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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.

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 ?