important to note that right now, SOLEs are a larger experiment in inquiry, modernized with the use of technology and the Internet (using the Internet to answer a question). Only data and time will reveal the pros and cons of using this specific program in classrooms. With the widespread use of these tools, 21st century students will need to know how to research, locate, evaluate, and analyze information online. SOLEs may actually offer teachers an exciting way to incorporate blended learning into their classroom, especially since they can engage students in online inquiry tasks that give them the opportunity to practice their digital literacy/online reading comprehension skills. Because of SOLEs’ experimental status, it’s impossible to have definitive answer, but I think it’s important to consider a few things.

There are a number of different teaching styles and roles teachers take on to effectively deliver content and engage their students. I like to think of teachers as super-human multi-tasking facilitators as they instruct, organize, facilitate learning and discussions, inspire minds, grow hearts, and more. Because SOLEs seem very similar to online inquiry projects, I would imagine a teacher’s role would not change much. A teacher would facilitate discussions, propose topics, and scaffold students up the path of thinking until they reach critical thought. A teacher may even facilitate the question that gets kids interested in going onto the computer and learning in the first place. To me, the teacher is still the mastermind in the classroom, whether that classroom is blended, completely online, or lacks any technology. The teacher guides the students along the curriculum, learning objectives, and ultimately directs learning.

In a 2012 article called “The Practice of Inquiry: A Pedagogical ‘Sweet Spot’ for Digital Literacy?” Bertram C. Bruce (University of Illinois) and Leo Casey (National College of Ireland) write about the inquiry cycle, asserting that the five dimensions in the process of inquiry are “ask, investigate, create, discuss, reflect.” I have not seen a SOLE classroom, but I would imagine there would be some crossover in the processes.

I don’t mention this to be pedantic, but really to point out the “discuss” step. While Bruce and Casey note that not all of these steps are necessarily present in any given inquiry, there is no denying the importance of discussion. This, to me, is the most important aspect of inquiry, and it involves listening to others and communicating understandings. Whether done face-to-face or digitally, this is a key social element to any learning experience, and it doesn’t really happen without teacher involvement. The most exciting thing about technology in the classroom is the fact that it doesn’t just allow students to build a shared learning network within their classroom or school, but to shatter the confines of their building and open up their experiences, classroom, learning, and knowledge to the rest of the world. Thus, I think the SOLE experiment and experiences with online inquiry projects may offer students exciting opportunities to engage in interconnected, even global learning.

I wish I had heard or read the same news story as you. But reading articles like this one in my research about the SOLE experiment has made it clear to me that there are three important human elements:

  • The students engaging in discussions with each other
  • The skilled teacher who organizes and facilitates a meaningful inquiry based project in which the students engage
  • A “granny” on the “Granny Cloud” who interacts with children in incredibly positive ways

From what I can gather, the teacher is incredibly present throughout the whole process. Teachers can model searching and evaluating, provide 1-1, small group, or even whole class guidance during a lesson, guide the students if they are ‘click happy’ and no longer on relevant pages, pose a new question, etc. The “Granny Cloud” also seems amazing for a number of reasons, the first being that it connects students with someone new who has a different life, different experience, and maybe even lives in a different place than the teacher. This goes back to the whole exciting idea of global connectivity. It also gives students the chance to interact with someone who is personally interested in seeing them smile and succeed, offering a new educational and motivational support system for kids. The sad truth is that not every student has a champion on their side, and I think the “Granny Cloud” has the potential to change that. Plus, what an incredible way to bridge the gap between generations, people, and places.

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Like you, I am concerned by the idea of relatively unsupervised learning environments (recent research has revealed that online charter school students are woefully behind their traditional classmates). But I think SOLEs and programs that promote student autonomy and independence are at least worth some consideration. I am glad experiments like this are out there. Like any new program, if it results in engaged students who are learning and connecting in meaningful ways, as a future teacher, future parent, and current citizen of planet Earth, I can only hope for its success!



Featured image: Flicker user Lucélia Ribeiro

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