How to make a jam sandwich, SOLE style

If the average adult sat down to work out how to teach basic coding, they probably wouldn’t naturally think of a jam sandwich.

But that’s exactly what this SOLE group of home schoolers did with their presentation to computer science teachers.

Anna the (real life) robot was given a set of instructions to follow to make the sandwich, which may have resulted in a lot of mess, but certainly got the message across about how to teach the subject far more effectively than a textbook.

Jacqueline Emkes, an e-Learning consultant and part-time maths teacher, runs SOLEs for home educated children at Biddenham International School and Sports College in Bedfordshire, UK.

They have been running since 2013, supported by the college and the local authority’s PLACE programme for children who are not in school but on the Elective Home Education (EHE) Register.

One of the biggest challenges Jacq faces is the diverse age range of her group – from eight to 12-years-old – which means she is often diverted from her original lesson plan. There are usually around 15-20 children, but the numbers fluctuate as families come and go.

“Inevitably ‘normal’ behaviour rules go out the window,” says Jacq. “Children are soon found scrolling the internet lying on the floor, under a desk, on top of a desk, perched on a table. Anything goes – it’s all learning! The children can move around freely, help other groups and indeed swap groups.”
Jacq’s SOLE makes good use of the safe social learning platform Makewaves where they can upload their work to create movies, pictures and stories to share with the group.

They are also encouraged to critique each other’s work (in a positive and helpful way, naturally!) and even family members and the college’s principal have been adding their own comments to help improve student’s work.

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Highlighting just how spontaneous learning in a SOLE can be, one of their research topics which began with Roman toilets ended in a village in the Philippines. It led to the group finding out about Toilet Twinning, which helps to bring clean water and safe sanitation to the world’s poorest people by linking your toilet with one in Africa or Asia. They went on to hold a fundraising event for the charity which the children organised themselves.

“In all the chaos and buzz of a SOLE session parents sometimes wonder what on earth the children have learnt,” says Jacq. “It’s worth explaining that it’s a whole lot more than the answers to the BIG Questions: for example, it’s about working in a multi-age, multi-skilled group; resolving heated debate; and choosing an effective presentation tool.

“Our investigations are not limited by time pressures – the children can work it out until they are satisfied they understand. The ability to set ground rules, negotiate with each other and become socially adept are valuable skills. My input is largely technical as in passwords for iPads and logins for PCs – the children run the sessions themselves.”

Jacqueline says she understands why some parents can be sceptical as SOLE is a pretty abstract concept to grasp a lot of the time. However, she shared a short story with me which she feels helps sums it up:

“I was chatting with a parent and her eight-year-old son about SOLE and all our ideas and plans,” explains Jacq. “When asked ‘what do the children actually learn?’ I looked over at the boy and asked if he could explain something he had learnt, such as what in this room is influenced by Fibonnaci?

“‘Fib who?’ said the mum (and who could blame her?) ‘Well…’ said her son, ‘you see all those art pictures on the wall of this room? Well, the artists did not understand Fibonnaci’s numbers, that it should be a 1 or 2 or 3 or 5 (and so on). Those flowers have 4 petals painted on them so they are not true life, they are not nature’s numbers. That artist did not know about the golden ratio – it’s a ‘dud’.’

“The boy then went onto explain how he would redesign the reception hall as the windows were not quite right. The walls however, were fine apparently!”

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Jacq says that over the past two years she’s learnt that key to a successful SOLE is creating an environment in which it can work properly.

“This includes minimal intervention by adults, which is hard for many teachers to accept or understand,” she explains. “It is moving away from ‘teaching’ in the customary sense towards allowing groups of children to self organise, then learning emerges on its own.”

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.

 

So you think you’ve got SOLE? Sugata Mitra explains the science behind it

Sugata recently appeared on BBC World Service’s The Forum programme to talk about SOLEs and his idea for school exams in the future. We thought you might like to hear some of what was discussed on this blog.

“It’s important to understand the sense in which I use the word ‘self organising system’,” says Sugata. “It’s not organisation of the self. I find increasingly that people mix it up with self-regulated or self-directed learning and that’s not what I’m talking about.

“A self organising system is basically a concept that comes out of maths and physics which is that if you allow a system to be chaotic then, under certain circumstances, you get spontaneous order.

“I think I’ve seen that happen with children quite accidentally; initially I had not a clue that was what was happening. Yet over the last 15 years, in instance after instance, I’ve seen groups of children who simply don’t know any English confronted with the internet in English and making sense of what they see.”

Sugata also talked to BBC host Bridget Kendall about how hole-in-the-wall developed into School in the Cloud in a way that would not have been possible before the Internet, and how it has changed the way children learn.

“When a group reads together they somehow read at much higher levels of comprehension than an individual child,” he explains. “This was not something I’d seen before. The limitations of reading in print means you can’t easily read the same book at the same time in a group, but you can on screen.

“We’ve seen instant amplification of comprehension – as soon as one stumbles, another one steps in to help, creating this spontaneous order.”

Sugata says that this instantaneous feedback from peers, not teachers, taps into the universal idea of emergent order out of a chaotic situation.

His 60 second idea to pitch to the presenter and fellow participants Sir Ken Robinson and Professor Scott Klemmer was for the internet to be allowed into exams.

He argued that schools need to be able to assess children’s ability to live in the world today, not the Victorian age. “For probably the first time in their lives they have to enter an exam room and demonstrate that they can live without the Internet. Why?”

Sugata went on to point out that if the internet was allowed into exams, this would cause the whole education system to change to better reflect the world we live in.

“If you need to know something you can now know it instantly– today’s children have not seen another world,” says Sugata. “The standardised education system of putting facts into their brains and then examining to see if has been retained doesn’t mean anything to them. ‘Why do I have to know how to multiply by hand with pen and pencil?’ they ask me.”

This special Forum edition Cloud Education: The Future of Learning was about the big challenges facing education today and how we ensure everyone can learn to the best of their ability. It explored these questions and more with future learning, educational and creative leader Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK and Scott Klemmer, Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science and Engineering, University of California, USA.

Listen to the full programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02qm95w

(R to L) Sir Ken Robinson introduces 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra at TED2013. Long Beach, CA. February 25 - March 1, 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson
(R to L) Sir Ken Robinson introduces 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra at TED2013. Long Beach, CA. February 25 – March 1, 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

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.