Most recognizable to those in the educational world for his TedTalks on how children can teach themselves, Sugata Mitra now also stands as a Founder/CEO (with the preferred title ‘Principle Investigator’) of The School in the Cloud. Following his passion for child-driven education, Mitra founded this new venture utilizing his TED Prize with a wish to design a learning lab in India, where children can explore and learn from each other — using resources and mentoring from the cloud. This venture is now the embodiment of his vision for self-organized learning environments.
This new accomplishment rests on a long and impressive work and research history. Mitra was born in a Bengali family in Calcutta he is seen as an archetypal polymath; his first research fascination was molecular orbital computation in the 1970s where Mitra discovered that the structure of organic molecules determine their function more than the constituent atoms. After a Ph.D. in Solid State Physics from the IIT, Delhi, he went on to research energy storage systems, first at the Centre for Energy Studies in the IIT and then at the Technische Universität, Vienna, Austria. This resulted in a new design for Zinc-Chlorine batteries that is now in use by the military. His interests in the flow of electricity through biological systems, a consequence of his Ph.D. research on exciton dissociation in organic semiconductors, led on to a seminally speculative paper on why the human sense organs are located where they are. His interest in computer networking led him towards the emerging systems in printing in the 1980s. He set up India’s first local area network based newspaper publishing system in 1984 and went on to predict the desktop publishing industry. This in turn led to the invention of LAN based database publishing and he created the “Yellow Pages” industry in India and Bangladesh. His interest in the human mind once again led him into the areas of learning and memory and he was amongst the first in the world to show that simulated neural networks can help decipher the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease. He was amongst the first people in the world to invent Voluntary Perception Recording (a continuously variable voting machine) and a hyperlinked computing environment, several years ahead of the Internet.
Professor Mitra’s work at NIIT created the first curricula and pedagogy for that organisation, followed by years of research on learning styles, learning devices, several of them now patented, multimedia and new methods of learning. Culminating and, perhaps, towering over his previous work, are his “hole in the wall” experiments with children’s learning. Now Mitra is a leading proponent of Minimally invasive education, which began which his “Hole in the Wall” experiments in 1999 that revealed that groups of children can learn almost anything by themselves given Internet access and the ability to work collaboratively. He developed this original idea into the SOLE [the Self Organised Learning Environment] approach, reaching out to children with minimal or no educational opportunities, in remote corners of the globe. He is now driving this research into making it an approach in mainstream education through his The School in the Cloud venture.
In summary, since the 1970s, Professor Mitra’s publications and work has resulted in training and development of perhaps a million young Indians, amongst them some of the poorest children in the world. Some of this work culminated in an interest in early literacy, and the Hole in the Wall experiments. He has a PhD in Physics but is credited with more than 25 inventions in the area of cognitive science and education technology. He was conferred the Dewang Mehta Award for Innovation in Information Technology in the year 2005. In September 2012 Mitra won the Leonardo European Corporate Learning Award in the “Crossing Border” category. In 2013 he was awarded the $1 million award given to leaders with creative, bold wishes to spark global change. Mitra currently stands as Professor of Educational Technology, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University as well as Chief Scientist, Emeritus, at his Alma Mater, NIIT.