Grannies to the core

We catch up with Liz Fewings, one of the members of the Granny Cloud Core Team, to talk about its origins and what the future holds.

Liz, a self-confessed ‘cloudaholic’, has been part of this project since 2009, when it first began. Like many others, she responded to an article in The Guardian newspaper in the UK which asked for retired teachers to volunteer an hour each week to talk with children in India.

“Back then we were a small band of English men and women, many of whom had never even heard of this strange thing called Skype, let alone actually used it,” says Liz. Following a long telephone conversation with Newcastle University, she then had to work out how to install Skype ahead of her first call to India.

“I was so anxious, waiting at home with a reassuring cup of tea within reach,” Liz admits. “And suddenly there was Suneeta (Kulkarni), in a hotel ‘somewhere in India’ with her own mug of tea and a beaming smile – and that was me hooked! Just two ladies chatting over a cup of tea which set the tone for the years to come.”

In those early days, communication was through email and a Wiki, which was rather formal and didn’t offer any real chance for the Grannies to get to know each other. However, following the first Granny Cloud conference in Newcastle, UK in 2010, friendships started to form and a Facebook group was set up shortly after, which remains an important and active community today. Prof Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize nomination was even made through this group!

“Facebook is where we support each other, share new ideas, get glimpses of the centres and keep up to date with what is happening,” says Liz. “Posts are monitored by the Core Team so that if someone is in distress or there is a technical problem, we can quickly respond. However, it is mostly the Grannies themselves who leap in offering support and empathy if a session hasn’t gone to plan.”


Liz Fewings talking with children in Pune, during the Granny Cloud India visit

Despite no funding available for a few years, Suneeta and a few of the Grannies kept the Granny Cloud going at the Ganga Learning Centre in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh and Khelghar, Pune, Maharashtra because they had developed relationships with these centres and believed strongly in the concept.

The Granny Cloud grew following the TED Prize in 2013 but once the new platform launched the demand was becoming too much for Suneeta to handle in her trademark friendly-style. Then disaster struck shortly after when she was involved in a car crash which left her immobile and not in a position to work for some time, despite her still trying to from her hospital bed (much to the chagrin of the Grannies!)

Ritu Dangwal stepped into the breach in India and the Core Team – consisting of Clive Elsmore, Jackie Barrow and Liz in the UK, Edna Sackson in Australia and Suneeta (once she recovered) in India – was born to keep the Granny Cloud operational. Its members, like the rest of the Granny Cloud, all generously give up their time for free.

The Core Team gets together on Skype early every Friday morning to discuss issues, new applications and ways forward, but usually communicates on a daily basis as well.

Over time the interviewing process for new Grannies has been refined and the first hurdle of any new recruit is to record a video of themselves. “Being a Granny is challenging and you do need to be able to rise to a technical challenge, although we do offer advice if it is too tricky,” says Liz. “It’s hard to say who will make a good granny so at least two of us view the video to give different perspectives.”


The Core Team hat including all the members!

The Core Team spends a lot of time interviewing potential Grannies over Skype to make sure everyone has an understanding of what is expected of them and also what to expect.

About 85% of those who send a video are interviewed and most of them sign up for an initial session. “Then reality sets in!” says Liz. “It is not as easy as it appears. We were losing a lot of people after that first session.”

The Core Team spent a long time looking at this issue and now when a new granny is interviewed, they try to put them off a bit first by explaining all the things that could go wrong!

All new recruits have to join the (secret) Facebook group and support is offered through email and Skype; buddying is arranged with an established granny; and initial sessions are recommended with ‘less challenging’ groups.

“Grannies on Facebook have infinite patience answering the same sort of question over and over again, and offering tips and insights,” says Liz. “They will spontaneously offer to Skype for a chat with someone feeling overwhelmed and any new Granny is welcomed into the group and their posts are quickly responded to. We have noticed that this strategy is working and our retention rate is improving.”


So what does the future hold for the Granny Cloud? A lot of hard work and commitment from all areas of the School in the Cloud has gone into getting this far and so it’s important to ensure that the Granny Cloud and the project as a whole can move forward and expand without losing its integrity.

One very good model of expansion is the Granny Cluster, operating in two schools in Greenland and also Quest Wada. The Grannies self organised a weekly Skype meeting, to which the coordinator is regularly invited. Minutes are circulated, and a copy is sent to the Core Team which helps them to have an overview, pick up trends and share good practice.

“We will be encouraging other groups to get together like this, with all parties involved,” says Liz. “Of course there will always be free spirits who like to dip in and out of sessions and locations, who do not want to be attached to any one group and that is fine. We cater for all tastes!”

The Core Team is also putting together guidelines to give structure to key areas such as recruitment, child safety, communication, roles and responsibilities of co-ordinators as the Granny Cloud expands to different locations (including a consistent recruitment and training policy) and dealing with the media.

“We need to attract high calibre Grannies who, with initial support, can help build an ever-stronger group,” says Liz. “The intimacy of those early years is gone. But, our experience has shown us that when the Grannies feel connected with each other and with the centres everyone’s experience is enhanced. Our aim is to grow, but in such a way that this connection can continue.”

In February 2016, the Granny Cloud recently went on tour to India to meet the co-ordinators and children they regularly talk to.