When the slum kids figured out how to use the computer and started teaching each other — even started teaching each other English so they could use it better — Mitra knew he was on to something. He started testing the concept in more slums, and had the computers ask the kids ever harder questions about DNA construction.
The kids could figure out extremely complex answers, it turned out, so long as they had an adult who kept looking over their shoulder and being amazed at what they were doing — “like a grandmother,” Mitra says. He soon automated that process by getting volunteer grandmothers in the UK with broadband Internet and a webcam to talk to the slum kids. He called it “the granny cloud.”
These experiments, soon repeated around the world, led Mitra to come up with a whole new theory of education. He calls it SOLE, for Self-Organized Learning Environments. Give kids a computer, ask them a serious adult-level question, encourage their efforts to answer it, and stand well back.
For these efforts — and based on his plan to build a “school in the Cloud” for poor kids across India — Mitra won the $1 million TED prize Tuesday night.