Author - School in the Cloud

  Location: Korakati


When you bring together inspiring individuals who are trying to change the world, you create a force to be reckoned with. Such is the case with the pairing of documentary filmmaker Jerry Rothwell and Sugata Mitra.

I caught up with Jerry over Skype from a bustling café off London’s Victoria Station, as he took time out from promoting his upcoming film How to Change the World.

Jerry has been following Sugata around since 2013, having secured the first Sundance Institute/TED Prize Filmmaker Award to help bring the School in the Cloud story to life.

“Sugata is a fascinating individual for a documentary – he’s articulate, funny and provocative,” says Jerry. “He seems to be able to combine a great simplicity in his approach with a great complexity of ideas. I’ve seen him running a SOLE in various locations and he’s very engaging – you get a very real sense of what it’s about from watching him.”

However, making a film about Sugata and SOLE is not without its challenges, both physically and metaphorically. It’s a hard trek to reach some of the rural locations in India: Korakati, the most remote, can often take the best part of a day, including travelling by cycle rickshaw and boat. In self organised learning environments you also never know exactly what will happen when you turn up!

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Jerry and his film crew resort to going barefoot to get to the lab at Chandrakona during the monsoon.

“By its very nature it’s anecdotal, about telling stories rather evaluating the process,” says Jerry. As a result, he’s decided to tell a selection of individual stories over a longer period of time to give a feel for how SOLE develops and its importance to local communities.

The film The School In The Cloud will focus on the more remote locations of Korakati and Chandrakona in India, as well as George Stephenson High School in North Tyneside, UK.

It will include Indian children who speak no English and have little or no access to education, retired schoolteachers in the UK who are part of the Granny Cloud and students in North East England. Together, they represent the many voices that are part of this visionary educational experiment and Jerry’s film asks these two Big Questions:

  • What happens to a small remote Indian village when its children get connected to the internet?
  • What happens in a Western-style school, when a lab gets built which allows children take a lead in their own education?

“There’s two sides to it,” explains Jerry. “There’s the story from the bottom up about these people experiencing the project and it’s also an ideas film exploring the impact of Sugata’s ideas in action.”

Filming the project as it evolves gives Jerry a unique insight into how it works. He’s noticed that in the early days of the labs the best results come from sessions that have input from the Granny Cloud or a local co-ordinator. But he’s also quick to point out that he has also seen boys at Chandrakona working out how to use DJing software and teaching themselves to remix Bangla songs.

“The skill from an educator’s point of view is in knowing where the balance lies between leaving the kids to get on with it, and giving some input,” he says.

Jerry told me a story that helped to illustrate exactly what he means. “When I’m shooting I just hang in there for a very long time with the kids on radio mics so I can catch every little exchange. Then perhaps a teacher comes around the back just looking to push it on a bit.

“If you listen from the kids’ point of view you can see they were just in the process of trying to work something out, or just about to make a leap, and then they were interrupted and that derailed them in a subtle way. It’s very delicate how SOLE works and the tiniest intervention can completely disrupt it.”

Jerry says from his experience as an observer ‘a very light touch’ works best, where structure is applied at the start and then the educator steps back and lets the learning happen.

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Students using the lab at George Stephenson High School, UK

He’s also found it interesting how the students on ‘The Committee’ at George Stephenson High School talk about their lab. “There is a real sense that SOLE has given them a way to talk about their education and that’s had an impact on the student/teacher relationship and how they approach their learning,” he says. “They take full ownership of the SOLE, seeing themselves as its ‘guardians’.”

However, SOLE is not just about education, but also what happens when you connect kids in remote locations to the wider world. Jerry told me about one young boy in Korakati who he introduced to Google Earth (although he realised afterwards he’d done exactly what Sugata advises educators not to do!)

“One lad was interested in travel and I showed him how you can use street view to walk along roads in another location,” he recalls. “He then started visiting places he’d always wanted to go like Sri Lanka and New York, which is an amazing thing to get your head around. In some ways it’s opening these kids to a much broader world than those of their parents and it’s interesting to see a different world view emerging in these kids that will affect them for a very long time.”

Jerry is used to filming in remote places – he travelled to Ethiopia for his documentary Town of Runners about young athletes from a highland town that has produced some of the greatest distance runners. He says its more straightforward making The School In The Cloud because the filming infrastructure in India is much better than in Africa and he has the added bonus of a ‘fantastic team of very skilled people’ working with him in-country.

He shares filming with Ranu Gosh, who is based in India, and has already made three trips there with another two planned next year. “At the last shoot in Korakati it was raining non-stop,” says Jerry. “In fact I always seem to turn up in the rainy season – but even in a monsoon you realise that (the SOLE) was attracting young people and had become a bit of a hub for the community.”

Filming for The School In The Cloud is taking place over a two-and-a-half-year period, with plans to release the film at the end of 2016.

“SOLE connects with a lot of my ideas and interests, particularly the link between education and technology,” says Jerry. “It’s also very much about children’s autonomy and taking control of your own learning and how they pick things up without hardly noticing and that’s something I find fascinating.”

Watch out for a sneak preview of Jerry’s recent filming for School In The Cloud coming up on our social media channels next month.

Jerry’s latest film, How to Change the World, a feature documentary about the founders of Greenpeace in the 1970s, opens in the US, UK, Germany and Australia on September 9.

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Communities | Documentary Film | TED Prize