Poonam Thakur

Organisation: SOLE Dallas Montessori Education

Poonam is a certified Montessori teacher and experimenting with homeschooling approach over the years.

Poonam believes that the advantages of the SOLE process for the kids as self-learning and work collaboratively in groups, allowing kids time and space to innovate with big questions or follow avenues of interest to them, and helps develop the critical evaluation skills which are so necessary when using the internet to do research. Continue reading

A little bit of paradise

A new venture in rural Goa aims to transform how India approaches mainstream education.

Paradise School Goa’s director, Shilpa Mehta, was born and raised in the UK, re-locating to Goa when her daughter was just two-years-old. When India-Fire was of school age, she decided to set up her own local primary school. Shilpa’s approach to education has been influenced by Maria Montessori’s teaching, which she became interested in before she moved to India.

Now her daughter has turned 12, she’s taking on another educational challenge: to set up Paradise School Goa – a secondary school in a 400-year-old mansion based purely on Professor Sugata Mitra’s SOLE (self-organised learning environment) principles.

The seed was sown for her latest venture while attending a conference in Jaipur as a Google Educator in 2015. She realised that schools could be communities of collaboration and support, not just places of mass instruction: this was the kind of school she wanted to set up.

When she discovered Professor Mitra’s TED talk shortly after, Shilpa felt it was ‘just like Montessori – but with computers’ and it spurned her on to create Paradise School Goa, with the aim of bringing SOLEs into mainstream education.

“SOLE is a very simple, but powerful idea,” she explains. “I just thought ‘this can really work – let’s go for it!’”

Shilpa met with Professor Mitra in the UK and told him her story. Inspired by his encouragement (he is an advisor to the school) and support from colleagues at SOLE Central in the UK, she is now a partner in Newcastle University’s dedicated SOLE research centre, helping to gather research data.

The school opened its doors in September, with the dedicated SOLE room officially opened by Sugata on 14th October 2016. Housed in the former ballroom, the space allows for the maximum amount of interaction and movement, which is ideal for self-organised learning.

“India is ready for this new type of education,” explains Shilpa. “Here in Goa, I can carve a creative path, set the example for others. I don’t want to set up just another school but a really good one from the ground up that can make a difference, adding meaning and value to childrens’ lives.”

Paradise School is about giving children the skills for 21st century living, and Shilpa maps the curriculum to the IGCSE curriculum (she will also be aiming for International Cambridge Board accreditation).

Paradise School is located in Aldona, Goa, India.

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

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.

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.