Sponsored post: Learning without teachers - it couldn't happen, could it?

By Simon Lebus, Group Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment.

New Statesman

‘Cut out the middleman and go direct!’ It’s something we’re often urged to do by advertisers who claim they can save us money and time. But can we do the same in the world of education? And would we want to? What would be the result if the student bypassed the teacher and accessed knowledge directly? Learning without teachers – it couldn’t happen, could it?

These are just some of the questions Cambridge Assessment will be asking at its next event, Schools in the Cloud, which will be held at the British Library in February.

We will be hearing from Sugata Mitra, the man who has perhaps done more than anyone to develop the idea of learning without teachers.

Professor Mitra is the man who famously installed a computer in the wall of a Delhi slum and discovered that children could teach themselves using it. He has now been awarded the $1 million TED prize, which he is using to create eight ‘cloud schools’ and further his vision of childdriven learning.

So what are the benefits, and are there risks? As experts in assessment, we have long believed it is our role to ask difficult questions, to stimulate the education debate and help to shape thinking.

It is clear to us that the technology provides a space for different approaches to learning. There is scope to use it to take on some of the more routine elements of education, so teachers can concentrate on going beyond the curriculum, or focus on areas where students are having difficulty. It shifts students’ perception of their role in learning; they can decide the content and as a result they may be more keen to engage. The technology brings with it too some exciting pedagogical possibilities; the capacity to monitor and analyse how people learn, what they find easy and difficult, and tailor lessons accordingly.

So should we be positively embracing this brave new world, a world without teachers, where the self-taught rule?

We should perhaps first consider the extent to which this technology disintermediates the teacher – or in simpler terms, cuts out the middleman. What if the middleman was actually rather important? To what extent is teaching about face-to-face interaction?

As a society we will surely always value the social dimension of learning, pupil/teacher interaction, the capacity of the teacher to deal with serendipitous ancillary lines of enquiry which machines cannot.

A further point. We hear a lot these days about the importance of 21st century skills. Collaboration; team work; empathy – to what extent are these skills that are primarily acquired in the classroom, or indeed on the sports field or in the playground? Is it sensible to imagine that a cloud-based approach to learning will permit such skills to develop?

Even if we could ignore the importance of a school and its teachers as a centre for education, there are surely other reasons why it is important for children to attend school. Not least socialisation; learning to live with each other and learning to accept structures and authority.

There is no denying that the technology is marching ahead and we cannot afford to stand still. But there are lots of questions, and strong views on either side of the debate. Fertile ground for a fascinating conversation. I hope you can join us.

Cambridge Assessment is a not-for-profit department of the University of Cambridge that owns and manages its three exam boards.

l Schools in the Cloud will take place on Tuesday 11 February 2014 at the British Library Conference Centre in London. To register for a free place, please email expertview@ cambridgeassessment. org.uk or call +44 (0)1223 558370.