The Classroom in the Cloud

Sugata Mitra’s approach to education embraces digital media. In his award-winning TED Talk “Build a School in the Cloud,” he discusses the Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE). He argues that children who are given access to computers connected to “the cloud” – on-demand data and applications – will educate themselves on how to use them and then put these tools to use exploring what interests them. Beginning with his Hole-in-the-Wall experiment, Mitra has observed that students will teach each other with little need of an instructor’s guidance. Given big questions to explore, students do just that.

Mitra uses the term “cloud” rather than the “Internet” to suggest a curated form of information and services, what the computer industry breaks down into different services based on infrastructure, platform, software, and network. While the implementation of cloud computing services is still nascent and the specifics are more than may be covered here, the important point is that cloud services could contain selected information or organized collections of data provided to students for exploration in controlled ways. Consider the cloud, then, as a digital canon of information collected, organized, and maintained by scholars and humanists, much like an anthology might have been produced in the age of print, but without most of its inherent limitations. Among the advantages to this approach would be the ease of access, the organization of resources, and the breadth of content (Palmer 349). This is the work of the Digital Humanities: pruning the “infinite archive” to an easily accessible collection of data germane to the needs of the scholarly community (Berry 2).

In his TED Talk, Mitra ponders the idea that “knowledge is obsolete.” If the information contained in books to be memorized for tests and daily practice has traditionally been defined as “knowledge,” then in this sense it has been and will continue to be transferred to the cloud – the chief concern of the first-wave of Digital Humanities or humanities computing (Hayles 44). The most convenient way to retrieve information used to be from our gray matter: facts, figures, phone numbers, and whatever else we needed for our everyday lives, private and professional. Still, our brains are like a computer’s random access memory (RAM): the fastest place for immediate recall, but inefficient and impractical for data storage. This would make the cloud like a computer’s hard disk: a place for archive and storage for when we need it. With access to the cloud growing faster and more efficient, much that we stored in our brains can now be transferred to the cloud, freeing up our limited headspace for other tasks. While Marshall McLuhan suggested that when we extend ourselves through our media, a narcosis begins to atrophy the parts of ourselves no longer used, perhaps these parts may now be allocated to different tasks (41). The cloud just doesn’t extend our reach, states Eric Rabkin, it’s a technology to transform reality, like the automobile (142).

Integral to a conception of the cloud is participation. If, by definition, networked computers interact, participation is what differentiates human activity. We are not just machines talking to other machines, but human beings with creative potential to collaborate, play, and create our own collective knowledge – to use information in ways that better us and our communities. As recent history has shown us, new media empowers democracy, but without education, revolutions might produce darker outcomes.

When students participate, they take an active role in their education. While traditional models of education teach students to be passive receptors of knowledge, new media encourages them to have a voice. What happens when new media is emphasized in a space that students associate with passivity, conformity, and “student” behaviors? Requiring new media in the classroom is the first step to reconfiguring education for the digital age. Bring education to where the students live rather than changing students to fit “education.”

What does participation involve? It’s flipping the classroom in two senses: (1) disseminating materials online that would traditionally delivered in-class, while moving “homework” to the classroom; and (2) eschewing a position of authority to promote collaboration and discovery. With students front-and-center, they may examine the topic from any angles that make sense to them and meaningfully contribute their understanding to the class’ collective knowledge of the topic.

If McLuhan is correct in his assertion that the medium is the message – i.e., a consciously political statement by which he means a “change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” – then we must consider the message of the classroom medium (McLuhan 8). A literal change of classroom design could also break the message of the “classroom” and allow students to participate more easily; for example, let’s ditch the grid of plastic desks and replace them with cloth chairs and couches; remove the PC workstations in favor of tablets; trade the fluorescent lights and industrial furniture for warmer lamps and group tables. A literal space that is designed for discussion would be a strong step toward breaking the old military-inspired educational paradigm.

Participation also involves collaboration, which in digital humanities is the “rule rather than the exception” (Hayles 51). Encouraging student collaboration allows them to contribute their individual skills to creative, multimodal projects that might be impossible for individual students to accomplish alone. Using social media in the classroom also allows students to communicate with each other beyond the physical classroom and gives them a new dimension to engage the course content. Social media, like Twitter and Google Plus, become the tools of the classroom in the cloud, an informal writing space that gives students permission to explore ideas without the pressures associated with traditional forms of analysis and evaluation, like the essay.

To summarize: the classroom in the cloud emphasizes student collaboration by deemphasizing the message of the traditional classroom. It removes the “sage on the stage” to one of curator or “guide on the side.” It asks big questions that allows room for diversity in response. It makes social media integral to classroom communication, and it encourages collaboration, exploration, and creativity. The classroom in the cloud kicks students to the deep end of the pool, making them re-access education and their relationship to it. By making students responsible for contributing to a collective knowledge of the course materials, it promotes a new commitment and enthusiasm toward the course content.

These ideas provide the foundation of my approach to my spring 2013 HUMN 4482 Studies in Culture course: “Norman Mailer’s ‘America.’” Next up: the specifics.


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