Can entire schools exist in the cloud?

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Is there a better way of teaching by harnessing technology and encouraging collaboration? Dr. Sugata Mitra, the TED Prize winner in 2013, believes there is.

Dr. Mitra was recently awarded $1 million to build his vision for a “school in the cloud.” The goal is to allow children a new space to “embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online.” According to Dr. Mitra, Victorian principles of education and the forms it spawned in the modern education system are rapidly becoming outdated.

While the methods studied and developed by Dr. Mitra are innovative and intriguing, they must come under careful scrutiny and proper organization before they could be implemented in the United States in order to comply with existing federal regulations.

In 1999, Dr. Mitra and his colleagues performed a study in New Delhi, India. They dug a hole into the wall, installed an Internet-connected computer under the view of a recording camera and watched. They witnessed children who had never previously operated a computer learn how to navigate the platform, connect to the internet and experiment extensively. Soon enough, those children were recruiting their friends, inspiring peer-based learning with self instruction and collaborative knowledge.

Self-Organized Learning Environments, or SOLEs, are the guiding force behind Dr. Mitra’s vision. The hope is to replace the traditional classroom with these SOLEs as a means for learning. A SOLE is made up of a group of children and their peers, and educators such as parents, teachers or community leaders. A central screen is shared by the group and the internet is the primary research tool.

SOLEs consist of children between 8 and 12 years old that place themselves into groups of four and explore their own questions of interest. Students can move freely between groups and share information garnered from one group to the next. The groups are then encouraged to share their SOLE experience with friends and family members in hopes of bringing in new recruits, information and perspectives.

Dr. Mitra hopes to create his “school in the cloud,” or a large-scale SOLE with the award money from TED, as well as with other donations. The plan is to create a virtually unmanned facility in India, outfitted with solar -powered heating and air, water filtration systems and remote cleaning machines, all controlled via the cloud. Innovative display methods like chalkboard paint and glass whiteboards will be implemented to inspire creativity and learning.

Cloud-based education brings on a host of privacy concerns in the United States. Regulations are laid out in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a set of laws passed in 1974 to protect the information collected on students by institutions and associated vendors. Collected data like course names, grades and the like are all highly protected under FERPA. Certain aspects of learning management system activity, such as Blackboard or Moodle, are also protected under the act.

The cloud opens up a wide range of opportunities for hackers to intercept such data and use it maliciously. Administrators must be highly aware of the data that flows internally within their network, as well as what is transferred externally to the cloud. More than half of data loss in the education industry comes from the exploitation of a system vulnerability.

Education and technology are continually evolving and growing together at a rapid pace. The marriage between the two can be a beneficial instructional tool for instructors across the globe. It allows wider access and cheaper implementation while maintaining high quality education. As long as primary components of security and privacy are implemented along the way, cloud-based education will continue to expand.