SOLE inspires teenager to follow her dreams

Gouri Ajay Chindarkar was one of the first children in India to experience SOLE, in her village in Maharashtra. Seven years later, she’s studying for a degree in Computer Engineering at Mumbai University.

The 19-year-old says SOLE has played a ‘big part’ in making her life easier. Researching and quickly understanding any subject comes naturally to her and she is also able to communicate confidently with people from all walks of life. “In my opinion it is a better way to learn,” she says. “SOLE gives us very practical knowledge which can be used for our day-to-day life. It is the perfect place for those who want to learn in their own way and better their understanding.”

Gouri is in the 2nd year of her degree, which she tells me is ‘going very well’. She’s not sure exactly what career path to take when she graduates yet, but is considering working as a developer, testing and designing programmes.

Unlike in the UK, where recent figures show just 14% of students on computer engineering degrees are female (there are similar issues in the US), on Gouri’s course it is nearly a 50/50 split.

“I was interested in computers from my childhood and very early I decided that I want to become a computer engineer – when I was about 12/13-years-old,” she says. “SOLE is the main platform that helped me a lot to come close my dream.”

Granny Cloud sessions

The first SOLE at Shirgaon was set up in 2009 with the main emphasis on Skype sessions with e-mediators – the newly formed “Granny Cloud”. The main problem the children faced initially was language, as all their lessons were in Marathi but the Internet and the Granny Cloud sessions were in English.

Gouri says the first few sessions were probably “horrible” for the grannies as a result, but they persevered, and with a lot of encouragement all round the children’s confidence and communication skills slowly improved. The use of drawings also made a word or object much easier to understand.

“We learned how to speak, how to interact and how to express ourselves in front of others,” says Gouri, who would come in at 7am every Wednesday to chat with a very active Granny at the time, Anne Thomas. She also spent much of her summer vacations at the SOLE. She still communicates regularly with another ‘Granny’, Rodger Maskall, via Facebook.

“We were all were familiar with classroom teaching but when we knew about the Skype session I was very excited for the new way of learning,” says Gouri. “It was very interesting for us and there were lots of new things to learn. It was a big world in front of me.”

Learning new things everyday

One of the first things Gouri remembers about the SOLE is seeing a satellite image of her school on Google maps (which children still love doing in the India SOLEs today!) She then created a Yahoo email account and Suneeta introduced her to Skype and Facebook.

“Every day we were introduced to new things,” she says. “SOLE removed the fear in our minds about new technology. We learnt to try, to search and finally we found. It was a journey of attempting new things, learning, doing mistakes, correcting them and finally understanding what we have to do. SOLE was the source of that secret.”

Gouri told me that her memories of the time she spent in the Shirgaon SOLE are still very much alive and she is proud to have been a student there. “I really miss those beautiful days very badly and I want those days back… but it’s not all that possible,” she says. “I don’t know exactly how can I be involved (in SOLE in the future) but I want to be!

“SOLE inspired me to do something new and has done so much for me. I’d like to make other students feel the same and make their future bright.”

Shirgaon is a village in the Sindhudurga District of Maharashtra, India, 320km from Mumbai. This SOLE was overseen by Professor Sugata Mitra, Dr Suneeta Kulkarni and teacher Mr Shamshuddin N. Attar.

Read about Arun Chavan on the blog, who is also from Shirgaon, and was one of the original Hole in the Wall students, now doing a PhD at Yale in the USA.

Walking out of the forest into a new world

SOLE is touching parts of the world that few ever get the chance to experience. One such place is the remote tribal regions of Maharashtra in India.

It took over three years to get Internet connectivity to SOLE Wada so children here can participate in Granny Cloud sessions, but they’ve been making the most of the opportunity ever since.

For some of these children, just getting here is a major feat: those living in the tribal villages travel for miles on foot with a schoolteacher from their homes in the forest. They chat with the ‘grannies’ and explore the world through the Internet every week, staying overnight at Wada afterwards.

Although Wada is only 120 km from Mumbai it’s in a tribal region and they struggle with resources – this is the only place QUEST Wada could get connectivity in the area.

Most of these children, who are between seven and 14-years-old, attend local Marathi medium schools. In each group there are also a couple of children who live in Wada and have learnt basic vocabulary and computer skills at their English medium school so can help the other children.

Pralhad Kathole co-ordinates SOLE Wada from his home using his own laptop. His aim is for the children to learn English by immersion in the language rather than through fee-paying English medium schools.

Pralhad says he’s already seen a difference in the children’s English skills since it started a few months ago and that although the tribal children were reluctant to come at first, now they love it!

‘Joyful’ interaction

One of the ‘grannies’ who has been chatting with the children since last October is Sheilagh Guthrie, who lives in France. “It is truly joyful interacting with these children,” she says. “They have a great sense of humour and are great fun to spend time with. It’s also a real challenge as their English is pretty good and they are very bright so appreciate being pushed – you can cover a lot of ground in a short session.”

The children at Wada are also pretty confident and not shy to say if they don’t want to do something. The varied range of ages and interests can also sometimes mean it’s difficult to engage them all at the same time, but the ‘grannies’ aren’t fazed!

“As it’s late in the evening for the session I run they can be tired and lacking concentration but they are still lively, smiley and happy children,” adds Sheilagh, who shares this group with Christine Majcher Inghram, based in the USA. “They make such an effort to attend that they deserve to have someone there to talk with!”

One of the memories which will stay with these children for a long time is when Sheilagh dropped an egg on her keyboard during a demonstration – not something she planned (and not that good for her computer!) – but it caused much hilarity at the other end. They have also spent time recently singing Christmas songs together and finding pictures of Wada together on the Internet.

Small window into another culture

There is also an earlier group at SOLE Wada shared on two consecutive days by ‘grannies’ Melanie Harvey and Anna Ash, who are both in the UK. Melanie, an early years teacher, says she tries to apply Child Initiated Learning to her sessions; guiding the students towards posing their own questions to develop their learning.

“I am always aware that they can vote with their feet, and so my first aim is to make it enjoyable, so they return!” she says.

Melanie told me that the first group enjoy reading and video clips, and tend to be dominated by one or two boys who have better English and are more confident using the computer keyboard. In contrast, the second group want to engage on a more personal level, love songs and games and prefer these to being pushed into thinking for themselves and will deflect (with great charm!) if they are pushed too hard.

All of the children in Melanie’s groups have been taught English at school, and are particularly good with numbers, colours and animal names. Most students have a laptop at home and have come along to improve their English. “They all can speak in simple sentences, but often answer questions in single words or lists,” says Melanie.

Melanie explains that her aim is to give these children a small window into another culture and offer them the chance to develop a different relationship with another adult at the same time as developing their English skills.

“For me, it’s about working towards developing the skills and attitudes they need to initiate their own learning and improve their life chances,” she says. “I read in The Times of India recently that over two million people had applied for one clerical post in the Indian civil service. To give ‘our’ kids a chance they must have something special about them. The more I build up relationships with them, the more important I feel it is not to let them down.”

This location also holds a special place in Dr Suneeta Kulkarni’s heart as she was onsite when she first heard Sugata was being given the TED Prize in 2013.

“At that point, when I was desperately trying to work out the logistics of it all, I knew it was meant to be, and that somehow, we would find a way. It took a long time, but it’s been worth it.”

The Granny Cloud is working with the Quality Education Support Trust (QUEST) to run this SOLE. QUEST was formed in 2007 as a research-action organisation concentrating on enhancing quality of education in India. Working in groups, which is the essence of self organised learning, is also part of their own philosophy towards education.