India can’t get enough of the Granny Cloud

One of the grannies remarked to me that it wasn’t like travelling with a group of people you’d never met before – more like friends you’d known for years.  At times the bus resembles a raucous out of school trip, with much laughter, leg pulling and tall tales being told.

Everywhere we go we’re bowled over by the warmth of the welcome and the effort that the children, co-ordinators and local communities have gone to. There have been beautiful dancing, origami creations, thoughtful presentations by the local co-ordinators, and even magic tricks!

In Chandrakona we ate the best meal I’d had since coming to India – simple, fresh produce perfectly cooked from vegetables that came from a plot just behind the lab with eggs from the chickens who roamed freely around the buildings.

I also have a feeling there might be a mind reader living near the Korakati SOLE lab. As we bounced along the track I looked up at the huge coconut palms whizzing by and remarked to Mousumi next to me that I would quite possibly give my right arm for some fresh coconut water right now. We were barely past the welcome line when that’s exactly what we were all handed. It was quite possibly the best thing I have ever tasted.

This is no luxury tour of India. Every day we’ve been heading off the beaten track, eating as the locals do and often travelling that way too wherever possible. However, a few hours in a ramshackle bus with fans serving as decoration rather than any practical use made us truly appreciate the  luxury of the air-conditioned version!

Korakati was always going to be the most adventurous of all – a bus, boat crossing and then a bumpy ride along a track on a van rickshaw through villages for half an hour to reach the lab.

My (relatively) young bones felt every bump – and there were many, there’s a reason it earned its nickname The Boneshaker, of the van rickshaw as we hurtled along the track to Korakati but all I could see from those in front of us were wide grins as they clung on and enjoyed the ride. Our grannies are made of stern stuff!

Even so, we have had a few treats along the way. The fresh coconuts handed to us just as we stepped into Korakati, for example, was exactly what we needed as temperatures soared to over 30 degrees.

The group ranges in age from 17 (granny Denise Well’s grandaughter who has been allowed to take time out of school for this ‘educational’ visit!) to those in their 70s. We have grannies from Germany, France, Spain, Egypt, USA, UK, India and United Emirates.

The overwhelming feeling I will take from this trip is of seeing first hand just how much the grannies mean to the children. Having them here in person obviously means the world to these children, who have build up strong rapports with their ‘own’ grannies over the last few years.

There have been long, long days on the road where we are all weary and yet I rarely hear more than the odd grumble about aches and pains or the heat. These amazing individuals (not forgetting the wider Granny Cloud who are with us in spirit and living it vivaciously through the social media posts) are an inspiration to us all. I only hope I have half their stamina when I reach my retirement.

This blog post was written in February 2016, during the Granny Cloud Tour, India.

SOLE Spain

SOLE Spain’s goal is to bring the country’s teacher-training universities and schools together, to empower students to take control of their own learning. In an effort to scale the SOLE methodology across Spain in the next 5 years, the SOLE Spain team is currently setting up a research project across schools and universities in Madrid and Barcelona.

Starting in October 2016, the research project will focus on the ways students assess the knowledge and skills that are generated from working with SOLE as they search for and process information on the Internet as 21st Century learners. The project will primarily include urban schools with students at risk of social exclusion and students with special educational needs.

Through this project, it is hoped that elementary students will be able to develop the skills needed for a modern digital society, and have to opportunity to work in environments that favour inclusion and educational innovation. We will show students how SOLE works,  train future teachers, and carry out SOLE sessions within a range of different schools. As part of their implementation of SOLE in schools, SOLE Spain are going to include an e-learning system named Knowledge Constructors in their research project. Through this system, children will have access to a bank of Big Questions and communicate with each other.

SOLE Spain also plan to utilize the Granny Cloud with their SOLE students and allow them to truly understand the power of shaping one’s own learning.

Future plans for SOLE Spain also include the implementation of SOLE in non-traditional educational settings, such as public libraries, and to open their own SOLE Lab as a citizen laboratory for production, research and broadcasting of cultural projects which explore the themes of collaborative learning and digital networks that are central to the success of the SOLE method.

SOLE inspires teenager to follow her dreams

Gouri Ajay Chindarkar was one of the first children in India to experience SOLE, in her village in Maharashtra. Seven years later, she’s studying for a degree in Computer Engineering at Mumbai University.

The 19-year-old says SOLE has played a ‘big part’ in making her life easier. Researching and quickly understanding any subject comes naturally to her and she is also able to communicate confidently with people from all walks of life. “In my opinion it is a better way to learn,” she says. “SOLE gives us very practical knowledge which can be used for our day-to-day life. It is the perfect place for those who want to learn in their own way and better their understanding.”

Gouri is in the 2nd year of her degree, which she tells me is ‘going very well’. She’s not sure exactly what career path to take when she graduates yet, but is considering working as a developer, testing and designing programmes.

Unlike in the UK, where recent figures show just 14% of students on computer engineering degrees are female (there are similar issues in the US), on Gouri’s course it is nearly a 50/50 split.

“I was interested in computers from my childhood and very early I decided that I want to become a computer engineer – when I was about 12/13-years-old,” she says. “SOLE is the main platform that helped me a lot to come close my dream.”

Granny Cloud sessions

The first SOLE at Shirgaon was set up in 2009 with the main emphasis on Skype sessions with e-mediators – the newly formed “Granny Cloud”. The main problem the children faced initially was language, as all their lessons were in Marathi but the Internet and the Granny Cloud sessions were in English.

Gouri says the first few sessions were probably “horrible” for the grannies as a result, but they persevered, and with a lot of encouragement all round the children’s confidence and communication skills slowly improved. The use of drawings also made a word or object much easier to understand.

“We learned how to speak, how to interact and how to express ourselves in front of others,” says Gouri, who would come in at 7am every Wednesday to chat with a very active Granny at the time, Anne Thomas. She also spent much of her summer vacations at the SOLE. She still communicates regularly with another ‘Granny’, Rodger Maskall, via Facebook.

“We were all were familiar with classroom teaching but when we knew about the Skype session I was very excited for the new way of learning,” says Gouri. “It was very interesting for us and there were lots of new things to learn. It was a big world in front of me.”

Learning new things everyday

One of the first things Gouri remembers about the SOLE is seeing a satellite image of her school on Google maps (which children still love doing in the India SOLEs today!) She then created a Yahoo email account and Suneeta introduced her to Skype and Facebook.

“Every day we were introduced to new things,” she says. “SOLE removed the fear in our minds about new technology. We learnt to try, to search and finally we found. It was a journey of attempting new things, learning, doing mistakes, correcting them and finally understanding what we have to do. SOLE was the source of that secret.”

Gouri told me that her memories of the time she spent in the Shirgaon SOLE are still very much alive and she is proud to have been a student there. “I really miss those beautiful days very badly and I want those days back… but it’s not all that possible,” she says. “I don’t know exactly how can I be involved (in SOLE in the future) but I want to be!

“SOLE inspired me to do something new and has done so much for me. I’d like to make other students feel the same and make their future bright.”

Shirgaon is a village in the Sindhudurga District of Maharashtra, India, 320km from Mumbai. This SOLE was overseen by Professor Sugata Mitra, Dr Suneeta Kulkarni and teacher Mr Shamshuddin N. Attar.

Read about Arun Chavan on the blog, who is also from Shirgaon, and was one of the original Hole in the Wall students, now doing a PhD at Yale in the USA.

Korakati: where learning happens against the odds

Korakati is well off any popular tourist trail: to get there you have to spend many hours on the road, take a boat up the Ganges and finally, a very bumpy van rickshaw up a dusty track passing huts, chickens and children along the way.

There’s an ‘other worldly’ feel about the place, which adds to its remoteness and is one of the reasons Sugata Mitra chose it for one of the TED Prize research labs. He knew just how hard it would be to create, but also just how much untapped potential there was here.

One person who probably questioned Sugata’s sanity on more than one occasion was project manager Ashis Biswas, whose job it was to sort out the logistics involved in constructing the building and getting it up and running. For example, when you look at the glass sides of the lab and then back at the only track they could have come along, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they got here in one piece!

The children at Korakati use the Internet to learn many things: for example, we were presented with beautiful handmade paper boxes topped with a rose when we arrived last month and inside were an origami flower and a jumping frog! The children had taught themselves how to make them using YouTube, with a little help from granny Jackie Barrow.

Natural challenges

There are, however, times when nature gets the better of this lab: the Internet connection, which is made possible thanks to a large bamboo pole erected on the roof, can be unreliable due to the distance from the hub, so a dongle has to be used instead, dangled from an open window. Water is also often scarce, and when there isn’t enough, it’s not safe to open the lab.

The solar power works well most of the time, but as co-ordinator Ankit Bubai Mondal (who runs with lab with Milan Mandal) told me, it’s not as effective at night! He once got stranded at Korakati and had to sleep in the guest accommodation with no power. This left him with the unenviable decision between being ‘eaten alive by mosquitoes with the door open or boiled alive with the door shut!’

Due to the limited bandwith, there is often just one computer connected to the Skype screen, but this alone has made it possible to have nearly 40% of all the granny sessions scheduled, which is no mean feat when you consider the challenges involved in making this happen.

“The impact of the lab and granny sessions is very visible, not only on the children, but even the co-ordinators,” explains research director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni. “The change in Milan’s (the local co-ordinator) English comprehension and ability to speak in it were quite remarkable when I met him again last month.

“Attempting to run regular granny sessions in these remote places can be frustrating for those on the other end, but even if the interaction with grannies and access to the internet isn’t as much as we would hope for, it still makes a huge difference.”

A subsistence life

Life in Korakati is hard. Agriculture and fishing are the main occupations, but making a decent living from either is increasingly difficult. Most people will barely earn the equivalent of £20 a month and children often have to work with their parents in the fields. When Cyclone Aila came through the area in May 2009, it brought with it winds of over 120kph and devastating tidal waves which flooded miles inland. This saltwater turned much of the land already badly hit by previous storms such as Cyclone Sidr in 2007 into dry, saline deserts that will take decades to become fertile again.

There is saying in West Bengal that the people are lazier than elsewhere in the country because you only have to drop a fruit stone on the ground and it will grow because the land is so fertile. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case here.

Many of the villagers also used to farm fish in small ponds next to their homes but these too have been turned into saltwater, so they have had to diversify and grow shrimps instead.

Ranu Ghosh, a Kolkata-based filmmaker who works on Jerry Rothwell’s TED/Sundance film about the School in the Cloud project, likened this research lab to ‘an alien thing, dropped into the middle of the Sunderbans’ and it certainly feels that way, nestled as it is between traditional village huts, surrounded by fields. However, the community are embracing this ‘alien’ in the same way they welcomed the recent Granny Cloud tour: with open arms and a sense of nervous anticipation for what is to come.

Korakati lab is in the heart of the Sunderbans, close to the Bangladeshi border and surrounded by rivers, canals and deltas. It was inaugurated on 9th March 2014, but had to be closed for a few months afterwards to address connectivity and construction issues. The climate is governed by the monsoon and the majority of people live below the poverty line, with limited sources of income. There are nearly 600 households and 300 children in the village, which has three primary schools and two secondary schools but no medical amenities or other facilities.

VIDEO: In Kalkaji SOLE, it’s all about earning respect

It may be a tiny research lab, but Kalkaj in Delhi certainly packs a lot in. There are almost daily Granny Cloud sessions and a seemingly endless stream of visitors since it opened two years ago.

Located in a government girls’ school just a stone’s throw from the original Hole in the Wall, this lab is helping to give young people the opportunity to aim high.

Sometimes I find it’s better to leave others to say the words for you and when that individual is Jaya, who has firm views about how she wants to change the world, it’s a no-brainer.

This short interview above, taken from footage by filmmakers Dan Oxenhandler, Will Sloan and Alfred Birkegaard, perfectly illustrates how much a SOLE lab means to children like Jaya, who are inspired to aim high thanks to this interaction.

And it’s not just the children who have benefited from this experience over the past two years, many members of the Granny Cloud also Skype in regularly and love taking sessions here. “From the very beginning they were a bubbly, enthusiastic group displaying a lot of confidence,” says ‘granny’ Edna Sackson, who is based in Melbourne, Australia. “They were able to understand my English and my accent and many responded well in full sentences. It’s great to see how they work collaboratively and offer each other support.”

Sunita Lama, who is based in Dubai, echoes these sentiments. “The Granny Cloud session is always such a boost for a teacher like me and the reason is the innocent effort of each child to participate,” she says. “Though they are young minds, I like to challenge them because critical thinking and analysis are important skills and with so much knowledge available, I personally feel there should be no limitations drawn, especially if it is probing into topics that will benefit them. It is lovely seeing a young bunch of enthusiasts and interacting – these young girls have a lot of eagerness and zeal.”

The children using this lab are in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. Although the school is Hindi medium, one section is English medium across all classes and it’s this group that uses the SOLE lab.

Children coming to the school are from the lower socio economic classes, whose mothers are either domestic helpers or housewives. The parents’ educational level is also very low.

Kajal Gupta has been the local co-ordinator at this lab since last July. She says she has seen a big change in herself as well as the girls, despite it taking some time for them to feel comfortable and realize that she wasn’t going to tell them what to do like a teacher would! “I am very happy to be a part of this project because it is amazing to bring improvement in the students like this,” she says.

Kajal has seen the girls’ confidence and self-assurance grow tremendously, so much so that they are unfazed by the many media crews and VIP guests who regularly turn up to find out more about the SOLE lab. Every day there are usually granny sessions in the lab and Kajal finds that the students would much rather study there than anywhere else in the school, despite its size!

In the ASER tests of English reading comprehension, early research shows an improvement of nearly 10% on the baseline a year ago.

Kalkaji SOLE is located in a government school for girls. The school runs in the morning, as the premises are shared with the boys who attend school in the afternoons. It is among the smallest of the School in the Cloud labs, with a handful of computers, one of which is connected to Skype during Granny Cloud sessions. The girls who use the SOLE are typically 11-15 years-old from the lower socio-economic classes who attend the English section of an otherwise Hindi medium school.

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!”


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.

Greenland: the land where snow and SOLE come together

It seems fitting that in the lead up to Christmas we should take a visit to the most northerly SOLEs we know: in Greenland.

Nestled just beneath the Arctic Circle where spectacular Northern Lights displays are a common occurrence, children in two villages – Atammik and Kangaamiut – are learning more about the world beyond their classroom through the Granny Cloud.

These remote Inuit communities rely on fishing and tourism and the region is sparsely populated – each school has only around 20 children. It’s a very different environment from the usual Granny Cloud locations and as a result a ‘granny cluster’ of four volunteers was created to Skype in each week from all over the world to talk to children from Grade 1 upwards.

I spoke to Anna Bolethe Rakel Heilmann, who originally brought the grannies to Greenland, via Skype from her workplace in Maniitsoq, a haven for ski enthusiasts. The snow there is currently about half a metre thick, with skiing now possible on the small fjords inbetween the islands. Usual transportation, however, is by boat, plane or helicopter.

Last week Anna set foot on the sea ice for the first time this winter, an experience she says always makes her a ‘little nervous’ as she’s about to cross, especially when she can hear the ice cracking beneath!

While we were speaking she had to shed a layer of clothing, remarking that, at -15 Celsius, it wasn’t really that cold (it can be more than -20 during the day at this time of year). It’s worth noting that they use the term ‘day’ loosely in Greenland this time of year as there’s not a lot of daylight to go round: in Anna’s hometown the sun rises around 10.30am and is on its way down again by about 1.30pm. But in the northernmost towns, they don’t see the sun at all for almost four months from about mid-November.


Anna told me that in just a matter of months since the children started interacting with the Granny Cloud, their confidence in English is growing, so much so that they now greet their teacher with ‘good morning’! This is no mean feat for children who also speak their own local language, Greenlandic, and some Danish.

“We are full of gratitude for what these grannies do for us as volunteers,” says Anna. “I never thought of the grannies seeing our world. I was thinking more that they are going to show to the Greenlandic children another world. But they are also curious to see the world they are connecting with, through the children. “

A private company, Villum-fonden, funded a project some years ago to provide iPads to every child from Kindergarten until they finish school. As part of this, schools were encouraged to use the technology to develop more distance learning opportunities, so Anna’s municipality decided to contact the Granny Cloud to see if anyone would be interested in linking up.

In this particular municipality, English and Danish exam results are very low. The children have virtually no English language skills, so it is a challenge for the grannies involved. As a result, most of the sessions currently revolve around simple greetings, singing and learning vocabulary such as the different body parts.


‘Granny’ Sandra Frisby, who lives in Montreal, Canada, divides the younger children’s sessions with Ruby Choy, based in Hong Kong. A former teacher from kindergarten up to college level, Sandra found the children in this school (pictured above) very different from what she’s used to.

“During our session the kids were all over the place and couldn’t sit still, crawling under the table and on the chairs and the teachers weren’t doing much to control them,” she says. “One of the other grannies in the cluster (Margaret Hart, who shares the older children’s sessions with Susan Crole) did a bit of research and found out that in Inuit culture, the spirit of an elder is thought to inhabit each newborn child, so to discipline them unless they are likely to hurt themselves or others would be insulting to them*. That explained quite a bit for us!”

Greenlandic is a fiendishly difficult language to learn, with famously long words (Anna told me one that was over 100 letters long!) but despite this, Sandra says they’re picking up a few words here and there. Her favourite is ‘iggu’, meaning ‘cute’ or ‘beautiful’ which she was able to use for the first time recently when a little girl drew her a wrapped present on a piece of paper and wrote ‘Sandra’ under it.

The Granny Cloud has been operating in Greenland since May and sessions have been scaled down from the usual length to two 15 minute slots for the younger ones and two 30 minute ones for the older groups, to avoid the children becoming over tired and disengaged. “They are really sweet children and eager to learn,” says Sandra. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how they progress in the New Year.”

*Anna wanted to point out that not all children in Greenland act like this!


On Christmas Eve, Anna (pictured above with her dog, Salma Hayek!) will join her fellow villagers for a longstanding tradition: carol singing around the houses very early in the morning, giving gifts along the way. But she won’t be tucking into turkey later – she let me into a secret as long as I promised not to tell the children: reindeer is the traditional meat at Christmas in her part of Greenland. “It’s true, we eat Rudolph,” she admits.

We would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a peaceful festive season and a very Happy New Year 2017 from the School in the Cloud team.

Credit: Main photo, of the Northern Lights from Anna’s father’s house, is shared with us by kind permission of her sister, Mariane S Heilmann

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!”


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.


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.