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.

One small step for a frog, but a giant leap for Cambodia

Have you heard the story about the frog in the well? Well, for Chantha Poeng this Khmer proverb perfectly illustrates why School in the Cloud is so important for Cambodia.

The Frog in the Well (Kong Keb Knong Ondong) knows nothing of great oceans and has a very narrow view of the world. He is king of all he sees and never jumps out; the well is ‘good enough’ for him.

“I want these children to stop being that frog – to get out and experience what life is like elsewhere,” explains Chantha. “This is a chance to experiment, to know and learn new things and have a conversation with the outside world.”

Chantha is the teacher at the School in the Cloud just outside Battambang. It’s the first time we’ve ‘virtually’ met and yet we spend a lot of our time laughing on Skype like we’ve known each other for years. It’s easy to see why the children are so keen to learn with her.

But she has a serious side too: she challenges the young people who come through these doors, encouraging them to be more than they ever thought possible. This approach is a sharp contrast to the country’s traditional, authoritative teaching methods which focus on teachers giving the answers and students learning by rote.

The School in the Cloud, which is run through the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), is based in a fantastic recycled classroom which includes glass bottle walls and painted tyres and is designed to inspire children to think differently about their education.

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Just two weeks ago the Granny Cloud started to ‘beam’ into Cambodia for the first time, bringing much excitement and confusion along with it. Chantha tells me how the children ran to the wall, desperately searching behind the big projector to find where the granny was hiding, as they had never seen anything like it.

For the children who know a little English, they are able to talk with the grannies about the subjects they study at school and what they do in their free time, but for many others, it’s still very hard for them to communicate, although they all love a good sing song!

There are about 10 children at a time in the School in the Cloud, ranging from nine to 16-years-old. They choose their own topics and Chantha sets a Big Question.

When they first join, the children are asked what they want to be when they grow up and who their role models are. This question will be asked again at a later date to see if there are any changes. “Many say they want to be a teacher because that’s all they can think of, but we want to expand their aspirations through the School in the Cloud,” explains Chantha. “This is a new way of learning and we want to encourage them to explore it.”

To begin with, many of the children constantly turn to Chantha for help, but gradually they find their own way as she tries not to tell them much at all about the Big Questions they are tackling. “Suddenly, they say to me ‘teacher, I can do it without you!’ and I say ‘yes, you are doing it – now do you believe you can do it without me?!’” she says. “They are starting to understand it a lot better.”

Attempting a new way of learning is difficult for most people, but many of these children are from nearby slums where good quality education is hard to access. However, Chantha has already seen them start to change their minds. “They are moving from passive to active learning,” she explains. “They thought they could only learn from one computer per person but now realise that’s not true and are getting better and better at working in groups.”

The children are now talking to each other, collaborating, starting to build relationships and changing their behaviour. Where before they fought to solve a problem, now they are more likely to communicate instead.

“This is such an inspiring project – it is a first for me and for this country and I’m excited to be part of bringing about a whole style of learning, not just for Cambodia, but for the whole world,” says Chantha.

The Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) is a secular non-profit NGO helping children to break free from the cycle of poverty to become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.

SOLE translates into a better future for Mexico

My grasp of the Spanish language is limited to ‘hola’ and a few rusty phrases leftover from travelling many years ago, so it was a bit of a shock to suddenly find myself in the middle of a Spanish-speaking classroom. 

‘How would you like to join a SOLE in a few minutes?’ SOLE México co-ordinator Oscar O’Farrill typed on Skype as we were about to start the interview.

I was prepared for asking the questions, rather than being on the other side, but when you work with self organised learning environments you have go with the flow from time to time! Naturally, it was complete chaos, but the smiling, excited faces made it clear from the outset how much SOLE means to these children.

Oscar has been running SOLEs since 2013, initially in a community centre in Tres Marías, Morelos, and for nearly a year in a public school in San Luis Potosi, a small rural community about four hours from México City. Despite many ongoing challenges, SOLE México is going from strength to strength, with exciting plans on the horizon.

Oscar, whose eclectic career includes working in human resources for Coca-Cola and representing his country in ice hockey as a teenager and later as a rugby player, is at the heart of plans to expand SOLE across the country.

A back injury cut his sporting career short and he turned to coaching instead, but always had an interest in psychology, which he went on to study at degree level. “I’ve always been amazed about learning processes,” says Oscar. “Every day I think ‘how does learning happen and how can I make it better?’. My mind is 100% thinking about how the mind works. It’s my passion and I want to find out more.”

For Oscar, SOLE brings together all the factors of coaching, team work and psychology that are important to him. “There’s amazing potential for SOLE in México and thanks to technology finally coming into classrooms, we can reach the furthest places in México where it is most needed,” he says. “What I love most about SOLE is how almost anything can become a Big Question – you really don’t need much to start.”

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Oscar says it takes several months before the children are accustomed to working in a SOLE environment but then they pick up valuable skills in leadership, team working and presentations at a rapid pace. “It takes some time to ‘unlearn’ the traditional approach to start learning in a SOLE,” he explains.

Oscar has also has been ‘granny’ for many sessions. “The Granny Cloud is an amazing way to collaborate in this worldwide effort to redesign education, but as the blog said ‘being a granny is not that easy’,” says Oscar. He added that despite the obvious language barrier, he has seen how non-English speaking children and a non-Spanish speaking granny can communicate. “It may take some time but with patience, joyfulness and motivation, it can surely happen,” he says. “Of course, it is really helpful if you’re a bilingual granny, but that’s certainly not essential!”

Oscar’s team has persevered with getting local schools on board, despite initial reservations. “We’ve visited many schools to give demos and everybody likes it but I can see the fear in their eyes,” he explains. “It seems that some of them are not ready to experience it. But some of them agree it’s a waste of time to continue learning the way we have for hundreds of years.

“How will this be of use to children in the real world in 10 years’ time? Children need to be able to develop personal skills and be able to search for answers, work in teams, have critical thinking, global networking, communication skills, be creative and, of course, know how and why to use technology. These are abilities and values that children need to be better in the future.”

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However, Oscar concedes he also has to take a pragmatic approach. “Traditional teaching methods are difficult to get rid of, so there will be those who are just not ready to have something like this yet, but they’ll get there sooner or later,” he says.

One of the recurring questions he gets from school principals and teachers is ‘How does a SOLE evaluate progress?’ As a result, SOLE México is carrying out research and experiments into this issue with the help of the pedagogy department at Universidad Iberoamericana, led by Dr Cimenna Chao.

“Everyone around the world has the same question – ‘how do we evaluate this?’” says Oscar. “I know I’m not that experienced and nobody knows exactly the right way to do it at the moment – that’s why we’re still carrying out research. But I think each country should be prepared to customise its own SOLE learning process to make it work.”

As private schools in Mexico are reluctant to provide funds, SOLE México is now perfecting the design of a sustainable model to ensure that SOLEs can reach even the poorest public schools.

One such school is the one I ‘beamed’ into, where Veronica Ojeda is constantly looking for new methods and ways to help the children improve. She was the only teacher who came forward after Sugata’s visit to México willing to take a risk with SOLE, so Oscar has been working with her ever since to make it happen.

To put the cost of education into context, there are several different levels of private schooling, ranging from 5,000 to 13,000 pesos a month. An average basic government salary in Mexico is between 5-7,000 pesos a month. A teacher working in a public school earns just 65-70 pesos a day.

So what’s next for SOLE México? Oscar and his team, as you probably won’t be surprised to hear, have big plans. There are now five partners in the team, with expertise covering everything from entrepreneurship to educational technology and psychology, and they already have 38 investors interested in supporting their project through crowd equity funding. They are also about to link up with a start-up dedicated to bringing low-cost internet to remote rural communities in Mexico.

Soon, SOLE México will also start working with a NGO as part of its citizenship programme to bring SOLEs into Mayan communities, where Spanish is their second language. They’re aiming to have 10 SOLEs running as part of that project from January and hopefully open a SOLE centre next year.

We’ll let you know how they get on via social media – you can also follow them on Facebook.

Main photo credit: Blanca Parra

Grannies go for a song

When Sugata Mitra gives you an assignment, you can be pretty sure he’s not going to be impressed with a cut and paste from the Internet.

But it’s not as daunting as it might seem: students report that you simply have to think for yourself, look at things from a different perspective and the rest just fits into place, SOLE-style!

Hilary Meehan, who has just finished a Masters in International Development and Education at Newcastle University, knows this first hand. When asked to tell the story of the Granny Cloud as part of Sugata’s Future of Learning module, she knew she was going to have to push the boundaries a little. “Sugata said he didn’t want a traditional write up,” she says. “He simply told us ‘don’t make it boring’, and didn’t give any more guidance than that.”

She realised most of the students were either doing videos or voice-over slide shows and wanted to do something different, so decided to “go for it” and record a song instead.

Fortunately, her boyfriend is a musician and just happens to have a recording studio in his house. Once she’d bought the rights to the backing track,the lyrics and melodies soon fell into place.

There should be a bit of prior warning, however, before you listen to the track below. “The tune gets seriously stuck inside your head,” says Hilary.“One of the tutors on the course loved it but said he couldn’t shake it for the rest of the day. I hadn’t thought about it in ages until just now and I’ve realised it’s still in there, going round and round!”

Listen to Hilary’s song here.

The 25-year-old used information from the Granny Cloud blog, School in the Cloud website, and also chatted to one of the ‘grannies’ on Skype, to piece together the chronological story of this dedicated group of volunteers and how they approach their sessions.

Hilary, who is originally from Calgary in Canada, has enjoyed being in England so much that she’s just got a job here as an HR policy and research advisor for Durham University. “The course was a big part of the draw to study in England initially – as well as the fact my boyfriend lived here,” she says. “The four- week placement in Delhi, India, where the Hole in the Wall first began, also really appealed to me and was a fantastic experience.”

And did the song impress the tutors? It certainly did: she got a distinction.

Have you got an unusual SOLE story to share with the School in the Cloud community? If so, let sally@theschoolinthecloud.org know!
Granny Cloud lyrics

Who’s a coach, a helper, family and a friend?
Who has compassion and some extra time to spend?
Who’s fun, patient, and ready to help out?
Grandmothers of course, and Skype Grannies in the Cloud!

It’s easy to have a Granny showing kids the right direction
All you need is a computer and an Internet connection!
From India to England, France to Pakistan
All around the world, Grannies show kids, yes they can!

It started with a computer, set in a hole in the wall
And children learned to use it, without any help at all
Now we’ve got a cloud school, and self-organising learning
And through mediated chaos, Grannies keep the wheels turning

Grannies ask big questions, like why is the ocean blue?
Why do your teeth fall out? Why are elephants so huge?
They like to share stories about their countries and their homes
They tell about traditions, of monuments, of snow!

A Granny’s not a teacher they don’t control the conversation
They offer reinforcement, help and admiration
The children help decide what to talk about each day
They learn new words or songs, or about new games to play

Not all Grannies are grandmothers they are moms and brothers too
Nurturing and caring, they’ve got the right attitude
Aunty, dad, or sister, they want children to succeed
Encouragement and guidance, that’s what children really need!

Grannies have so much to offer, children want so much to learn
Children’s eyes can be opened to new parts of the world
Sharing knowledge and caring, it’s a beautiful thing
Watch the work they’re doing, it will make you want to sing

It’s difficult to guess what the Granny’s future holds
But technology spreads fast, with so much knowledge to behold
It’s likely now that people all around the world
Will join in the community and make their voices heard

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!

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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.”

Turning the art world on its head

It’s not enough to turn the education system upside down: SOLE is about to enter a world many of us consider off-limits.

Contemporary art is often portrayed as an elitist world full of large canvases with coloured dots and hefty price tags, but Helen Burns believes it doesn’t have to be that way.

The SOLE Central research fellow has spent her career helping children and adults explore their creativity through contemporary art and now she’s applying all she’s learnt so far to a new exciting project.

Gallery in the Cloud will give school children and other gallery audiences the chance to become curators of their own contemporary art galleries. Supported by the SOLE method of learning collaboratively in groups, they will create digital artworks inspired by their own experiences that will reflect their own individual identities.

The resulting art collection will be self-curated, using cloud-based technology to create an ever-evolving gallery.

“It challenges the usual conventions of a gallery space and turns the concept of an ‘art world’ on its head, focussing instead on the ‘experience’ of art, which is accessible to everyone,’ says Helen.

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This dented war robot (above) is from one of Helen’s previous art-based learning projects. The child who made it said it represented their experience of learning as ‘battered, but not giving up’

Helen is focussing initially on children at transitional periods in their education, such as SATs. “These are tough times for them,” she says. “A combination of the skills and resilience gained through creating contemporary art using SOLE could have a really positive effect on their ability to cope when they’ve got a lot to deal with.

“SOLE pedagogy and contemporary art actually have a lot in common as they can both be good vehicles for developing your own ‘voice’ and there are no wrong answers.”

The artists will be able to constantly revisit their artwork over several years, giving them the opportunity to expand and reflect on what they have already achieved.

As part of this initial development stage, Helen has been in discussion with the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. She would also like to collect ideas, opinions and questions about the project from the School in the Cloud community to help take it forward.

We’ll be re-visiting this story on social media next year, but if you would like contact Helen in the meantime, she can be reached by email.

About Helen
After graduating from Glasgow School of Art, Helen spent 10 years working as an Artist Educator in school and community settings in Scotland and the North East.

Since completing a MA in Library and Information Management, she has worked in cultural and creative education for organisations such as the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and Tyne and Wear Museums.

Formerly a Research Associate at Durham University, Helen is now a SOLE Central Research Fellow at Newcastle University, where she is bringing together SOLE pedagogy and arts-based learning practice. She also teaches art, craft and design on the University’s Primary PGCE course for trainee teachers.

Skyping with the children – Not always easy! by Jackie Barrow

The Granny Cloud reaches out to groups of children across a range of different locations using Skype. It’s fantastic! If the connection is good, you can see each other, hear each other, send text messages, send files and links, share your screens with each other and take photos of each other. So the Grannies conduct sessions where they chat with the children, read stories, play games, make things, do quizzes, sing, dance, share jokes, pictures and video clips, search the internet and share findings. In fact all the sorts of activities that grandparents might share with their grandchildren or good teachers with their pupils.

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But what can’t you do over Skype? Well, you can’t always see how many children have joined the session. You can’t feel how hot, or cold or stuffy or dusty the room might be. You can’t sense the mood of the children or the group dynamics. You can’t know if they’ve been squabbling or joking before they came up to the screen.

You can’t judge the body language or the facial expressions with the same accuracy as you could if you were in the same room. You can’t tell whether the children are hungry or thirsty, tired, frightened, upset.

It’s difficult to assess over Skype whether the child who has just wandered away from the screen has lost interest because they can’t understand, needs the toilet, is feeling unwell or is feeling undermined by the bright, slightly pushy child who has taken control of the microphone.

You can’t always tell whether that long delay before any sort of answer to your last question is offered is because they have absolutely no idea what you are asking or whether in fact one of the children has gone over to another computer to search for the answer to relay to the child at the front. Or is it that the children simply don’t know how to ask you to repeat the question or to write it down. Or perhaps they are worried that you will think them rude or stupid so prefer to say nothing just in case? It is often hard if the audio or picture is poor to reassure them with your voice, expression or body language. It is also difficult to check behaviour which sometimes prevents others from enjoying the session.

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So can we get around these limitations? Well of course this is one of the many challenges our wonderful Granny Cloud team is rising to every day! We can ask the children how they are feeling and help them to develop the necessary English language skills and emotional literacy to do so. We can establish an ethos where not knowing an answer is nothing to be embarrassed about, but rather a spur to further research and questioning. We can discuss different learning styles with the children so that they can come to understand that not everyone learns in the same way, that teamwork is vital and that working together rather than simply trying to outdo each other is often the best way to find answers. We can develop strategies to involve all the children, where speed or oral fluency or self- confidence are not key. This is also where developing a good relationship with the coordinator in the centre can be helpful. They can provide useful background information at the start or give feedback at the end of the session all of which gives insight into what is going on off camera.

So yes, working over Skype does have its limitations. There are things that, if you were in the same room, you would pick up on, deal with and they would probably not be an issue. We look forward to a time when the Granny can control the camera and have a better view of the room, or we have robot cameras and can wander around looking at the children’s screens. But until then we just need to remember how fantastic it is that we can connect in this way and continue to share ideas of how to overcome the limitations.

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Jackie Barrow has been a Granny on the Granny Cloud since the very beginning of this initiative! She is also a member of the core team of the Granny Cloud.

 

The 6th Learning Lab is Officially…Open!

Today we are delighted to celebrate the opening of our 6th learning lab which is located in Phaltan, a small town in Maharashtra, India. Since Sugata Mitra won the TED Prize in 2013, 5 similar environments have been opened in both India and the UK as part of the global experiment in self-organised learning; the final flagship site is due to open in Gocharan early next year.

Initiated by Newcastle University and TED Prize, this lab is the first one located in a school where English is taught as a subject alongside all the others. The language used throughout the school is Marathi, which is the official language of Maharashtra state. “Imagine using an Internet where there is hardly anything at all in your mother tongue – that’s what it’s like for these children,” says Dr Suneeta Kulkarni, Research Director for School in the Cloud.

The new learning lab is specifically designed to facilitate SOLEs, where children collaborate to answer big questions using the internet. These child-focused learning sessions are fuelled by curiosity and discovery, providing children with the space and freedom to explore. It is located close to the school gates and overlooks the playground and residential area, so is easily visible to the local community.

Many lessons were learned from building the other learning labs and these have been taken into account during this construction, including the glass windows stopping at eye-level. “That kind of design where the glass is up to the ceiling is fine in the UK but there’s much more light here and it makes it difficult to see the screen – it also gets too hot!” explains Dr Kulkarni.

Connectivity, as with many of the more rural School in the Cloud sites, is one of the greatest challenges here and so a back-up dongle is being used in case the regular broadband fails.

As might be expected from such a child-centred environment, the children themselves were given a free hand with the furniture; they chose bright colours with red and yellow tables and green chairs. The room is also maintained and run by the Grade 7 students.

Using technology to help facilitate their learning is not new to the children of PSS; the Granny Cloud has been used there since September 2013, so the children are familiar with the concept of educators Skyping in to talk to them from all around the world.

Initially the children were very inhibited and apprehensive about doing a reading test in English. However, six months later everything had changed. “The same students strolled in with their heads high refusing to talk in Marathi,” says Dr Kulkarni. “Even when I spoke to them in Marathi, they replied in English!”

While exploring the internet as part of their Granny Cloud sessions, the children quickly progressed enough to realise that Google translate was not always giving them the most accurate translation so they combined this with a Marathi Wikipedia and other sources to give them a more accurate result. This is one of the key proficiencies being tested in all of the learning labs – whether children can learn by themselves to discriminate between bad and good information. They are also being assessed on reading and basic comprehension and overall confidence levels.

One of the regular ‘Grannies’ to Skype into PSS is Lorraine Schneiter, who has been a big part of these children’s lives most Thursday mornings for the past year. Lorraine, who lives in Southern Spain, has a strong connection to India as she was born in Mumbai to an English mother and Indian father and lived there until she was 12. Many of her family members still live near the lab in Pune. “I understand the life they are living which helps a lot when I’m working with the children,” she explains. “They’re talking a language I understand. In some ways for me it’s about giving something back to India, but I also learn much more from them than they learn from me. It’s so much fun and creative; you can do anything with them and they just love it.”

The headteacher at PSS, Dr Manjiri Nimbkar, explains that the Granny Cloud fulfils a vital role in the school: “Many foreign students and other friends used to visit our school in the past. This enabled the students to talk in English and share thoughts with them. We had always felt the lack of such opportunities recently and had invited several volunteers to our school – but they are not easy to find. That gap is filled by the Granny Cloud.”

Almost the entire school will be involved in the School in the Cloud, with just Year 10 not taking part due to exams. This means research can be carried out on much younger children than previously (six-year-olds). “It will be interesting to see what happens with the really young children,” says Dr Kulkarni. “We’ve already seen they have none of the baggage of the older children and no inhibitions at all – these children had never used a computer before and yet walked straight up to it.”

We look forward to hearing a lot more from the School in the Cloud at PSS as they share their SOLE adventures with us.

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.