Korakati: where learning happens against the odds

Korakati is well off any popular tourist trail: to get there you have to spend many hours on the road, take a boat up the Ganges and finally, a very bumpy van rickshaw up a dusty track passing huts, chickens and children along the way.

There’s an ‘other worldly’ feel about the place, which adds to its remoteness and is one of the reasons Sugata Mitra chose it for one of the TED Prize research labs. He knew just how hard it would be to create, but also just how much untapped potential there was here.

One person who probably questioned Sugata’s sanity on more than one occasion was project manager Ashis Biswas, whose job it was to sort out the logistics involved in constructing the building and getting it up and running. For example, when you look at the glass sides of the lab and then back at the only track they could have come along, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they got here in one piece!

The children at Korakati use the Internet to learn many things: for example, we were presented with beautiful handmade paper boxes topped with a rose when we arrived last month and inside were an origami flower and a jumping frog! The children had taught themselves how to make them using YouTube, with a little help from granny Jackie Barrow.

Natural challenges

There are, however, times when nature gets the better of this lab: the Internet connection, which is made possible thanks to a large bamboo pole erected on the roof, can be unreliable due to the distance from the hub, so a dongle has to be used instead, dangled from an open window. Water is also often scarce, and when there isn’t enough, it’s not safe to open the lab.

The solar power works well most of the time, but as co-ordinator Ankit Bubai Mondal (who runs with lab with Milan Mandal) told me, it’s not as effective at night! He once got stranded at Korakati and had to sleep in the guest accommodation with no power. This left him with the unenviable decision between being ‘eaten alive by mosquitoes with the door open or boiled alive with the door shut!’

Due to the limited bandwith, there is often just one computer connected to the Skype screen, but this alone has made it possible to have nearly 40% of all the granny sessions scheduled, which is no mean feat when you consider the challenges involved in making this happen.

“The impact of the lab and granny sessions is very visible, not only on the children, but even the co-ordinators,” explains research director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni. “The change in Milan’s (the local co-ordinator) English comprehension and ability to speak in it were quite remarkable when I met him again last month.

“Attempting to run regular granny sessions in these remote places can be frustrating for those on the other end, but even if the interaction with grannies and access to the internet isn’t as much as we would hope for, it still makes a huge difference.”

A subsistence life

Life in Korakati is hard. Agriculture and fishing are the main occupations, but making a decent living from either is increasingly difficult. Most people will barely earn the equivalent of £20 a month and children often have to work with their parents in the fields. When Cyclone Aila came through the area in May 2009, it brought with it winds of over 120kph and devastating tidal waves which flooded miles inland. This saltwater turned much of the land already badly hit by previous storms such as Cyclone Sidr in 2007 into dry, saline deserts that will take decades to become fertile again.

There is saying in West Bengal that the people are lazier than elsewhere in the country because you only have to drop a fruit stone on the ground and it will grow because the land is so fertile. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case here.

Many of the villagers also used to farm fish in small ponds next to their homes but these too have been turned into saltwater, so they have had to diversify and grow shrimps instead.

Ranu Ghosh, a Kolkata-based filmmaker who works on Jerry Rothwell’s TED/Sundance film about the School in the Cloud project, likened this research lab to ‘an alien thing, dropped into the middle of the Sunderbans’ and it certainly feels that way, nestled as it is between traditional village huts, surrounded by fields. However, the community are embracing this ‘alien’ in the same way they welcomed the recent Granny Cloud tour: with open arms and a sense of nervous anticipation for what is to come.

Korakati lab is in the heart of the Sunderbans, close to the Bangladeshi border and surrounded by rivers, canals and deltas. It was inaugurated on 9th March 2014, but had to be closed for a few months afterwards to address connectivity and construction issues. The climate is governed by the monsoon and the majority of people live below the poverty line, with limited sources of income. There are nearly 600 households and 300 children in the village, which has three primary schools and two secondary schools but no medical amenities or other facilities.

SOLE gets royal seal of approval

You know how most conferences are just a little dull and you end up daydreaming at least once during yet another Powerpoint presentation? Well, not this one. From the outset, when the hall was filled with the children’s voices singing their ‘welcome song’ written and composed by lab co-ordinator Madhura Rajvanski, it was evident this conference was going to be a bit different from the norm.

All the grannies, co-ordinators, teachers and School in the Cloud team gathered in Phaltan, Maharashtra last Thursday for the conference which marked the end of an amazing week visiting the TED Prize research labs in Korakati, Chandrakona and Gocharan. We’d travelled by bus, boat, car, plane and van rickshaw and clocked up more hours on the road in under a week than most of us would do in a month (Sugata put it into context by saying we’d travelled the equivalent of Newcastle to Athens!) and yet everyone was still upbeat and full of energy.

In each lab we visited, we were blown away by the generosity and welcome we received, but at Phaltan, where the lab is located in Pragat Shikshan Sanstha’s Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan Marathi medium school, it was taken up another level.

As we arrived, handmade necklaces were placed around our necks and the children greeted us in their own languages, dressed in amazing finery to represent the diverse cultures and religions within the school.

Parents had been up since 6am to create artworks such as this peacock below, made from powdered paint, and the walls of the classrooms were adorned with everything from flamingos to flowers. We were blown away by the creativity of the whole community, as well as by their amazing culinary talents. We not only enjoyed sweet treats in the wonderful Diwali room, but also at the many stalls set up by the children for us to sample regional delicacies before our long bus journey back to Pune.

We even had a VIP tour of the King of Phaltan’s palace beforehand and when he addressed the conference he charmed the audience by saying the grannies were all a lot younger than he’d imagined! Shrimant Ram Raje Naik-Nimbalkar, who is also a politician, admitted that although he had been in politics for 25 years, in his heart he was a teacher and promised to do everything in his power to help spread “this unique model of education (SOLE)” across the region.

Everywhere I looked during the day there were impromptu granny sessions popping up as children – over the moon to finally meet their ‘own’ grannies – were making the most of having them there in person. The grannies also got an insight into what it’s like to be famous, hardly able to take a few steps without a child wanting to take a photograph or get an autograph. One of my favourite moments was when one granny leant over to me and whispered ‘They keep asking for ‘selfies’ with us but they don’t know what they are. Should I tell them?!’

During the conference, there were ‘surprises’ built into the programme, which we all agreed should be a feature of all conferences as they were an absolute delight. In one, a little girl sang the ‘jelly song’ granny Liz Fewings had taught her and in another, a group performed a skit where they pretended to hold a granny session, complete with the ubiquitous cup of tea for the ‘granny’, Lorraine Schneiter. We had to constantly remind ourselves that this was a Marathi medium school, as even the youngest children confidently spoke in English.

Many of the families have very little – over 50% of the children who attend the school either have part or all their fees paid for them. Every student in this school from grades 1-7 has a granny session at least once a week, which the director believes is a great leveller. They are also trialling sessions with early years children.

“When they learnt English in the traditional way they just didn’t take it in – I wanted them to learn in a more authentic set up,” explains director Dr Manjiri Nimbkar. “I approached Suneeta (Dr Kulkarni) about setting up a SOLE lab here and we’ve not looked back since. This is not an extra-curricular activity – we believe every child should have this. If it’s left to chance, then maybe those children who need it most might not get it.”

During the conference we heard from Emma Crawley, the teacher who first tested SOLE in the UK with Sugata at her school, St Aidan’s in Gateshead, and updates from Katy Milne and Sally Rix about the Greenfields and George Stephenson High School labs respectively. The visiting teachers from Masham in North Yorkshire also spoke about their experiences, and even ran a maths SOLE during the day with the children.

It was also a chance to hear from Moumita Dey and Ritu Dangwal about the one Indian lab the granny tour didn’t have time to visit – Kalkaji in Delhi and a look behind the scenes from Ashis Biswas, who talked us through the challenges – which included lizards in the CPUs – of building the labs. Sarah Schoengold of the TED Prize, who is also a part-time granny to children in Mexico, provided a global perspective on SOLE.

Dr Suneeta Kulkarni (above) shared the Granny Cloud perspective and how this intervention made such a difference to both the children’s lives and how the SOLEs worked, which was complemented by granny Liz Fewing’s talk on the core Granny Cloud team and how they work to bring everyone together and consider how to make it sustainable in the long term (look out for a blog in the next few weeks about this).

All too soon it was time for Sugata’s closing address in which he spoke about creating a ‘curriculum of things’ and changing our approach to education from ‘just in case’ to ‘just in time’.

One of the grannies, Sunita Lama (fifth from left above), who is originally from India but now lives in Dubai, shared her thoughts about the week with me when she returned home and it perfectly sums up the effect of this amazing week on all who took part. “It has been difficult to come back to reality after the wonderful days in India,” she says.

“Having met all the grannies, coordinators, children, teachers and parents I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this opportunity. We are now a family nourishing and supporting each other. This I think is the best part. The love and affection that was showered upon us shows how great this project is and I’ve made up my mind to give even more. For me it was a humbling experience and a lesson to take home. I intend to visit other SOLE labs as well on my next trip home and I also cherish a dream to start this project in my home town Darjeeling someday soon.”

In India, when people leave they don’t say ‘goodbye’ in any language. Instead, it’s simply different variations of ‘I’ll come again’, which will resonate with many of the grannies as they settle back into normal life this week.

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.

Filmmaker gets stuck into SOLE

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!


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.


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.