When Sugata Mitra first muted the idea of the School in the Cloud, his dream was a place where children could go on intellectual adventures together.
But in Colombia, it’s not just children that are doing it – whole communities are embracing self organised learning environments (SOLE) to help them find answers to their own Big Questions.
As SOLE Colombia’s director, Sanjay Fernandes, explains, his organisation’s work to expand SOLE across the country has led to amazing outcomes they never envisaged three years ago. It’s also put them in an unique position to help advise on the peace process, which we’ll get to shortly!
“People in rural communities have their own Big Questions and that’s what has been so powerful,” says Sanjay. “It’s been fascinating to see and very different to your average education stories. It’s not about grade results or organisational objectives – it’s about community empowerment and that’s what we’re all about.”
Villagers have used SOLE to find out how to make their plantations more efficient and productive and also used what they’ve discovered to set up their own entrepreneurial projects such as creating bakeries or making recycled bags. (SOLE Colombia’s own SOLE kit is made out of old grain/rice/ or flour sacks and has inspired many others to try it themselves).
In one rural village, about one and a half hours away from the nearest town, people go to do a SOLE in the school at least once a week, without any guidance. “They’re completely doing it on their own – we don’t control that,” says Sanjay. “This is real self organisation where we don’t need to do anything at all.”
And now SOLE Colombia has just embarked on its most ambitious project yet – to help the government and the United Nations (UN) with the peace process.
In a significant moment for the country this June, Farc rebels finished handing in their weapons. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc, after the initials in Spanish) are Colombia’s largest rebel group, founded in 1964 as the armed wing of the Communist Party. The 53 year conflict has left 260,000 people dead and more than seven million displaced from their homes.
There remain large rural areas of the country which historically have never known any state presence – just guerilla or paramilitary rule.
“One of big challenges is Farc settling down in these areas to live for the rest of their lives,” explains Sanjay. “Some might move to the city but many will stay, and the issue is how to get these people to share and come together when Farc are known as the people who walk around with guns. Now it’s very different.”
Sanjay and his team have spent much of the past year developing ideas to help take forward the peace agreement Farc signed in November 2016. “We really want to participate in one of the big challenges this country has ever faced,” he says.
“Everything’s new and nobody knows what to do and that’s why we’re proposing SOLEs. We believe that self organised learning is going to be the tool which people can use to find the solutions to their own problems.
“I have no idea what they need over there and what their problems are. It also doesn’t make sense for me, sitting in the capital in Bogata, to tell them ‘you need to do this’. But I can give them the tools to self organise to solve their own issues.”
After nearly 10 months in the planning, in July the team travelled to one of the closest of the 26 Farc area camps, which are under UN observation. (The UN is working as the mediator between the government and the rebels, to ensure all the weapons are handed in.) It took a day and a half to get there, by boat and jeep. The furthest areas in the jungle are at least several days away.
Although there are UN and military checkpoints, where guerrillas once were paramilitaries now want to go, so the military still has to take control of those areas, and safety is still a concern.
One of the most pressing concerns for the government is how to get education into these faraway places. “We’ve been speaking with the Ministry of Education and they’re just thinking of doing what they’ve always done – setting up schools,” says Sanjay. “But they have to build them and send teachers, already knowing they will not want to stay. Everybody knows this, but nobody says it!”
So, SOLE Colombia has come up with an alternative plan.
They are initially proposing to set up three bamboo SOLE labs they designed last year in the Farc camp locations. They’re also testing different structures, with the aim being to teach the communities how to create and maintain their own resources.
This will include an NGO (non government organisation) called Fundación Promedio who work with existing garbage/rubbish such as cardboard and metal and can build the labs alongside the people living there, reducing the need to bring in bamboo from elsewhere.
SOLE Colombia took advice from another member of the School in the Cloud community, Projects for All, whose Hello Hubs were inspired by Sugata’s Hole in the Wall experiments in India. These labs will are likely to have less tech than a regular hub, but are designed on the same principle that if the communities can build and maintain them, then they are likely to be more sustainable.
And as a lot of the locations do not have Internet connection, the Endless system will be installed on their computers so they will still have access to a wealth of information offline until a connection can be established.
Unlike SOLE locations elsewhere in the country, SOLE Colombia is also planning to ‘hand hold’ these communities for three years to ensure they can be self sustaining in future.
They realised the extent of the obstacles to overcome during one of their visits to the camp. The original intention had been to run a SOLE on the edge of the UN camp for the neighbouring community and the Farc, but it was quickly evident that this kind of collaboration was still a way off.
“It didn’t happen as people are still fearful of being seen together,” explains Sanjay. “But we did do one just for the Farc members and that was a wonderful experience for them. They’ve been in the jungle for the last 50 years and to be out there in public and able to relax was amazing for them.
“Some of them had never even turned a computer on before but when we connected them with a ‘granny’ in Spain, they couldn’t believe it.”
The Granny Cloud sessions are all part of the plan to bring disparate communities together with each other and the wider world. “It’s a powerful tool to connect these areas online because there are a lot of people who want to do something with the peace process but can’t get their voice heard,” says Sanjay. “It’s beautiful if they can connect and people all over the world can support them and give them the motivation.”
It was a community effort to set up the SOLE at the Farc camp, bringing in children from the local school, computers from the public library and tables and chairs from a nearby Internet kiosk. The children had never been close to the camp before as they were normally put straight on a bus between their homes and school.
They loved talking to Suneeta Kulkarni, director of the Granny Cloud in India, fascinated by her voice, clothes and where she was in the world!
“Connecting people across the world is very powerful, especially in really remote areas where they are really isolated,” explains Sanjay. “If people are isolated, the situation can arise where it’s ‘either you pay attention to me or I’ll make you’ and this can be one way of solving those issues.”
Last month, SOLE Colombia entered the SOLE labs idea in the Google Challenge for Latin America, where $1m is being invested in each country between five projects. Unfortunately, they didn’t win, but remain undeterred about their plans.
“It’s very speculative – we don’t know if it will work,” admits Sanjay. “But the beauty of it is although what we’re trying to do is a bit crazy, nobody expects nothing from us. We don’t say ‘hey, we’re going to solve your education problem or peace building process’. We’re just saying ‘how about we try this?’ It’s powerful but at the same time it’s self-organising – we don’t know if it’s going to work or not but we have to try.”
Over the next few months, they will be running SOLEs in seven new camps. “Every funding bid we put in at the moment is to be able to do this kind of thing – stronger community participation to find a solution,” says Sanjay. “We can say to the government ‘if you don’t have enough children to make a full class, it’s easy to set up a SOLE instead’.”
We’re keeping everything crossed that SOLE Colombia continues to push forward, as the work they’re doing is far beyond what anyone ever imagined SOLE could be. Sanjay will continue with his mission, despite constant funding concerns: “Google didn’t give us a prize but we’ve still got Plan B, C & D!” he says. “Lots of people love our ideas, not so many give money, but we’ll persist!”
Although their country’s future hangs in the balance, one thing is for certain: SOLE Colombia is not going to stop trying to bring about positive change any time soon.
*SOLE Colombia is looking for Spanish-speaking grannies to keep in contact with locations in the Farc areas. The hope is to eventually merge a Spanish Granny Cloud with the main one, but for now, please contact SOLE Colombia direct via email.
For the past three years SOLE Colombia has been scaling SOLE in schools, either delivering it direct or training others so they can do so. To date, over 50,000 people in the country have tried SOLEs at least once.
In 2016/17 SOLE Colombia has eased back on showing people how to do SOLEs like they did in the previous year, instead focussing their efforts on the peace process and training other organisations to deliver SOLE, such as Telefonica (to date, the company has gone into 324 schools to help train teachers).
Students in grades 9-11 are also using SOLE to inside a different programme about entrepreneurship that started last year. “What has been amazing is that SOLE is the only thing they’ve continued with – all the other methodologies have gone,” says Sanjay.