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.”

medium_93f0017f-bcc6-447f-9346-7741b5625637

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.”

medium_e31d3e1f-773a-43b0-9583-d11cd95aad40

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.”

medium_e9a6dfb2-cd6d-4b19-a15a-b0c12c40185e

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.

medium_6a39dca6-52e9-4361-b2d5-5fbefca5bdc4

How powerful ‘fantastic and curious learning’ really is

2015 was a year of unexpected opportunities, amazing connections and wonderful learning experiences for the SOLE lab in Room 13.

Located in Greenfield Arts in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, UK, it is one of the original seven TED Prize labs and recently celebrated its second birthday.

Co-ordinator Katy Milne marked the occasion in style by joining the Granny Cloud and other educators for the India tour in February 2016.

“One of the most powerful and rewarding things for me is the understanding the Engine Heads (the committee of students who run Room 13) have developed and the language they have found to express and reflect upon how they learn,” says Katy. “They have flourished in a learning environment that has allowed that to happen.

“It is so powerful as they make meaning for themselves and know how to apply their capabilities to any situation. They are also amazing advocates for SOLE and I’m looking forward to extending this further and providing even more opportunities for more learners.”

To celebrate Room 13’s 2nd birthday artists Nicola Golightly and Laura Degnan were commissioned to make the short film and a Little Book of Big Questions, with the first copy being handed to Sugata to mark his birthday which is coincidentally just a day before Room 13’s!

In the past year, Room 13 has:

  • Hosted educators from across the UK, India,The Netherlands, Belgium, France, New Zealand
  • Skyped with Grannies, Suneeta (Dr Kulkarni)in India and new friends across the country
  • Asked Big Questions about the moon, dancing, clouds, the Internet, ourselves,each other, the Victorians and how rivers work, among others
  • Shared experiences with teachers and students and organised SOLE sessions forprimary and secondary schools from across the country
  • Spoken at conferences in the UK and Europe, including the Great North Greatsconference in Newcastle last October, part of the Great North Run Culture Programme.

“We have pondered and puzzled, questioned and wondered, searched and explored, talked and debated and been challenged and had our curiosity stimulated,” adds Katy. “And the best thing is there is so much more to come.”

 

SOLE gets royal seal of approval

You know how most conferences are just a little dull and you end up daydreaming at least once during yet another Powerpoint presentation? Well, not this one. From the outset, when the hall was filled with the children’s voices singing their ‘welcome song’ written and composed by lab co-ordinator Madhura Rajvanski, it was evident this conference was going to be a bit different from the norm.

All the grannies, co-ordinators, teachers and School in the Cloud team gathered in Phaltan, Maharashtra last Thursday for the conference which marked the end of an amazing week visiting the TED Prize research labs in Korakati, Chandrakona and Gocharan. We’d travelled by bus, boat, car, plane and van rickshaw and clocked up more hours on the road in under a week than most of us would do in a month (Sugata put it into context by saying we’d travelled the equivalent of Newcastle to Athens!) and yet everyone was still upbeat and full of energy.

In each lab we visited, we were blown away by the generosity and welcome we received, but at Phaltan, where the lab is located in Pragat Shikshan Sanstha’s Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan Marathi medium school, it was taken up another level.

As we arrived, handmade necklaces were placed around our necks and the children greeted us in their own languages, dressed in amazing finery to represent the diverse cultures and religions within the school.

Parents had been up since 6am to create artworks such as this peacock below, made from powdered paint, and the walls of the classrooms were adorned with everything from flamingos to flowers. We were blown away by the creativity of the whole community, as well as by their amazing culinary talents. We not only enjoyed sweet treats in the wonderful Diwali room, but also at the many stalls set up by the children for us to sample regional delicacies before our long bus journey back to Pune.

We even had a VIP tour of the King of Phaltan’s palace beforehand and when he addressed the conference he charmed the audience by saying the grannies were all a lot younger than he’d imagined! Shrimant Ram Raje Naik-Nimbalkar, who is also a politician, admitted that although he had been in politics for 25 years, in his heart he was a teacher and promised to do everything in his power to help spread “this unique model of education (SOLE)” across the region.

Everywhere I looked during the day there were impromptu granny sessions popping up as children – over the moon to finally meet their ‘own’ grannies – were making the most of having them there in person. The grannies also got an insight into what it’s like to be famous, hardly able to take a few steps without a child wanting to take a photograph or get an autograph. One of my favourite moments was when one granny leant over to me and whispered ‘They keep asking for ‘selfies’ with us but they don’t know what they are. Should I tell them?!’

During the conference, there were ‘surprises’ built into the programme, which we all agreed should be a feature of all conferences as they were an absolute delight. In one, a little girl sang the ‘jelly song’ granny Liz Fewings had taught her and in another, a group performed a skit where they pretended to hold a granny session, complete with the ubiquitous cup of tea for the ‘granny’, Lorraine Schneiter. We had to constantly remind ourselves that this was a Marathi medium school, as even the youngest children confidently spoke in English.

Many of the families have very little – over 50% of the children who attend the school either have part or all their fees paid for them. Every student in this school from grades 1-7 has a granny session at least once a week, which the director believes is a great leveller. They are also trialling sessions with early years children.

“When they learnt English in the traditional way they just didn’t take it in – I wanted them to learn in a more authentic set up,” explains director Dr Manjiri Nimbkar. “I approached Suneeta (Dr Kulkarni) about setting up a SOLE lab here and we’ve not looked back since. This is not an extra-curricular activity – we believe every child should have this. If it’s left to chance, then maybe those children who need it most might not get it.”

During the conference we heard from Emma Crawley, the teacher who first tested SOLE in the UK with Sugata at her school, St Aidan’s in Gateshead, and updates from Katy Milne and Sally Rix about the Greenfields and George Stephenson High School labs respectively. The visiting teachers from Masham in North Yorkshire also spoke about their experiences, and even ran a maths SOLE during the day with the children.

It was also a chance to hear from Moumita Dey and Ritu Dangwal about the one Indian lab the granny tour didn’t have time to visit – Kalkaji in Delhi and a look behind the scenes from Ashis Biswas, who talked us through the challenges – which included lizards in the CPUs – of building the labs. Sarah Schoengold of the TED Prize, who is also a part-time granny to children in Mexico, provided a global perspective on SOLE.

Dr Suneeta Kulkarni (above) shared the Granny Cloud perspective and how this intervention made such a difference to both the children’s lives and how the SOLEs worked, which was complemented by granny Liz Fewing’s talk on the core Granny Cloud team and how they work to bring everyone together and consider how to make it sustainable in the long term (look out for a blog in the next few weeks about this).

All too soon it was time for Sugata’s closing address in which he spoke about creating a ‘curriculum of things’ and changing our approach to education from ‘just in case’ to ‘just in time’.

One of the grannies, Sunita Lama (fifth from left above), who is originally from India but now lives in Dubai, shared her thoughts about the week with me when she returned home and it perfectly sums up the effect of this amazing week on all who took part. “It has been difficult to come back to reality after the wonderful days in India,” she says.

“Having met all the grannies, coordinators, children, teachers and parents I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this opportunity. We are now a family nourishing and supporting each other. This I think is the best part. The love and affection that was showered upon us shows how great this project is and I’ve made up my mind to give even more. For me it was a humbling experience and a lesson to take home. I intend to visit other SOLE labs as well on my next trip home and I also cherish a dream to start this project in my home town Darjeeling someday soon.”

In India, when people leave they don’t say ‘goodbye’ in any language. Instead, it’s simply different variations of ‘I’ll come again’, which will resonate with many of the grannies as they settle back into normal life this week.

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.

Long distance friendship is the perfect medicine

Most trainee doctors are driven by a desire to help others, but for Shahrukh Khan, his motivation is also deeply personal.

He was just six-years-old when his father died of a heart attack in India. Many years later, when he had only just begun his degree studies in the Philippines, he lost his mother in the same way. It was at this point that Shahrukh decided to become a surgeon or cardiologist.

It has been a long and complicated road to reach the point he is at today – just two years away from becoming a qualified doctor. When he was just 13-years-old, he met someone who, although neither of them knew it at the time, would change his life. That person was retired teacher Liz Fewings, who was Skyping in from her home in London, UK to his school’s new computer lab in Hyderabad, India.

Eight years on, she can still recall their first meeting. “The Granny Cloud session had been arranged through Suneeta (Kulkarni) and I was expecting a group of kindergarten children,” she explains. “I had prepared to read Jasper’s Beanstalk and had my trowel and seeds and everything ready when suddenly in walks a group of teenagers! Suneeta was laughing like a drain but I went ahead with it anyway – they seemed quite happy!”

Shahrukh was put in charge of organising his 9th grade group, which didn’t really take off, but he and Liz continued to talk to each other. He made the most of any opportunity to be part of this early self organised learning environment (SOLE) to improve his English and general knowledge skills.

medium_c954397b-38bb-4e36-8e65-c28a60d93376Shahrukh in the Philippines today

When he was looking to study for a degree, it was Liz that he turned to for help. Studying medicine in India is very competitive so it made sense to look elsewhere. At one point, he was all set to study in the Gobi desert until Liz showed him quite how cold it could get there compared to India. She also helped him avoid obvious scams and colleges that were little more than a PO Box.

Together they looked for more suitable locations based on climate, living conditions and cultural differences and came up with the Philippines. Even after he received his offer letter, Liz was still looking out for him – she wrote to the registrar of the university to double check it was genuine!

Liz refers to Shahrukh as “Mr Fixit” because even from an early age he was so resourceful. He helped to set up an Internet café in India and has just launched a website with his sister for students applying to study in the Philippines, to help them avoid falling victim of unscrupulous agents.

A third of his fellow students have had to re-do part of their first year, but Shahrukh passed with flying colours. One of his favourite aspects of the course is the problem based learning sessions (PBL), where they are given a scenario and have to diagnose the patient by working in a group. He points out that his early exposure to SOLE was not dissimilar to this way of working, which might be why it comes more easily to him.

The heavy workload of a medical degree doesn’t leave much time for anything other than studying but when he does have a break, Shahrukh likes to explore new places on the island with his friends, watch telugu films and cook his signature dish – a curry with fish or chicken. “Every time I go back to India I stock up on spices,” he tells me. “They have some here, but it’s just not the same!”

medium_36ad6b8f-f231-4564-bea3-e06d296d3f37

The BBC covered Liz (above) and Shahrukh’s original story nearly two years ago and at at the time Liz was inundated with requests from people who wanted her to be their friend and do the same for them. “I couldn’t possibly do that for them all, but one girl was really persistent so now I’m mentoring this young woman in Pakistan,” she explains.

“She’s a graduate looking for a job and she was living in front of her computer so I kept trying to persuade her to do something else to make her more interesting to employers. I told her I would make her a shawl if she did something different so she did and now she’s started a little sewing business with her sister making salwar kameez for people, which is wonderful. It just needs somebody to show a bit of interest and these young people can achieve so much.”

When Shahrukh graduated from his first degree there was no family there to share the day with him. However, Liz has promised him that she will make it to the Philippines to stand in as loco parentis for when he becomes a doctor in two years’ time. “I’m very fond of him,” says Liz. “He feels like a nephew to me.” It will be the first time they have actually met.

Walking out of the forest into a new world

SOLE is touching parts of the world that few ever get the chance to experience. One such place is the remote tribal regions of Maharashtra in India.

It took over three years to get Internet connectivity to SOLE Wada so children here can participate in Granny Cloud sessions, but they’ve been making the most of the opportunity ever since.

For some of these children, just getting here is a major feat: those living in the tribal villages travel for miles on foot with a schoolteacher from their homes in the forest. They chat with the ‘grannies’ and explore the world through the Internet every week, staying overnight at Wada afterwards.

Although Wada is only 120 km from Mumbai it’s in a tribal region and they struggle with resources – this is the only place QUEST Wada could get connectivity in the area.

Most of these children, who are between seven and 14-years-old, attend local Marathi medium schools. In each group there are also a couple of children who live in Wada and have learnt basic vocabulary and computer skills at their English medium school so can help the other children.

Pralhad Kathole co-ordinates SOLE Wada from his home using his own laptop. His aim is for the children to learn English by immersion in the language rather than through fee-paying English medium schools.

Pralhad says he’s already seen a difference in the children’s English skills since it started a few months ago and that although the tribal children were reluctant to come at first, now they love it!

‘Joyful’ interaction

One of the ‘grannies’ who has been chatting with the children since last October is Sheilagh Guthrie, who lives in France. “It is truly joyful interacting with these children,” she says. “They have a great sense of humour and are great fun to spend time with. It’s also a real challenge as their English is pretty good and they are very bright so appreciate being pushed – you can cover a lot of ground in a short session.”

The children at Wada are also pretty confident and not shy to say if they don’t want to do something. The varied range of ages and interests can also sometimes mean it’s difficult to engage them all at the same time, but the ‘grannies’ aren’t fazed!

“As it’s late in the evening for the session I run they can be tired and lacking concentration but they are still lively, smiley and happy children,” adds Sheilagh, who shares this group with Christine Majcher Inghram, based in the USA. “They make such an effort to attend that they deserve to have someone there to talk with!”

One of the memories which will stay with these children for a long time is when Sheilagh dropped an egg on her keyboard during a demonstration – not something she planned (and not that good for her computer!) – but it caused much hilarity at the other end. They have also spent time recently singing Christmas songs together and finding pictures of Wada together on the Internet.

Small window into another culture

There is also an earlier group at SOLE Wada shared on two consecutive days by ‘grannies’ Melanie Harvey and Anna Ash, who are both in the UK. Melanie, an early years teacher, says she tries to apply Child Initiated Learning to her sessions; guiding the students towards posing their own questions to develop their learning.

“I am always aware that they can vote with their feet, and so my first aim is to make it enjoyable, so they return!” she says.

Melanie told me that the first group enjoy reading and video clips, and tend to be dominated by one or two boys who have better English and are more confident using the computer keyboard. In contrast, the second group want to engage on a more personal level, love songs and games and prefer these to being pushed into thinking for themselves and will deflect (with great charm!) if they are pushed too hard.

All of the children in Melanie’s groups have been taught English at school, and are particularly good with numbers, colours and animal names. Most students have a laptop at home and have come along to improve their English. “They all can speak in simple sentences, but often answer questions in single words or lists,” says Melanie.

Melanie explains that her aim is to give these children a small window into another culture and offer them the chance to develop a different relationship with another adult at the same time as developing their English skills.

“For me, it’s about working towards developing the skills and attitudes they need to initiate their own learning and improve their life chances,” she says. “I read in The Times of India recently that over two million people had applied for one clerical post in the Indian civil service. To give ‘our’ kids a chance they must have something special about them. The more I build up relationships with them, the more important I feel it is not to let them down.”

This location also holds a special place in Dr Suneeta Kulkarni’s heart as she was onsite when she first heard Sugata was being given the TED Prize in 2013.

“At that point, when I was desperately trying to work out the logistics of it all, I knew it was meant to be, and that somehow, we would find a way. It took a long time, but it’s been worth it.”

The Granny Cloud is working with the Quality Education Support Trust (QUEST) to run this SOLE. QUEST was formed in 2007 as a research-action organisation concentrating on enhancing quality of education in India. Working in groups, which is the essence of self organised learning, is also part of their own philosophy towards education.

Being a ‘granny’ is not as easy as it might look

The Granny Cloud has been up and running since 2009 when Sugata first put out an appeal in a UK newspaper for grandmothers with a spare hour a week who would like to talk to children in India and help them with their English skills.

There are a handful of loyal stalwarts still remaining from those early days, many of whom form a self-organised core team to help to recruit, interview and advise new recruits.

But there are far more who have fallen by the wayside, often daunted by the prospect of actually being a School in the Cloud granny once reality sets in.

Dr Suneeta Kulkarni, research director for School in the Cloud based in India, says she can completely understand how they feel. “It can seem completely overwhelming to start with,” she admits.

“There’s a lot more tech available now than when we first started and I know that can put some people off, but this is not the crux of the interaction. If you’re comfortable with it, then use it by all means, but it may actually hinder the process if it’s a brand new group not used to computers or the English language.

“It’s really just about chatting with the children about whatever takes your, and their, fancy. When you start with a new group you need to get a feel for their environment, who they are and what they like. I’d always say don’t go in with a plan – just go with it. Just say ‘hi’ and take it from there. At the end of the day, the primary aim is to have fun, and that goes for the granny as well as the children!”

Suneeta often advises new grannies to think of those initial sessions as a bit like turning up at a family gathering where there just happens to be a group of children who are really keen to talk to you!

being_granny_02

Jerry Rothwell, the School in the Cloud film

Conversation is key to these interactions and each granny has his or her own style – that’s what makes it so interesting for the children at the other end of the connection. Some like to read stories, others create craft activities or even tell jokes. 

There are grannies who like using online activities such as puzzles or videos to start a discussion, and others who experiment with new resources as they are developed, but often plain flash cards work just as well (and sometimes better, especially when there is limited connectivity).

“This shows the robustness of the interaction,” explains Suneeta. “You might be doing something most other people wouldn’t think twice of doing but it still seems to work. It’s important to find your own comfort zone – some work better with older children and are happy discussing a wide range of complex topics, others are more comfortable with younger groups.”

Suneeta, who is out of her own comfort zone when it comes to water, uses her own fear as an analogy for new grannies finding themselves worried about jumping in at the deep end. “Sometimes it’s just a question of getting in,” she says. “I’m scared of swimming but wouldn’t mind sitting on the edge and splashing my feet in. You can always wade in – you don’t need to dive.”

The Granny Cloud could do with more male role models as they give a different dimension to the interaction. Suneeta says often male grannies are more likely to not feel that confident dealing with the children, but they’re actually doing a great job and the children love chatting with them.

These dedicated individuals are doing something positive and contributing to these children in a way we cannot yet fully appreciate – only time will tell. But even this early on, educators can already see the children’s search skills improving with just one session a week, so it is already making a difference.

The grannies share their sessions on Facebook and on a learning blog, which is designed to help with feedback and ideas as well as helping with ongoing research to understand better how this all works. 

However, it can sometimes add to the feeling of being overwhelmed, as less confident or new grannies may feel they cannot possibly do anything like that. “It’s not about making people inadequate, simply a case of ‘this is what I did and it might help others’,” explains Suneeta.

“Each granny is different and each group of children is too – that’s what makes it fun. You have to find what suits you and just go with it without worrying about what somebody else might be doing. And if you’re ever stuck or overwhelmed, there’s usually one of us online who would be happy to chat with you and share our expertise.”

The Granny Cloud on tour: first stop, London!

“The Granny Cloud could become to learning what Skype is to instantaneous video-conferencing.” – Prof Sugata Mitra

Anyone accidentally stumbling upon a gathering occurring just off Liverpool St in London last Saturday could have been forgiven for thinking they’d walked in on a reunion of old friends.

In fact, most of the people in that room – who had travelled from all over the UK and Europe to be there – had never actually met in ‘real life’, but had shared many hours together online, as part of the Granny Cloud*.

The Granny Gathering, organised by Liz Fewings, was a day filled with food, laughter and ideas and the chance to chat with Newcastle University’s Prof Sugata Mitra about the School in the Cloud and how the ‘grannies’ are a vital part of its future.

Technology – the most challenging part of making the School in the Cloud work on a daily basis – was even on our side as we managed to have an excellent Skype connection with Suneeta Kulkarni, research director for the School in the Cloud, who joined us for the entire session from India.

From hearing about learning hairdressing (with truly hair-raising results!) and construction via the Internet in further education from PhD student Cathy Ellis (who is researching the use of SOLEs in this environment), to how children in the USA and Ghana come up with the same answer to a Big Question, there was plenty to discuss.

For example, how YouTube is bringing about a revolution in how we acquire skills. Sugata was imagining a future where retired lawyers and plumbers could be called upon online and raised the question whether this could be a natural extension of the Granny Cloud.

“I often turn to the Internet as a last resort,” he said.“But for a generation now, it is the first thing they turn to. If we take the existing Granny Cloud, we have a lot of people who have lots of skills – should we just restrict ourselves to teaching children if we have these skills to share?”

As part of this, he asked the group for their opinions on helping out with Newcastle University’s PGCE programme to help young teachers understand how self-organised learning environments work. Those present were keen to explore this at a later date.

Sugata spoke about how SOLEs make something happen that we really can’t pin down quite yet as it’s very difficult to measure. “It’s the way they level out the playing field for children whose circumstances are very different and show huge differences in traditional comprehension tests,” he said.

He also shared many anecdotes with us all, such as the children’s response in the USA and Ghana to a question about why the Blue Whale is the biggest creature on the planet. They both came up with similar reasons, such as it having space to grow, but in the USA, one child added that it was a ‘bit like when the Irish came to Texas. They grew bigger because they had the space!’

It was also a time to reflect on how fragile a SOLE environment can be and how easily the learning dynamic can be affected by phrasing a question in a certain way or using a particular word. Sugata gave an example of how his intention was for the children to look into how homo sapiens evolved through learning to cook after showing them a TED talk on the subject but, because the facilitators of the session said ‘go ahead and research the brain’ rather than ‘I’ll leave you to research the topic’, the children simply researched the brain and missed the cooking point entirely.

There was talk about how the role of a ‘granny’ was very different in the UK’s School in the Clouds than those in India and how this was evolving – in some cases they are now helping with homework in the UK!

All the ‘grannies’ present had had issues with technolog and Sugata agreed that this, rather than the pedagogy, is the biggest challenge of the project. When problems occur, it’s worth remembering that in some of the more remote Indian locations, the connection is via a dongle about nine foot away precariously hanging out of a window at the mercy of a gust of wind or passing bird!

Another of Sugata’s ideas was to create more of a drop-in Granny Cloud rather than just structured sessions so children could search for an available granny online and then dial in for a quick chat. “Of course, you would not be able to have any lesson plan and would need to be able to react onthe spot – rather like if your doorbell rang and 15 children came in,” said Sugata. “It’s the digital equivalent of looking in the fridge to see what you’ve got to offer them! Key to this approach, he stressed, was not to overload existing ‘grannies’ but to boost the numbers available.

Jackie Barrow said she was concerned about how many people applied to be ‘grannies’ and then lost interest and there was a discussion about how this could be addressed. Steps are already being taken to follow-up in these instances, but there were ideas for a ‘digital staff room’ or similar space where people could drop in to ask for advice and support each other more.

Several of the people present admitted, even after years of being a ‘granny’, they still felt nervous each time and realised this could be a huge barrier for someone new to the project.medium_052b8623-edd2-4fa4-b75b-96172eeb8eb3

There was also a general consensus that, as in the tradition of Iyengar yoga, it was important to have knowledge passed down so there was an universal approach to being a SOLE ‘granny’, to help avoid it ‘splintering if it gets too big’ and losing sight of why the Granny Cloud exists in the first place. Those who had been part of the project for many years wanted to share how much they had learned from Suneeta’s wise words and direction during this time and how valuable it was to have her to guide them.

People also spent some time chatting about whether it was right that children could request a particular ‘granny’ and the possible repercussions of negative feedback. It was generally agreed, however, that it might be useful for some sort of constructive feedback mechanism to be put in place so ‘grannies’ could continuously tailor their sessions to better meet the needs of the children.

Liz Fewings also asked those present if they would be interested in setting up a charity to help raise funds for some of the SOLEs operating outside of the School in the Cloud (some of the ‘grannies’ have already successfully raised funds for equipment in several locations) and there was a general consensus that this would be worth following up. Do get in touch with Liz via this platform if you want to know more about this.

And, in the tradition of self-organised learning environments, we all picked up some new knowledge, such as how the Granny Cloud perfectly reflects the technology it uses. Skype works on a peer-to-peer basis so there is no centralised server. Instead, each small computer looks for another nearby to help out to pass it on, so one syllable of what we say could be handled by a computer in Hong Kong, the next in New Zealand and so on.

“It appears seamless and continuous,” explained Sugata.“This reflects the true nature of peer-to-peer in that lots of people with little money can collaborate and produce the same end result as a large corporation with a lot of money. At the moment there is no full-time person whose job is the Granny Cloud and that still makes me quite happy.”

However, he did raise the issue of whether there was a need for a more formalised approach in future: should we have a Granny Cloud Charter for example or trademark it? Big Questions to discuss at a later date….

*For those new to the project, the term Granny Cloud refers to the many e-mediators across the world who enable this project to work on a day-to-day basis.

Many people think you think you have to be an actual granny to take part, but this is far from true! We have both male and female volunteers of all ages in the Granny Cloud but what they all share is a universal ‘grandmother approach’ which perfectly complements the self-organised learning environment.

By providing unconditional encouragement and being appreciative of the children’s efforts, irrespective of whether or not they understand what they are trying to do, these ‘Grannies’ help to create an environment where children can thrive and grow in confidence.

The Granny Cloud was initially formed to provide educational support for children in remote, disadvantaged settings in rural and urban areas in India. The objective was that children would become confident and become more fluent in English, which would help their studies.

Today, it is also an integral part of The School in the Cloud project where the Grannies also help to set children off on their own adventures by providing ‘Big Questions’ to stimulate a child’s natural curiosity.