Endless opportunities

Imagine a tiny computer that contains a wealth of knowledge, as easy to use as your mobile phone – you’ve just visualised the next big thing in the tech world.

Like many great ideas, Endless was the result of taking time to mull over an issue. Its founder and CEO Matt Dalio was traveling in Pune, India, when he observed that smartphones and televisions were literally everywhere. This led him to realise that if you take a smartphone processor and make the television the monitor then you could build the world’s first truly affordable, high-quality PC.

He made the same observations while traveling through Latin America and Southeast Asia, but over time he realized that reducing the price of computers might not be enough. There are 2.5 billion people in the world who have access to computers, leaving 5 billion who do not and for over half of them, it’s not because they can’t afford it. Computers are expensive, but this isn’t the most important issue – in most locations people could get loans to pay for it and the cheapest laptop is now around $350.

Alejandro Farfán, General Manager for Endless Central America & Caribbean, takes up the story, explaining the three main barriers to emerging markets embracing computers. “Phones are intuitive and easy to use, where computers are not – for example, we had people saying to us ‘why do I need to double click on a computer when I can just do one click on my phone?’

“There was also a real fear of breaking it (the computer) if they didn’t know how to use it and so they weren’t prepared to make such a big investment just in case. And if you don’t have access to the Internet, then you’re lost.”

The biggest challenge of the three was how to connect all these people to the Internet. They approached the largest American Internet provider to ask for free internet to go with the system they were developing and they were, unsurprisingly, turned down. Undaunted, they went off to think more carefully about how to overcome this problem.

“It’s not that people in remote villages don’t use computers, they do,” says Alejandro, who was born and raised in Guatemala. “The children go to internet cafes every day to do their homework, for example.” When he did his own homework in the days before Internet cafes, Alejandro had his own version of the Internet – DVD encyclopedias borrowed from a neighbour.

And it was this memory from 20 years ago that helped overcome the issue of a lack of Internet connection. Speaking with his colleagues, they realised there were many organisations, such as the Khan Academy, Duolingo and Ivy League colleges in the US who have content freely available if you have a computer and Internet access so why not download all of this?

So, they set about building a computer that was as easy to use as a smartphone, had pre-loaded content and could be plugged into a television. It was no small task and it’s only now, four years later, that they have a product they’re proud of. As part of this research, they asked 1,000s of people what they would find useful and created a list of over 100 creative materials, tools and applications, including Open Office, GIMP ( a free open-access alternative to Photoshop), 45 encyclopedias, video tutorials and 43 games (mostly educational). “It’s a lot of content inside a little box,” says Alejandro.

Smartphones contain an extremely powerful computer: it’s actually 2,000 times more powerful than the one that took Apollo II to the moon. The Endless team worked out how to manufacture a chip that previously cost several hundred dollars for just $35 and used this to turn a phone into a laptop computer. This can then be plugged into a television, creating a computer with an operating system as easy to use as a smartphone.

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“We all have a need to be connected,” explains Alejandro. “Many people don’t even have a refrigerator and yet they are still buying phones and televisions. I went to visit some growers in rural Guatemala and I couldn’t get them to understand that it might be better to buy a fridge before a tv. One of them said to me ‘I get the money I earn that day, go to the local shop and buy the food I need for that day. I don’t need a fridge. The tv is entertainment for my whole family and others within the community – we watch it together – it’s our window to the world.’ I learnt things the hard way that day – he was totally right. I’ll never forget it.”

Endless began four years ago in Silicon Valley, USA. “We were born in the Valley because it attracts the best talent in this field, but our ethos didn’t really align with the regular start-ups there and we wanted our work to touch the whole world,” explains Alejandro. “All the arrows were pointing towards Guatemala – what they saw there was a place where a lot of people were open to trying new things.”

They first employed a developer, who just happened to be Alejandro’s older brother, Fernando. Alejandro was already a successful entrepreneur with his own start-up and  was in the office when the boss was lamenting how they just couldn’t find anyone to fill the manager’s position. A couple of hours later, he was in.

Taking a lead from the SOLE ethos, Endless  provided one computer per classroom to schools in Guatemala and told teachers to feel free to use it as they saw fit. Alejandro told me about one teacher who, after teaching herself using this computer, was able to teach a specific maths topic with confidence for the first time in her teaching career. “It’s not a situation where one person owns this computer and therefore holds all the information – it’s changing the way they teach as well as the way students learn,” he says. “I love being part of the same thing that helped me evolve.”

Currently, there are 10,000 students who have access to one of these computers in Guatemala but the Minister for Education has just approved funding to reach 100,000. Endless computers are also being used in refugee camps in Jordan and in favelas and schools in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico and Nicaragua.

Endless’ CEO, Matt, met Sugata a year ago and they have been talking about how best to combine these computers with SOLE. One of the most challenging aspects of our most remote Indian locations is the unreliable internet connectivity and it’s soul-destroying to think of children walking for miles to the labs, only to find that the Internet is down again. At least with an Endless computer, they would still be able to do their homework!

They are just about to launch a bundle which will include mobile internet connection for under $10 a month for schools, with unlimited access to certain sites such as Code.org and Duolingo.

There are some big hitters on their team – many have come from Twitter and Google because they believe in what Endless is doing. Future plans are to expand across Central America, South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and to add to existing offices in Mexico, Brazil and China.

Endless is also developing a tool that will allow anyone to create new content without any knowledge of programming. It’s currently a closed operating system to prevent the system crashing but they are planning to open it up at the end of this year.

“We’re aiming for open source technology that we can give back to the community – we’re only tech aware because of what we’ve learnt from others, so it’s only right it should go full circle,” says Alejandro. “This will allow people to customise and personalise their experience.”

A small academy in San Juan Comalapain, in Chimaltenango state, Guatemala, is trialling the use of Endless computers in a SOLE environment and we hope to catch up with them at a later date to find out how they’re getting on.

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Inspiring future community leaders through SOLE

You’d imagine trying to get 1,000 high school students engaged in the same activity at the same time would be challenge enough. But not for Jeff McCellan: he decided to add a little extra chaos to the mix by making it a SOLE (self organised learning environment) as well.

Jeff has been using SOLE in classrooms across the Cleveland region for over a year. When one of his funders said they were interested in exploring this pedagogical approach to engage large numbers of students around issues that matter in the community, he thought big.

So they set about the task of gathering 1,000 students from Cleveland and North East Ohio to focus on just one question: What is in your heart and mind about the ownership of power in your community? This question goes right to the heart of a community still reeling from a recent incident where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in a park by police in Cleveland.

In March 2016, 45 different schools came from 15 different districts, along with about 20 community members, including representatives from the mayor’s office, and took over an entire building on the Cuyahoga Community College Metro Campus.

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After gathering everyone together in a lecture theatre and an auditorium to set the scene, they broke out into 37 different rooms where SOLEs happened simultaneously around the Big Question. The biggest room had 40 students; the smallest 20, so as you can imagine it was pretty lively! There was one SOLE facilitator in each room, as well as a high school student acting as a support facilitator.

“We were interested in hearing what students thought about where power lies within their communities,” explains Jeff. “One of the aims was to give them a question that would be open enough to give them the freedom to do that – we didn’t want to focus on a particular concern or point to a solution for them.

“There was no protocol forced on them to do anything and that’s the beauty of SOLE – it’s such an open process,” he adds. “You just take something that’s interesting to you and run with it.”

Jeff tried out a few different questions in classrooms beforehand with both children and adults before deciding on the final one.

There were huge variations in the students’ answers, which are currently being collated. Some showed a really creative approach to tackling the question by performing songs or poems to illustrate their research findings.

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Dr James Stanfield, lecturer at SOLE Central, Newcastle University, UK was visiting SOLE Cleveland last week. “It was awesome! I was really impressed by the scale of the event and the enthusiasm the students showed for SOLE,” he says.  James is now working with SOLE Cleveland to develop a number of joint research proposals that will help to build upon the great work being carried out here.

One of the key strengths of bringing so many students from diverse backgrounds together in a SOLE in this way was to give them the chance to hear other people’s views. “It’s one thing tackling a question like this in your classroom with everyone from the same neighbourhood but a very different experience if you’re all mixed in together with one kid from a very rural area sitting next to someone from the biggest urban centre in our state,” says Jeff. “People’s perspectives vary greatly, and that’s what makes for interesting discussions.

“We wanted to set the bar high for these kids so they want to be more involved in their communities. Hopefully, it will inspire some of those students to take a more active role.”

Some of the teachers and students had already done SOLEs in their schools, others had never even heard of it before. “Imagine walking into a building where in every classroom you looked in, there was a SOLE going on! It was so much fun,” says Jeff. “It was amazing and I’m really happy with how it went – we’re now planning a whole series of them. There’s a lot of great questions out there that we need to engage kids around.”

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SOLE Cleveland partnered with the Northeast Ohio Medical University’s (NEOMED) Health Professions Affinity Community (HPAC), supported by AmeriCorps, to reach students from extremely remote rural communities to the most urban places in Ohio. Staff helped to reach out to these schools and facilitate the SOLEs and will now work on evaluating the impact on the students and community.

Filmmaker gets stuck into SOLE

When you bring together inspiring individuals who are trying to change the world, you create a force to be reckoned with. Such is the case with the pairing of documentary filmmaker Jerry Rothwell and Sugata Mitra.

I caught up with Jerry over Skype from a bustling café off London’s Victoria Station, as he took time out from promoting his upcoming film How to Change the World.

Jerry has been following Sugata around since 2013, having secured the first Sundance Institute/TED Prize Filmmaker Award to help bring the School in the Cloud story to life.

“Sugata is a fascinating individual for a documentary – he’s articulate, funny and provocative,” says Jerry. “He seems to be able to combine a great simplicity in his approach with a great complexity of ideas. I’ve seen him running a SOLE in various locations and he’s very engaging – you get a very real sense of what it’s about from watching him.”

However, making a film about Sugata and SOLE is not without its challenges, both physically and metaphorically. It’s a hard trek to reach some of the rural locations in India: Korakati, the most remote, can often take the best part of a day, including travelling by cycle rickshaw and boat. In self organised learning environments you also never know exactly what will happen when you turn up!

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Jerry and his film crew resort to going barefoot to get to the lab at Chandrakona during the monsoon.

“By its very nature it’s anecdotal, about telling stories rather evaluating the process,” says Jerry. As a result, he’s decided to tell a selection of individual stories over a longer period of time to give a feel for how SOLE develops and its importance to local communities.

The film The School In The Cloud will focus on the more remote locations of Korakati and Chandrakona in India, as well as George Stephenson High School in North Tyneside, UK.

It will include Indian children who speak no English and have little or no access to education, retired schoolteachers in the UK who are part of the Granny Cloud and students in North East England. Together, they represent the many voices that are part of this visionary educational experiment and Jerry’s film asks these two Big Questions:

  • What happens to a small remote Indian village when its children get connected to the internet?
  • What happens in a Western-style school, when a lab gets built which allows children take a lead in their own education?

“There’s two sides to it,” explains Jerry. “There’s the story from the bottom up about these people experiencing the project and it’s also an ideas film exploring the impact of Sugata’s ideas in action.”

Filming the project as it evolves gives Jerry a unique insight into how it works. He’s noticed that in the early days of the labs the best results come from sessions that have input from the Granny Cloud or a local co-ordinator. But he’s also quick to point out that he has also seen boys at Chandrakona working out how to use DJing software and teaching themselves to remix Bangla songs.

“The skill from an educator’s point of view is in knowing where the balance lies between leaving the kids to get on with it, and giving some input,” he says.

Jerry told me a story that helped to illustrate exactly what he means. “When I’m shooting I just hang in there for a very long time with the kids on radio mics so I can catch every little exchange. Then perhaps a teacher comes around the back just looking to push it on a bit.

“If you listen from the kids’ point of view you can see they were just in the process of trying to work something out, or just about to make a leap, and then they were interrupted and that derailed them in a subtle way. It’s very delicate how SOLE works and the tiniest intervention can completely disrupt it.”

Jerry says from his experience as an observer ‘a very light touch’ works best, where structure is applied at the start and then the educator steps back and lets the learning happen.

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Students using the lab at George Stephenson High School, UK

He’s also found it interesting how the students on ‘The Committee’ at George Stephenson High School talk about their lab. “There is a real sense that SOLE has given them a way to talk about their education and that’s had an impact on the student/teacher relationship and how they approach their learning,” he says. “They take full ownership of the SOLE, seeing themselves as its ‘guardians’.”

However, SOLE is not just about education, but also what happens when you connect kids in remote locations to the wider world. Jerry told me about one young boy in Korakati who he introduced to Google Earth (although he realised afterwards he’d done exactly what Sugata advises educators not to do!)

“One lad was interested in travel and I showed him how you can use street view to walk along roads in another location,” he recalls. “He then started visiting places he’d always wanted to go like Sri Lanka and New York, which is an amazing thing to get your head around. In some ways it’s opening these kids to a much broader world than those of their parents and it’s interesting to see a different world view emerging in these kids that will affect them for a very long time.”

Jerry is used to filming in remote places – he travelled to Ethiopia for his documentary Town of Runners about young athletes from a highland town that has produced some of the greatest distance runners. He says its more straightforward making The School In The Cloud because the filming infrastructure in India is much better than in Africa and he has the added bonus of a ‘fantastic team of very skilled people’ working with him in-country.

He shares filming with Ranu Gosh, who is based in India, and has already made three trips there with another two planned next year. “At the last shoot in Korakati it was raining non-stop,” says Jerry. “In fact I always seem to turn up in the rainy season – but even in a monsoon you realise that (the SOLE) was attracting young people and had become a bit of a hub for the community.”

Filming for The School In The Cloud is taking place over a two-and-a-half-year period, with plans to release the film at the end of 2016.

“SOLE connects with a lot of my ideas and interests, particularly the link between education and technology,” says Jerry. “It’s also very much about children’s autonomy and taking control of your own learning and how they pick things up without hardly noticing and that’s something I find fascinating.”

Watch out for a sneak preview of Jerry’s recent filming for School In The Cloud coming up on our social media channels next month.

Jerry’s latest film, How to Change the World, a feature documentary about the founders of Greenpeace in the 1970s, opens in the US, UK, Germany and Australia on September 9.

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