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.

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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

Meet the family “unschooling” their kids in an olive orchard

Lehla Eldridge and her husband Anthony Rogers are pointing a laptop out of their second-story bedroom window. Below them, a cinematic Italian olive orchard stretches into the distance. “This is a kind of typical Umbrian landscape,” Anthony says.

I’m amazed by what they’re showing me on Skype. Not only is this the beautiful view from their home, it’s the beautiful view from their children’s classroom as well.

“I think most of the people around here know that we’re the English family who have three children,” Lehla says. “But I don’t know if they know they go to school or don’t go to school.”

Whether or not the local Italians know about Anthony and Lehla’s approach to schooling their kids, you can expect they would be quite intrigued. “The Italian schooling system is very rote-learning driven,” says Anthony, “it’s very structured.” Anthony and Lehla’s approach… is not.

Lehla and Anthony are English, but they’ve been “unschooling” their three children, Amari (11), Olive (11), and Jahli (9) in Italy since 2012. Lehla says her family’s approach is similar to self-directed learning, where “if kids want and need to learn, they learn.”

There’s no “typical” school day for the kids, Lehla says. But generally, they start their day by gathering for breakfast, before the kids all decide what they want to do. Sometimes they’ll do projects, read, go on Khan Academy, or check Big Questions on School in the Cloud. “They choose how they run their day,” says Lehla, “I follow them.”

Prior to engaging with this learning approach, Lehla says there seemed to be a “general unease and closing down of the kids’ spirits, energy levels, and enjoyment in life every time they were in a school setting.” So, she and Anthony explored ways they could school the kids instead.

After visits to some self-directed learning schools that proved to be too expensive, and another stint at an Italian school that closed after about six months there, Lehla and Anthony decided to let their kids learn at home. “Yes, it can be challenging,” Lehla says, “but it is also inspiring to watch our kids unfold into who they are.”

As part of their “unschooling” approach, Lehla and Anthony’s children will form their own self-organised learning environments (SOLEs) to answer Big Questions from School in the Cloud. Sometimes their children will be inspired to answer the questions by writing, making films, taking photographs, drawing, or dressing up.

“The best SOLE moment we have had without a shadow of a doubt,” says Lehla, “was when we hooked up with another SOLE on Twitter.” The SOLE on the other end was a classroom in New Jersey.

Lehla and Anthony’s kids asked questions back and forth with the class. One question was about the Underground Railroad. Lehla says learning about Harriet Tubman’s work to abolish slavery inspired deep learning in her children — so much so that they decided to create and record a puppet show about Tubman’s efforts. “I found it very inspiring and moving,” Lehla says, “It was a beautiful portrayal of a harrowing story.”

While her children are answering Big Questions, Lehla will in turn ask them to the School in the Cloud community as well.

Her most recent question “Do identical twins think the same thoughts?” was featured as part of the Big Question Challenge.

Lehla says her question about twins was meant to open up other questions, even if it didn’t have an answer. Plus, she has first-hand experience with the subject, because her two daughters are identical twins.

“I was interested to ask them whether they thought they thought the same thoughts,” she says. “Often, I think they do, and I can almost hear them thinking.”

Lehla and Anthony invited their daughters to join our chat, to give their thoughts on the question. They agreed: “Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.”

Anthony and Lehla are nearly three years into “unschooling” their kids. So far, everyone seems quite happy with the experience. “When kids learn on their own, but have good guides around them,” says Lehla, “I think the learning takes on a whole new dimension, as respect is given back to the kid and ultimately faith that children can be self-directed learners.” Anthony adds, “It is a respect for the fact that children are born wanting to learn.”

You can learn more about the Eldridge-Rogers family’s “unschooling” experience, and the olive orchard they live on, at unschoolingthekids.com.

And follow them at:
@unschoolthekids and facebook.com/unschoolthekids

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.