Grannies on tour: India

“It is only years later that people will realise the effects of the Granny Cloud on the lives of children. It will be a story of patience and unassuming achievement” – Professor Sugata Mitra

The Granny Cloud is going on tour this month to India. On February 13 2016, a number of these dedicated volunteers are flying out to meet the children and co-ordinators they have been talking to via Skype for years. Only a handful have ever actually met face-to-face.

Along with a conference in Phaltan where educators, children and grannies from all over the world will be sharing their expertise and stories, they will also be touring four or the five Indian TED SOLE research labs – Gocharan, Korakati, Chandrakona and Phaltan to find out more about what happens behind the scenes.

Professor Sugata Mitra will join Dr Suneeta Kulkarni and colleagues in welcoming these amazing individuals to India, where they are sure to go down a storm with the children and teachers they meet on their travels. Look out for updates on the blog, Facebook and Twitter during their trip!

And for everyone’s viewing pleasure, a film some of you may have seen before, but Liz Fewing’s ‘jelly moment’ went down in history so we thought we’d share it again! Liz is already in travelling in India and she’ll be one of the grannies sharing their experience with us.

Thanks to Jerry Rothwell for his kind permission to use this video.

Puja Ganguly: SOLE is like ‘flying kites’

When I was a small girl I liked flying kites. They gave me a sense of freedom. As I kept my first steps in school I started missing them. School was fun but the studying part was not. I only remember memorizing books and climbing up the grades. Strangely I never knew why I was reading them and why I don’t remember any of it now. Since then I have been searching a way out.

One fine day when I was struggling through the hard chains of our educational system, I came to know about ‘School in the Cloud’. I applied for the position of coordinator of Gocharan SinC lab 0 and I got it. When I entered this organization I felt like a newborn as I couldn’t understand any part of it. Suneeta Kulkarni mam was the only person who kept me awake and made me strive forward.

I still remember my first day here. I left my house at 10.30 in the morning to reach the station. Local train was the most convenient way to reach Gocharan as it takes more than two hours by road. After 45 mins a train arrived at the station full of passengers. I couldn’t enter the train as most of the passengers were blocking the entrance. It usually stops for 45 seconds. I ran here and there to find an access.

Finally I could hop into one compartment. I was standing near the door entry as all the seats were occupied. Everytime I met Suneeta mam we never use to fall short of conversations talking about my deadly struggle in the local train. Sometimes she felt so bad that she would pick me up from my place to save the day!

As soon as I reached the place it made me remember my slum project experience which we had to do in class 12. It was a maze of crowded narrow alleyways navigating around excited groups of barefoot children and women washing pots in buckets of precious water just inches away from precious sewers. We find it hard to find happiness living in cities but these people were happy with helpful souls.

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After walking for about 20-25 mins I reached Debangana nursing home. Suddenly I saw a ‘glass house’ just beside the nursing home. It was a huge beehive shaped building completely transparent from outside. There were 10 computers placed in a circular form inside the building and in the middle of the glass house there was a small glass room having a very big television. The television was surrounded by children who were almost falling over it to see something. It aroused a lot of questions within me and I was curious to know it.

As I entered the lab I found ‘flying kites’ again. Children were playing games, searching origami in YouTube, painting their views, reading blogs and much more! It was like a free sky for them. I loved the atmosphere and I was amazed to find learning happening around them. The idea was very clear. It was a self organized learning environment (SOLE). Children aging from 5-15 come here from a very poor background with limited exposure to English. They make themselves learn in their own way.

We basically have three parts in it – FREE session, a BIG QUESTION session and lastly and most importantly GRANNY session. In a free session children are given full freedom to explore the computer. They draw, play games, watch videos to make something creative or sometimes they just listen to a song that’s it.

Secondly comes the interesting part where they are handed over with a big question like for example it can be anything starting from why the sky is blue to why the ants always walk in a straight line? And immediately they get into groups and starts to find an answer by themselves by ‘Googling’ it and come out with absolutely unbelievable answers in one hour when they present their answers after that there is absolutely no sign of pressure or burden on the child’s face. It was fun!

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Finally the most amazing part of it – the GRANNY session where a ‘granny’ or volunteer or educator or facilitator anything you call it makes a call on Skype. Remember I told you about the big television in a small glass room? It was the Granny session room. They call from any country in the world and communicate with these children.

The Granny Cloud is the most special part of the program where teachers, retired grandmothers and grandfathers take a valuable time out to spread the light of motivation among the enthusiastic heads of our living future. They start with a general conversation asking them ‘what game they played today?’ then switching over to an interesting topic or question about which they talk about to each other in English in the session.

We choose the word ‘granny’ here because usually the children connect more intimately with their grand parents rather than their own parents. Isn’t it wonderful? The idea seemed so technologically massive yet had a ethnicity to it. I don’t know how this happened but I also became friends with some of the grannies and find myself chatting with them whenever I feel like.

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After completing one month here I heard a few faces (parents/adults) comment: “What is the benefit of playing games here – they are learning nothing”. Well they failed to understand the fact that the games they were playing had all its instructions, stories and levels in English which they did understand very well. I saw them a few times whispering to each other “this is how you do it, silly”.

Some of the children are doing surprisingly good jobs now. ‘T’ has been able to download Google Earth and show the grannies where Gocharan is whereas ‘D’ is currently learning java programming from a Granny. He is in 8th grade now but he has already made two programs and a calculator here. If one child is capable to making such happening things just by having access to a computer and just think how much a little motivation like this will be able to do if the idea becomes viral. Success is just a one click away from these children.

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Well inspite of the criticisms and difficulties A0 Gocharan SinC lab has completed one year on 9th January 2016. Though it’s my fifth month here I feel I have always been part of it. Here with the Granny Cloud and children I found myself a family. I remember having quite a few cozy chats with Sandra, Camille and Jackie like I have with my mom when I am at home.

Whenever I am inside the granny room acting as an observer I feel myself proud being part of School in the Cloud project. Till now the journey has been tremendously enlightening. School in the Cloud is a sincere hope towards the possibilities of transformation of the education system and I hope to look forward to exploring it more being a part of it in the years ahead.

Touching the clouds at Gocharan

Most journeys in India involve a fair few sharp intakes of breath for those unfamiliar with the infamous driving: creating three or even four lanes where there is officially two is commonplace and the horn is a means of constant communication. So I was pleasantly surprised to suddenly pull up outside Area 0 at Gocharan after a relatively short and relatively uneventful road trip from Kolkata.

And what a sight to behold! It was like turning up at an elaborate Indian wedding – flowers strewn everywhere, shehnai music blaring out and women milling around in their best saris. I felt somewhat under-dressed for such an occasion.

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We were met by Ashish Biswas, Ted Prize labs project manager, looking as proud and slightly apprehensive as any father of the bride. One of the most rewarding parts of this trip has been meeting people in person who I would normally only communicate with via email or phone or Skype, such as Ashish.

Before all the formalities began and the light began to fade, I decided to tackle the challenge set down by Sarah Schoengold at TED – to get a photograph which illustrated the unique honeycomb design of Area 0. The design of this flagship lab was actually the first Sugata sketched out very early on in the project.

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I never thought it would be that easy, but I didn’t actually think I would personally be scaling great heights to achieve it. A trip to the roof of the nearby nursing home resulted in a good, but not complete shot (above). So it was off down a dirt track and into the darkness of a bemused local man’s house to climb his many stairs to his roof across the way.

Unfortunately, this view was blocked by some impressively tall coconut trees so my trusty companion had a brainwave and, as we didn’t understand each other’s language, simply beckoned me to follow him up a spiral staircase onto the roof of Area 0 (fortunately I have a good head for heights). When he realised I still couldn’t get the hexagon from there either, he decided to help me up to the actual pinnacle of the roof, much to the bemusement of the gathering crowd below. Don’t anyone let the University know though, as this wasn’t on my risk assessment…

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I was somewhat relieved to be safely back on terra firma and for something else to be the focus of attention, namely the opening ceremony, which began with a blessing. Candles are lit and a song is performed to invoke the blessings of the gods and is symbolic of driving away darkness and ignorance to let knowledge spread – a fitting analogy to the School in the Cloud’s ethos.

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There followed a speech by Sugata explaining what School in the Cloud meant and how it differed from regular schools and that, used wisely, it can open up new horizons for the children in the future in terms of career paths.

Beautiful dancing and singing and input from B.K. Basu, who heads the NGO that initiated and maintains the Chandrakona School in the Cloud site, followed and then it was time for what everyone had been patiently waiting for – the chance to try out the School in the Cloud.

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As there were so many children to get through, they had to be called in batches and a huge crowd formed all around the hexagon’s glass walls to see in while they waited patiently outside. It was such a melee of people and shoes outside that it wasn’t until several hours later that I was able to reunite my left sandal with the right!

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Paint and games were popular with the children and, once over their initial shyness, speaking with Katy Milne from Area 6 at Greenfields in Newton Aycliffe, UK over Skype was a real hit. She picked a real challenge for her first appearance as a ‘Granny’ – the noise and learning going on right ‘at the very edge of chaos’ made conversation pretty tricky.

All too soon the last of the children filed out and made for home with their parents and Area 0 became suddenly quiet. As we left, tired but content, the blue neon sign became visible in the darkness, signalling to everyone passing by that Area 0 was here to stay.