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

It’s time to ask SOLE-searching questions

SOLE researchers are getting ready to ‘hack’ the largest education research conference in the UK.

As far as we know, this is the first time that self organized learning has been integrated in this way and it’s likely to come as a bit of a surprise to many delegates at the BERA (British Educational Research Association) conference in Northern Ireland this week.

Gone will be the traditional conference set-up of an attentive audience listening to an authoritative speaker, replaced instead with an audience-led exploration of the technology/pedagogy divide.

Getting down with the kids: a self organized conference session is being led by SOLE Central research fellow Dr Anne Preston.
 Participants will be choosing one of three Big Questions put forward on social media in the lead up to the conference. “Who knows what might happen?” says Anne. “It’s likely, in true SOLE style, to descend into total chaos for a while, but hopefully something meaningful will emerge by the end of it all.”

The idea for this session originally stemmed from the reaction to a keynote given by Sugata Mitra last year at the IATEFL conference. Many English language teaching professionals in the audience notoriously walked out when he suggested that in future teaching would be redundant.

“While we have readily embraced most of what the Internet has to offer with hardly a murmur of dissent, when someone suggests it can also be used to help children teach themselves, it causes a lot of soul searching (no pun intended!) from a fair few educationalists,” says Anne.

So who is right and who is wrong? The indignant teachers or the professor who leads SOLE Central at Newcastle University, a team dedicated to bringing together researchers, practitioners, policy makers and entrepreneurs to expand upon his original research?

Anne says there are plenty of challenging questions around SOLE at the moment, such as how its outcomes can be tested and evaluated.

“Sugata has spoken on numerous occasions about the science behind SOLE, which is based on the notion of a self-organising system – 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,” she says.

“One of the problems with researching a self-organising system is that it doesn’t actually exist in a state that can be ‘empirically’ probed,” explains Anne. “This becomes clearer by comparing the self-organising system of a SOLE to the study of systems in the field of quantum mechanics, where it is impossible to measure a system without disturbing it. Even when disturbed, it’s hard to locate the point at which this occurs.”

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Many schools are struggling with issues around whether technology or pedagogy should take the lead in the creation of the 21st century classroom. From a personal viewpoint, Anne’s keen to use SOLE as a basis to investigate the role technology can play to spark deeper discussions about the pedagogical implications of digital technology.

Those attending the conference are being given the chance to add to the debate on Thursday 17 September when practitioners and researchers from SOLE Central will be initiating the audience-led innovation session, SOLE style.

You may have already seen some of the traffic on our Facebook and Twitter channels to decide on the Big Question up for debate and it has been narrowed down to these three, with one being chosen on the day:

  • Should we give children access to the #internet during examinations?
  • How can we ensure student’s and teacher’s right to privacy when expanding #edtech in #education?
  • What could #edtech offer to children and communities in a time of global refugee crisis?

Why not join in the debate on Twitter with the hashtag #BigQuestionBERA ?

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.”

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.