Phaltan: two years on it’s an international affair

Today (3 December 2016) is Phaltan Lab’s 2nd birthday. The Granny Cloud was active at this location for over a year before the lab was set up and today we share this lovely blog from Granny Edna Sackson, who knows the children there well. We find out what happened when her class in Australia linked up with India for some lively sessions over Skype! This summer, she also got the chance to meet the children in person for the first time and you can read more about it at her blog link below.

“Hands on heads. Now shoulders. Where are your shoulders? Well done!”

This is the first time Jess and Tyler, two Aussie Year 6 students, interact via Skype with preschoolers at Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan (KNB), Phaltan as part of the Granny Cloud project. The little ones on the other side stare wide eyed at these two strangers on the screen. Who knows what they they are thinking!

On the Phaltan side, the session is facilitated by 13 year old Shruti, whose English and computer skills were enhanced by her own Granny Cloud experiences over a number of years. She confidently guides, encourages and translates as required. This is part of an experiment to introduce this kind of exposure at a much younger age to gauge its impact.

After a while, the children begin to warm up and join in, first one, then another, as Jess and Tyler slowly introduce the body parts and sing the song “Heads and Shoulders, knees and toes’. Their excitement is evident through their muttered exchange of observations in between… ‘Heads and shoulders… the one in white is joining in!.. knees and toes… oh wow look at the little one in the middle!.. heads and shoulders…they’re getting it!… knees and toes… look, look they’re all doing it!!…’”

It’s an adrenalin rush that I recognise from my own Granny Cloud sessions, even now after all these years, that comes from a rewarding exchange with children when you see it’s going well and they are responding.”

After the session I ask the girls what surprised them. “How quickly they caught on. It was really awesome that we got to teach them. Can’t wait till next week!” And from the other side? Prasana, who’s researching the effects of early interactions of this kind: “It was wonderful. The little ones warmed up so quickly.”

Read more about Edna’s experiences with children and teachers at Phaltan on her blog, What Ed Said:

Blog post: The day I met my kids
Blog post: A different workshop 

Edna is an educator, workshop facilitator and learning consultant. She is also Teaching and Learning Coordinator at an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme( PYP) school in Melbourne, Australia.

Photos courtesy of Edna Sackson.

Phaltan

Site: Area 4 – Pragat Shikshan Sanstha (PSS) – translates as Progressive Education Organization Phaltan, Maharashtra

Located in the small, historic town of Phaltan, this lab is approximately 115 km from Pune in the Satara District of Maharashtra in Western India.

The lab, which opened in December 2014, was set up on the same site where the Granny Cloud originally beamed in to talk with middle school pupils.

This co-ed school, as its name suggests, is progressive in outlook and attempts to give the children a variety of learning opportunities inside and outside of the classroom.

Music and gardening are as much a part of their school day as are formal lessons. The children come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, from lower income to relatively wealthy homes.

The school runs volunteer and sponsorship programs to ensure that those from the lower income groups are not deprived of an education.

The main language used in the school is Marathi, with English taught as one of the subjects.

The school PSS runs is located is Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan, in an underprivileged area of Phaltan and has around 425 students. It has an outreach program that seeks to connect with other mainstream schools and the community to support child development in the critical early years (0-3). The school operates in two shifts with the preschool and primary school operating in the morning, and the high school from noon until evening.

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.

SOLE comes naturally to six-year-olds in India

Non-digital natives never cease to be amazed at how quickly small children learn to interact with technology, especially since many of us hadn’t even encountered computers until we were in our teens or older.

And at Area 4 Phaltan SOLE lab in India researchers are seeing first hand just how naturally this comes to very young children just six and seven-years-old.

Phaltan is an important research centre for SOLE. It is one of two School in the Cloud labs created inside a school and here Grades 1 to 7 are all involved in self-organized learning. Not only did the children help design the lab, they also take responsibility for it and have participated in many different kinds of ‘experiments’, including connecting with George Stephenson High School in the UK for joint SOLE sessions.

A key focus of research at this lab is to see what happens with the younger children. While early intervention is effective in most educational circumstances, School in the Cloud research director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni and one of the grannies, Prasanna Hulikavi, (now on a break to work on her doctoral research) were particularly keen to see how SOLE would impact Grades 1 and 2.

“We realized straight away that they had none of the inhibitions of the older children,” explains Suneeta. “From their very first day in the lab they just rushed to the computers to try them out – they had no worries about breaking anything or doing it wrong. The teachers were amazed how quickly found Google and began searching without anyone telling them anything.”

Suneeta told me how the teachers at A4 Phaltan have embraced SOLE even though they don’t completely understand it, instinctively recognising that it’s working for the children. “There was one teacher who was very strongly against it and was very angry with me the first time we welcomed the children to the lab and told him he should ‘stay away’,” explains Suneeta. “He didn’t see how it could work without telling them what to do, asking me ‘how can these little children figure it out?’. He’s now my biggest convert!”

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On their own initiative, the teachers at A4 Phaltan have set up their own WhatsApp group to communicate with each other about what’s happening in the lab and to share updates and pictures.

Teachers in India do not undergo the kind of extensive training offered in many other countries and can often lack confidence as a result.

Suneeta explained how they initially thought it was easy for her to do SOLEs because she ‘knew a lot’. “I told them knowing a great deal is not necessary at all – but you do need to be open to trying it out and also learning a whole lot along the way yourself,” she says. “Rather than knowing everything and telling them, you just have to be able to keep on questioning in an encouraging manner. Then the kids keep exploring many different directions because they want to find out more stuff on their own.”

Suneeta’s fellow researcher Prasanna’s PhD focuses specifically on reading comprehension and digital literacy and the overall experience of these younger children in the School in the Cloud lab. While a second round of assessment is currently under way, early indications show that the children already recognize quite a few of the letters of the English alphabet (they are taught in their local language, Marathi, at school) and some words.

But more importantly, they are also beginning to respond and have conversations in broken English. They are also confident in how to use the computers – this week, for example, one six year-old went around adjusting everyone’s speaker volumes!

Phaltan just celebrated its first anniversary last week (December 3) and the youngest children have been using the lab since it opened, with the Granny Cloud brought in for this age group in July. The Granny sessions allow for craft and art work and for children to proudly show off their creations, building on the encouragement the school provides for such activities.

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Val Almond, who regularly Skypes into this lab from the UK, loves her sessions with the younger children. “The best thing is their energy and enthusiasm,” she says. “They are uninhibited and spontaneous and eager to learn and engage. It is good that they are not dependent on or constrained by an adult, but on the other hand it can make it difficult to make sure I have their attention and they are on task.

“I did wonder how much the children were getting out of it and how much they were learning as sometimes it seems they are ‘all over the place’ but Prakash (who co-ordinates the lab with Madhura) says he has heard them using English words and saying they enjoy the sessions, so maybe they are picking up more than I think!”

The intention is that these children will find tackling Big Questions in SOLEs much easier and more meaningful when they are older as the process already makes sense to them and they are comfortable with the technology.

Future plans include trying basic SOLEs with even younger children – three and four-year-olds. “This kind of interaction comes naturally to them as they’ve just entered school and are learning new things all the time,” says Suneeta. “It’s no big deal to learn another language at pre-school level.”

Currently, the children’s time in the lab is limited (once a week for about 40 minutes) because there are so many children in the school who want to use it. This is their only exposure to computers and researchers worry it may be too little to have any long-term benefit. “Time will tell whether more ‘free time’ in the lab or increased interaction with the Granny Cloud will prove useful, but in the meantime, the kids are having a ball!’ says Suneeta.

SOLE: Technology that’s powered by people

If I was to go back to school anytime soon, I’d want Arun Chavan as my teacher: he’s intelligent, articulate, inspiring and best of all, not afraid to rock the boat a little.

Now in his third year of a PhD in Evolutionary Biology at Yale, USA, Arun may have come a long way from his home village of Shirgaon, India but he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

It was there that Arun first encountered the Internet as a 12-year-old, placed in a hole in a wall by Professor Sugata Mitra as part of his early experiments into self organized learning.

Now Arun is taking part in Skype sessions at the School in the Cloud lab at Phaltan, Maharashtra, just an hour from where his parents grew up. Having known School in the Cloud’s research director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni since he was a child, Arun didn’t take much persuading to give something back to the project.

His first session – switching often between his native language Marathi and English – was with a small group talking about all the different birds and trees found around the school.

“The Hole in the Wall seems a very long time ago now,” Arun admits. “I do remember surfing the net and searching for things and that it was all in English – a language I barely understood at the time. I used to copy it down and go back to ask my father what it meant.”

Arun, unlike many of his peers, was in a privileged position as he had educated adults around him who helped to foster his love of learning.

“I was very fortunate that my father was involved in so many things outside of my own village,” he explains. “From a very young age I was introduced to many of the artists and scientists he mixed with and could talk and listen to them and my parents. I didn’t understand all of these conversations but that wasn’t the point – just being around them made a big difference.”

“SOLE gives you the opportunity to communicate with people outside of your village who see the world in a different light than you. ”
– Arun Chavan

Arun is quick to point out that this is exactly what School in the Cloud does – especially in the more remote regions of India. “It gives you the opportunity to communicate with people outside of your village who see the world in a different light than you,” he says. “It doesn’t have to do anything else – if it sparks just one in a hundred kids to go out and do something different to everyone else then that’s enough.”

Arun says much has changed for children in India today, as many more have access to the Internet, but he says the difference with School in the Cloud is that it encourages them to make sense of what they are looking at and gives them skills to communicate it.

“SOLE supplements regular schooling and that’s what makes it meaningful,” he says. “Ultimately, I’d like to see education change so that kids are finding out more things on their own rather than just sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher.

“I’d like to teach the kind of science where the kids ask their own questions and design and carry out experiments to answer them without having anything prescribed by somebody else beforehand.

“They might end up replicating experiments from the 17th century or doing something completely new and creative. If they agree with Newton for example, then that’s exciting, and if not, that’s exciting too!”

“Obviously I study science so I’m looking at it from that point of view, but I think it relates to all disciplines.”

Arun, who also teaches undergraduates at Yale, plans to take the next few years to finish his PhD but eventually wants to return to India. Ideally, he wants to find a position where he could combine teaching with research, although that is more difficult as Indian institutes tend to specialize in either one or the other.

“I miss my family and friends back home but I really like Yale and love being surrounded by like minded individuals every day – it’s like being on an intellectual high all the time!” he says.

Arun’s obvious passion for teaching will make many hope that if he does have to choose between research and science education that his heart will lead him towards education.

“To be a good teacher you need to be able to motivate students but also be willing to invest time and patience in just being there for them and that’s how SOLE works,” he suggests. “It’s not simply about the technology – it’s the people on the other side of it that matter.

“For me, a teacher’s primary goal should be to give children that urge to find out something, to spark that element of self discovery and in doing this, you must be prepared to fail some of the time.”

And the story doesn’t end here…watch out for updates on social media in the coming months about Arun’s regular mediation sessions with the Grade 8 children (13 year olds) at Phaltan.

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Arun as a teenager in India

The 6th Learning Lab is Officially…Open!

Today we are delighted to celebrate the opening of our 6th learning lab which is located in Phaltan, a small town in Maharashtra, India. Since Sugata Mitra won the TED Prize in 2013, 5 similar environments have been opened in both India and the UK as part of the global experiment in self-organised learning; the final flagship site is due to open in Gocharan early next year.

Initiated by Newcastle University and TED Prize, this lab is the first one located in a school where English is taught as a subject alongside all the others. The language used throughout the school is Marathi, which is the official language of Maharashtra state. “Imagine using an Internet where there is hardly anything at all in your mother tongue – that’s what it’s like for these children,” says Dr Suneeta Kulkarni, Research Director for School in the Cloud.

The new learning lab is specifically designed to facilitate SOLEs, where children collaborate to answer big questions using the internet. These child-focused learning sessions are fuelled by curiosity and discovery, providing children with the space and freedom to explore. It is located close to the school gates and overlooks the playground and residential area, so is easily visible to the local community.

Many lessons were learned from building the other learning labs and these have been taken into account during this construction, including the glass windows stopping at eye-level. “That kind of design where the glass is up to the ceiling is fine in the UK but there’s much more light here and it makes it difficult to see the screen – it also gets too hot!” explains Dr Kulkarni.

Connectivity, as with many of the more rural School in the Cloud sites, is one of the greatest challenges here and so a back-up dongle is being used in case the regular broadband fails.

As might be expected from such a child-centred environment, the children themselves were given a free hand with the furniture; they chose bright colours with red and yellow tables and green chairs. The room is also maintained and run by the Grade 7 students.

Using technology to help facilitate their learning is not new to the children of PSS; the Granny Cloud has been used there since September 2013, so the children are familiar with the concept of educators Skyping in to talk to them from all around the world.

Initially the children were very inhibited and apprehensive about doing a reading test in English. However, six months later everything had changed. “The same students strolled in with their heads high refusing to talk in Marathi,” says Dr Kulkarni. “Even when I spoke to them in Marathi, they replied in English!”

While exploring the internet as part of their Granny Cloud sessions, the children quickly progressed enough to realise that Google translate was not always giving them the most accurate translation so they combined this with a Marathi Wikipedia and other sources to give them a more accurate result. This is one of the key proficiencies being tested in all of the learning labs – whether children can learn by themselves to discriminate between bad and good information. They are also being assessed on reading and basic comprehension and overall confidence levels.

One of the regular ‘Grannies’ to Skype into PSS is Lorraine Schneiter, who has been a big part of these children’s lives most Thursday mornings for the past year. Lorraine, who lives in Southern Spain, has a strong connection to India as she was born in Mumbai to an English mother and Indian father and lived there until she was 12. Many of her family members still live near the lab in Pune. “I understand the life they are living which helps a lot when I’m working with the children,” she explains. “They’re talking a language I understand. In some ways for me it’s about giving something back to India, but I also learn much more from them than they learn from me. It’s so much fun and creative; you can do anything with them and they just love it.”

The headteacher at PSS, Dr Manjiri Nimbkar, explains that the Granny Cloud fulfils a vital role in the school: “Many foreign students and other friends used to visit our school in the past. This enabled the students to talk in English and share thoughts with them. We had always felt the lack of such opportunities recently and had invited several volunteers to our school – but they are not easy to find. That gap is filled by the Granny Cloud.”

Almost the entire school will be involved in the School in the Cloud, with just Year 10 not taking part due to exams. This means research can be carried out on much younger children than previously (six-year-olds). “It will be interesting to see what happens with the really young children,” says Dr Kulkarni. “We’ve already seen they have none of the baggage of the older children and no inhibitions at all – these children had never used a computer before and yet walked straight up to it.”

We look forward to hearing a lot more from the School in the Cloud at PSS as they share their SOLE adventures with us.