The Granny Cloud has been up and running since 2009 when Sugata first put out an appeal in a UK newspaper for grandmothers with a spare hour a week who would like to talk to children in India and help them with their English skills.
There are a handful of loyal stalwarts still remaining from those early days, many of whom form a self-organised core team to help to recruit, interview and advise new recruits.
But there are far more who have fallen by the wayside, often daunted by the prospect of actually being a School in the Cloud granny once reality sets in.
Dr Suneeta Kulkarni, research director for School in the Cloud based in India, says she can completely understand how they feel. “It can seem completely overwhelming to start with,” she admits.
“There’s a lot more tech available now than when we first started and I know that can put some people off, but this is not the crux of the interaction. If you’re comfortable with it, then use it by all means, but it may actually hinder the process if it’s a brand new group not used to computers or the English language.
“It’s really just about chatting with the children about whatever takes your, and their, fancy. When you start with a new group you need to get a feel for their environment, who they are and what they like. I’d always say don’t go in with a plan – just go with it. Just say ‘hi’ and take it from there. At the end of the day, the primary aim is to have fun, and that goes for the granny as well as the children!”
Suneeta often advises new grannies to think of those initial sessions as a bit like turning up at a family gathering where there just happens to be a group of children who are really keen to talk to you!
Jerry Rothwell, the School in the Cloud film
Conversation is key to these interactions and each granny has his or her own style – that’s what makes it so interesting for the children at the other end of the connection. Some like to read stories, others create craft activities or even tell jokes. There are grannies who like using online activities such as puzzles or videos to start a discussion, and others who experiment with new resources as they are developed, but often plain flash cards work just as well (and sometimes better, especially when there is limited connectivity).
“This shows the robustness of the interaction,” explains Suneeta. “You might be doing something most other people wouldn’t think twice of doing but it still seems to work. It’s important to find your own comfort zone – some work better with older children and are happy discussing a wide range of complex topics, others are more comfortable with younger groups.”
Suneeta, who is out of her own comfort zone when it comes to water, uses her own fear as an analogy for new grannies finding themselves worried about jumping in at the deep end. “Sometimes it’s just a question of getting in,” she says. “I’m scared of swimming but wouldn’t mind sitting on the edge and splashing my feet in. You can always wade in – you don’t need to dive.”
The Granny Cloud could do with more male role models as they give a different dimension to the interaction. Suneeta says often male grannies are more likely to not feel that confident dealing with the children, but they’re actually doing a great job and the children love chatting with them.
These dedicated individuals are doing something positive and contributing to these children in a way we cannot yet fully appreciate – only time will tell. But even this early on, educators can already see the children’s search skills improving with just one session a week, so it is already making a difference.
The grannies share their sessions on Facebook and on a learning blog, which is designed to help with feedback and ideas as well as helping with ongoing research to understand better how this all works. However, it can sometimes add to the feeling of being overwhelmed, as less confident or new grannies may feel they cannot possibly do anything like that. “It’s not about making people inadequate, simply a case of ‘this is what I did and it might help others’,” explains Suneeta.
“Each granny is different and each group of children is too – that’s what makes it fun. You have to find what suits you and just go with it without worrying about what somebody else might be doing. And if you’re ever stuck or overwhelmed, there’s usually one of us online who would be happy to chat with you and share our expertise.”