In 1999, Sugata Mitra’s pioneering “Hole in the Wall” experiments helped bring the potential of self-organized learning to the public’s attention. Research since then has continued to support his startling conclusion that groups of children, with access to the Internet, can learn almost anything by themselves.

From the slums of India and villages of Cambodia, to schools in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, the USA and United Kingdom, Professor Mitra’s experimental results offer an intriguing new future for learning: a future in which ‘knowing’ may be obsolete.

His innovative and bold efforts towards advancing learning for children all over the world earned him the first ever $1m TED Prize award. At the 2013 TED conference, Sugata asked the global TED community to make his dream a reality by helping him build the ultimate School in the Cloud where children, no matter how rich or poor, can engage and connect with information and mentoring online.

In December 2013, the first School in the Cloud lab — located inside a high school in Killingworth, England — opened its doors to students. Seven more labs have since been opened as part of his wish; five in India, one more in the UK and in New York, USA. The labs aim to provide an environment where a global community of educators can observe the impact of self-organized learning on children from a wide range of educational backgrounds.

The School in the Cloud

The School in the Cloud platform was originally launched at the 2014 TED conference to help accelerate this research by helping educators — be they teachers, parents or community leaders — to run their own SOLEs and to contribute to the global experiment by sharing their experiences with others.

It is now managed by SOLE Central at Newcastle University, a global hub for SOLE research and practice directed by Sugata Mitra.

What is a SOLE?

A Self-Organised Learning Environment, or SOLE, can exist anywhere there is a computer, Internet connection, and students who are ready to learn. Within a SOLE students are given the freedom to learn collaboratively using the internet. An educator poses a Big Question and students form small groups to find an answer.

During a SOLE session students are free to move around, change groups and share information at any time. Towards the end of a session they have the opportunity to share what they learned with the whole group. SOLE sessions are characterised by discovery, sharing, spontaneity and limited teacher intervention.

What is the Granny Cloud?

The Granny Cloud is a fluid team of e-mediators, young and old, both male and female from all over the globe. They reach out via Skype to children in SOLEs in locations as diverse as the Indian jungle to the far north of Greenland. Currently, The Granny Cloud consists of over 100 active volunteers. Their main role is to interact with groups of children in regular or one off sessions. This could involve stories, craft activities, songs, exploring the Internet together, quizzes and discussions.

The aim is to stimulate curiosity, develop confidence and generally have fun. It also involves asking the children Big Questions, working in groups, using the Internet to develop  search skills, talking amongst themselves and then feeding back to their Granny.

Taking its lead from Sugata’s principles of self organisation, the Granny Cloud has developed many different roles within the group and is now run by a core team, led by Dr Suneeta Kulkarni. It offers mutual support, mentors children, provides technical support, gathers data for research, explores fund-raising opportunities, promotes the project through the media and helps with the recruitment of new Grannies.

What are Big Questions?

Big Questions are the spark that ignites a SOLE session. Asking an interesting and relevant question fires up children’s imaginations and curiosity and leads them on a genuine process of discovery. Developing a good Big Question can also be the hardest part of running a SOLE session.

Big Questions are the ones that don’t have an easy answer. They are often open and difficult; they may even be unanswerable. The aim is to encourage deep and long conversations, rather than finding easy answers.

These questions encourage children to offer theories, work collaboratively, use reason and think critically. A good Big Question will connect more than one subject area: “What is an insect?” for instance, does not touch as many different subjects as “What would happen to Earth if all insects disappeared?”.

Some questions are extensive, some precise, some lighthearted, and some poignant. They can tie in with what the children are learning at school, come from their everyday experiences, or be something completely new.

They should be things that encourage research, debate and critical thinking. Big Questions aren’t just about getting the ‘right’ answers, but about learning the methods and skills needed to find the answers.