Grannies go for a song

When Sugata Mitra gives you an assignment, you can be pretty sure he’s not going to be impressed with a cut and paste from the Internet.

But it’s not as daunting as it might seem: students report that you simply have to think for yourself, look at things from a different perspective and the rest just fits into place, SOLE-style!

Hilary Meehan, who has just finished a Masters in International Development and Education at Newcastle University, knows this first hand. When asked to tell the story of the Granny Cloud as part of Sugata’s Future of Learning module, she knew she was going to have to push the boundaries a little. “Sugata said he didn’t want a traditional write up,” she says. “He simply told us ‘don’t make it boring’, and didn’t give any more guidance than that.”

She realised most of the students were either doing videos or voice-over slide shows and wanted to do something different, so decided to “go for it” and record a song instead.

Fortunately, her boyfriend is a musician and just happens to have a recording studio in his house. Once she’d bought the rights to the backing track,the lyrics and melodies soon fell into place.

There should be a bit of prior warning, however, before you listen to the track below. “The tune gets seriously stuck inside your head,” says Hilary.“One of the tutors on the course loved it but said he couldn’t shake it for the rest of the day. I hadn’t thought about it in ages until just now and I’ve realised it’s still in there, going round and round!”

Listen to Hilary’s song here.

The 25-year-old used information from the Granny Cloud blog, School in the Cloud website, and also chatted to one of the ‘grannies’ on Skype, to piece together the chronological story of this dedicated group of volunteers and how they approach their sessions.

Hilary, who is originally from Calgary in Canada, has enjoyed being in England so much that she’s just got a job here as an HR policy and research advisor for Durham University. “The course was a big part of the draw to study in England initially – as well as the fact my boyfriend lived here,” she says. “The four- week placement in Delhi, India, where the Hole in the Wall first began, also really appealed to me and was a fantastic experience.”

And did the song impress the tutors? It certainly did: she got a distinction.

Have you got an unusual SOLE story to share with the School in the Cloud community? If so, let sally@theschoolinthecloud.org know!
Granny Cloud lyrics

Who’s a coach, a helper, family and a friend?
Who has compassion and some extra time to spend?
Who’s fun, patient, and ready to help out?
Grandmothers of course, and Skype Grannies in the Cloud!

It’s easy to have a Granny showing kids the right direction
All you need is a computer and an Internet connection!
From India to England, France to Pakistan
All around the world, Grannies show kids, yes they can!

It started with a computer, set in a hole in the wall
And children learned to use it, without any help at all
Now we’ve got a cloud school, and self-organising learning
And through mediated chaos, Grannies keep the wheels turning

Grannies ask big questions, like why is the ocean blue?
Why do your teeth fall out? Why are elephants so huge?
They like to share stories about their countries and their homes
They tell about traditions, of monuments, of snow!

A Granny’s not a teacher they don’t control the conversation
They offer reinforcement, help and admiration
The children help decide what to talk about each day
They learn new words or songs, or about new games to play

Not all Grannies are grandmothers they are moms and brothers too
Nurturing and caring, they’ve got the right attitude
Aunty, dad, or sister, they want children to succeed
Encouragement and guidance, that’s what children really need!

Grannies have so much to offer, children want so much to learn
Children’s eyes can be opened to new parts of the world
Sharing knowledge and caring, it’s a beautiful thing
Watch the work they’re doing, it will make you want to sing

It’s difficult to guess what the Granny’s future holds
But technology spreads fast, with so much knowledge to behold
It’s likely now that people all around the world
Will join in the community and make their voices heard

A promising new start

This September, for the first time in 14 years, Joe Jamison didn’t walk into his classroom excited for the new school year.

However, it’s not yet another disillusioned public school teacher story: Joe’s so fired up about education that he’s prepared to step way outside his comfort zone.

So much so that he’s done something he vowed he would never do – get an office job. Although granted it’s a little different from the norm: they’ve just put him on plane to West Africa.

Joe’s now working for Pencils of Promise (PoP) after a series of serendipitous events which began after he watched Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize talk.

“I saw Sugata’s talk and was blown away. I thought ‘Oh man, I have to find out how to do that in my classroom’,” he says. “So I took it, tweaked it and played with it a little and in the first week of the new school year in 2013 I just hit the ground running with my 5th graders. I was fortunate to have a lot of admin support behind me and the kids took to it very quickly – it just took off.”

Joe has worked closely with the School in the Cloud team at Newcastle University ever since and when it came to selecting a class to feature as part of the Work Wonders Project collaboration between Sugata, Microsoft and PoP, his was an obvious choice.

Once they’d see him in action running a SOLE with students at Lawrence Intermediate School in New Jersey, USA the PoP team wanted Joe onboard to help set up SOLEs (self organised learning environments) in their schools in Ghana.

When I spoke to him last week he was about to embark on his first trip outside of North America, to West Africa. He left last Saturday on a six-day trip to the Volta region, where he will be visiting new build sites and running teacher training sessions as well as SOLEs. There are two schools in Ghana – in Toklokpo and Agorhome – where SOLEs have been piloted with 5th and 6th graders since January 2014.

“I’ve tried Googling the places I’m visiting but they’re so remote they don’t show up,” says Joe. “It just hasn’t sunk in yet that I’m going as it’s so far removed from anything I’ve ever experienced. Pencils of Promise is doing some pretty innovative work there and I’m just excited to get my feet on the ground and get my hands dirty.”

Joe’s school district has given him a year of absence to take up the position. “They’ve been so supportive and generous about letting me go and work for someone else because they knew I had to do this,” he says. “I knew in my heart of hearts this was something I couldn’t pass up and I feel so blessed to be here and have this opportunity. Here I am working on something so awesome that I feel so passionate about – it’s certainly not an everyday office job.”

But it wasn’t a decision he took lightly. Joe told me the contract sat on his desk for over a week before he signed it. He knew it would mean a long daily commute between his home in Pennsylvania and New York (a journey made more bearable as his wife works for Amtrak, the national US passenger train service, so he can be door to door in about one and a half hours) as well as time abroad away from his wife and young family.

“In the end it was my wife who said ‘What is that still doing on your desk? Just sign it, you have to do this – we’ll find a way to work it out,” says Joe. “She’s been unbelievably supportive. One thing the SOLE process has taught me more than anything is that no meaningful learning ever takes place inside of your comfort zone. I saw this as an opportunity for me to learn and grow both as a person and a professional. I want my kids to be able to look at what their Dad’s doing and give them a more global view of the world.”

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Joe says the work in Ghana is going to ‘change the way they think about education forever’. He explained how it is opening teachers up to resources they didn’t even know existed. “I’m used to being able to drop everything and do a SOLE whenever I feel like it,” he says. “In Ghana, we turn up with tablets and hotspots on a schedule, so that will take some of the spontaneity out of it, but it is still workable. As they know when we’re coming, they can work it into teaching the curriculum.”

Although teaching methods in West Africa are more traditional than Joe is used to, he’s not phased by the prospect. “I don’t think teaching culture is so different across the world,” he says. “I’ve worked with some pretty old-school teachers in the US who wonder what on earth I’m doing. I’ve always thought the biggest obstacle to SOLE working is the teachers themselves.”

Joe concedes it’s hard for any teacher to step back and let the kids take the lead and that many feel threatened by someone like Sugata coming along. “It’s not his plan to replace teachers as some think – he’s said they are 100% necessary to steer the process,” says Joe. “What is needed, is for teachers to change how they do things. When something like SOLE comes along it really does raise the bar in a good way and shakes it up. I’ve seen the results and I think teachers just have to be excited.”

While out in Ghana, Joe will also be seeing the results of PoP’s e-reader pilots to improve English acquisition at primary schools, which is now being expanded to serve 3,000 students at 28 PoP schools. Children are measured using the standard EGRA(Early Grade Reading Assessment) indicator and will also be tested on how much they later retain of the concepts they are taught, with SOLE methods now being integrated into the learning.

One thing Joe is making sure is definitely in his carry-on is his laptop, so he can Skype his family. He says being apart from them will be the hardest part, but that he realises he’s a man on a mission. “Ever since high school I’ve wanted to make an impact,” he says. “I don’t care if people remember me. I just want the impact I made to be remembered.”

Follow Joe on Twitter @josephmjamison
Main photo credit: Natasha Scripture, TED.

It’s time to ask SOLE-searching questions

SOLE researchers are getting ready to ‘hack’ the largest education research conference in the UK.

As far as we know, this is the first time that self organized learning has been integrated in this way and it’s likely to come as a bit of a surprise to many delegates at the BERA (British Educational Research Association) conference in Northern Ireland this week.

Gone will be the traditional conference set-up of an attentive audience listening to an authoritative speaker, replaced instead with an audience-led exploration of the technology/pedagogy divide.

Getting down with the kids: a self organized conference session is being led by SOLE Central research fellow Dr Anne Preston.
 Participants will be choosing one of three Big Questions put forward on social media in the lead up to the conference. “Who knows what might happen?” says Anne. “It’s likely, in true SOLE style, to descend into total chaos for a while, but hopefully something meaningful will emerge by the end of it all.”

The idea for this session originally stemmed from the reaction to a keynote given by Sugata Mitra last year at the IATEFL conference. Many English language teaching professionals in the audience notoriously walked out when he suggested that in future teaching would be redundant.

“While we have readily embraced most of what the Internet has to offer with hardly a murmur of dissent, when someone suggests it can also be used to help children teach themselves, it causes a lot of soul searching (no pun intended!) from a fair few educationalists,” says Anne.

So who is right and who is wrong? The indignant teachers or the professor who leads SOLE Central at Newcastle University, a team dedicated to bringing together researchers, practitioners, policy makers and entrepreneurs to expand upon his original research?

Anne says there are plenty of challenging questions around SOLE at the moment, such as how its outcomes can be tested and evaluated.

“Sugata has spoken on numerous occasions about the science behind SOLE, which is based on the notion of a self-organising system – a concept that comes out of maths and physics which is that if you allow a system to be chaotic then, under certain circumstances, you get spontaneous order,” she says.

“One of the problems with researching a self-organising system is that it doesn’t actually exist in a state that can be ‘empirically’ probed,” explains Anne. “This becomes clearer by comparing the self-organising system of a SOLE to the study of systems in the field of quantum mechanics, where it is impossible to measure a system without disturbing it. Even when disturbed, it’s hard to locate the point at which this occurs.”

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Many schools are struggling with issues around whether technology or pedagogy should take the lead in the creation of the 21st century classroom. From a personal viewpoint, Anne’s keen to use SOLE as a basis to investigate the role technology can play to spark deeper discussions about the pedagogical implications of digital technology.

Those attending the conference are being given the chance to add to the debate on Thursday 17 September when practitioners and researchers from SOLE Central will be initiating the audience-led innovation session, SOLE style.

You may have already seen some of the traffic on our Facebook and Twitter channels to decide on the Big Question up for debate and it has been narrowed down to these three, with one being chosen on the day:

  • Should we give children access to the #internet during examinations?
  • How can we ensure student’s and teacher’s right to privacy when expanding #edtech in #education?
  • What could #edtech offer to children and communities in a time of global refugee crisis?

Why not join in the debate on Twitter with the hashtag #BigQuestionBERA ?

Turning the art world on its head

It’s not enough to turn the education system upside down: SOLE is about to enter a world many of us consider off-limits.

Contemporary art is often portrayed as an elitist world full of large canvases with coloured dots and hefty price tags, but Helen Burns believes it doesn’t have to be that way.

The SOLE Central research fellow has spent her career helping children and adults explore their creativity through contemporary art and now she’s applying all she’s learnt so far to a new exciting project.

Gallery in the Cloud will give school children and other gallery audiences the chance to become curators of their own contemporary art galleries. Supported by the SOLE method of learning collaboratively in groups, they will create digital artworks inspired by their own experiences that will reflect their own individual identities.

The resulting art collection will be self-curated, using cloud-based technology to create an ever-evolving gallery.

“It challenges the usual conventions of a gallery space and turns the concept of an ‘art world’ on its head, focussing instead on the ‘experience’ of art, which is accessible to everyone,’ says Helen.

Turning art world on its head - robot

This dented war robot (above) is from one of Helen’s previous art-based learning projects. The child who made it said it represented their experience of learning as ‘battered, but not giving up’

Helen is focussing initially on children at transitional periods in their education, such as SATs. “These are tough times for them,” she says. “A combination of the skills and resilience gained through creating contemporary art using SOLE could have a really positive effect on their ability to cope when they’ve got a lot to deal with.

“SOLE pedagogy and contemporary art actually have a lot in common as they can both be good vehicles for developing your own ‘voice’ and there are no wrong answers.”

The artists will be able to constantly revisit their artwork over several years, giving them the opportunity to expand and reflect on what they have already achieved.

As part of this initial development stage, Helen has been in discussion with the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. She would also like to collect ideas, opinions and questions about the project from the School in the Cloud community to help take it forward.

We’ll be re-visiting this story on social media next year, but if you would like contact Helen in the meantime, she can be reached by email.

About Helen
After graduating from Glasgow School of Art, Helen spent 10 years working as an Artist Educator in school and community settings in Scotland and the North East.

Since completing a MA in Library and Information Management, she has worked in cultural and creative education for organisations such as the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and Tyne and Wear Museums.

Formerly a Research Associate at Durham University, Helen is now a SOLE Central Research Fellow at Newcastle University, where she is bringing together SOLE pedagogy and arts-based learning practice. She also teaches art, craft and design on the University’s Primary PGCE course for trainee teachers.

Skyping with the children – Not always easy! by Jackie Barrow

The Granny Cloud reaches out to groups of children across a range of different locations using Skype. It’s fantastic! If the connection is good, you can see each other, hear each other, send text messages, send files and links, share your screens with each other and take photos of each other. So the Grannies conduct sessions where they chat with the children, read stories, play games, make things, do quizzes, sing, dance, share jokes, pictures and video clips, search the internet and share findings. In fact all the sorts of activities that grandparents might share with their grandchildren or good teachers with their pupils.

NLSM 23Oct09 smiles all around

But what can’t you do over Skype? Well, you can’t always see how many children have joined the session. You can’t feel how hot, or cold or stuffy or dusty the room might be. You can’t sense the mood of the children or the group dynamics. You can’t know if they’ve been squabbling or joking before they came up to the screen.

You can’t judge the body language or the facial expressions with the same accuracy as you could if you were in the same room. You can’t tell whether the children are hungry or thirsty, tired, frightened, upset.

It’s difficult to assess over Skype whether the child who has just wandered away from the screen has lost interest because they can’t understand, needs the toilet, is feeling unwell or is feeling undermined by the bright, slightly pushy child who has taken control of the microphone.

You can’t always tell whether that long delay before any sort of answer to your last question is offered is because they have absolutely no idea what you are asking or whether in fact one of the children has gone over to another computer to search for the answer to relay to the child at the front. Or is it that the children simply don’t know how to ask you to repeat the question or to write it down. Or perhaps they are worried that you will think them rude or stupid so prefer to say nothing just in case? It is often hard if the audio or picture is poor to reassure them with your voice, expression or body language. It is also difficult to check behaviour which sometimes prevents others from enjoying the session.

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So can we get around these limitations? Well of course this is one of the many challenges our wonderful Granny Cloud team is rising to every day! We can ask the children how they are feeling and help them to develop the necessary English language skills and emotional literacy to do so. We can establish an ethos where not knowing an answer is nothing to be embarrassed about, but rather a spur to further research and questioning. We can discuss different learning styles with the children so that they can come to understand that not everyone learns in the same way, that teamwork is vital and that working together rather than simply trying to outdo each other is often the best way to find answers. We can develop strategies to involve all the children, where speed or oral fluency or self- confidence are not key. This is also where developing a good relationship with the coordinator in the centre can be helpful. They can provide useful background information at the start or give feedback at the end of the session all of which gives insight into what is going on off camera.

So yes, working over Skype does have its limitations. There are things that, if you were in the same room, you would pick up on, deal with and they would probably not be an issue. We look forward to a time when the Granny can control the camera and have a better view of the room, or we have robot cameras and can wander around looking at the children’s screens. But until then we just need to remember how fantastic it is that we can connect in this way and continue to share ideas of how to overcome the limitations.

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Jackie Barrow has been a Granny on the Granny Cloud since the very beginning of this initiative! She is also a member of the core team of the Granny Cloud.

 

So you think you’ve got SOLE? Sugata Mitra explains the science behind it

Sugata recently appeared on BBC World Service’s The Forum programme to talk about SOLEs and his idea for school exams in the future. We thought you might like to hear some of what was discussed on this blog.

“It’s important to understand the sense in which I use the word ‘self organising system’,” says Sugata. “It’s not organisation of the self. I find increasingly that people mix it up with self-regulated or self-directed learning and that’s not what I’m talking about.

“A self organising system is basically a concept that comes out of maths and physics which is that if you allow a system to be chaotic then, under certain circumstances, you get spontaneous order.

“I think I’ve seen that happen with children quite accidentally; initially I had not a clue that was what was happening. Yet over the last 15 years, in instance after instance, I’ve seen groups of children who simply don’t know any English confronted with the internet in English and making sense of what they see.”

Sugata also talked to BBC host Bridget Kendall about how hole-in-the-wall developed into School in the Cloud in a way that would not have been possible before the Internet, and how it has changed the way children learn.

“When a group reads together they somehow read at much higher levels of comprehension than an individual child,” he explains. “This was not something I’d seen before. The limitations of reading in print means you can’t easily read the same book at the same time in a group, but you can on screen.

“We’ve seen instant amplification of comprehension – as soon as one stumbles, another one steps in to help, creating this spontaneous order.”

Sugata says that this instantaneous feedback from peers, not teachers, taps into the universal idea of emergent order out of a chaotic situation.

His 60 second idea to pitch to the presenter and fellow participants Sir Ken Robinson and Professor Scott Klemmer was for the internet to be allowed into exams.

He argued that schools need to be able to assess children’s ability to live in the world today, not the Victorian age. “For probably the first time in their lives they have to enter an exam room and demonstrate that they can live without the Internet. Why?”

Sugata went on to point out that if the internet was allowed into exams, this would cause the whole education system to change to better reflect the world we live in.

“If you need to know something you can now know it instantly– today’s children have not seen another world,” says Sugata. “The standardised education system of putting facts into their brains and then examining to see if has been retained doesn’t mean anything to them. ‘Why do I have to know how to multiply by hand with pen and pencil?’ they ask me.”

This special Forum edition Cloud Education: The Future of Learning was about the big challenges facing education today and how we ensure everyone can learn to the best of their ability. It explored these questions and more with future learning, educational and creative leader Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK and Scott Klemmer, Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science and Engineering, University of California, USA.

Listen to the full programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02qm95w

(R to L) Sir Ken Robinson introduces 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra at TED2013. Long Beach, CA. February 25 - March 1, 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson
(R to L) Sir Ken Robinson introduces 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra at TED2013. Long Beach, CA. February 25 – March 1, 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson