A promising new start

This September, for the first time in 14 years, Joe Jamison didn’t walk into his classroom excited for the new school year.

However, it’s not yet another disillusioned public school teacher story: Joe’s so fired up about education that he’s prepared to step way outside his comfort zone.

So much so that he’s done something he vowed he would never do – get an office job. Although granted it’s a little different from the norm: they’ve just put him on plane to West Africa.

Joe’s now working for Pencils of Promise (PoP) after a series of serendipitous events which began after he watched Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize talk.

“I saw Sugata’s talk and was blown away. I thought ‘Oh man, I have to find out how to do that in my classroom’,” he says. “So I took it, tweaked it and played with it a little and in the first week of the new school year in 2013 I just hit the ground running with my 5th graders. I was fortunate to have a lot of admin support behind me and the kids took to it very quickly – it just took off.”

Joe has worked closely with the School in the Cloud team at Newcastle University ever since and when it came to selecting a class to feature as part of the Work Wonders Project collaboration between Sugata, Microsoft and PoP, his was an obvious choice.

Once they’d see him in action running a SOLE with students at Lawrence Intermediate School in New Jersey, USA the PoP team wanted Joe onboard to help set up SOLEs (self organised learning environments) in their schools in Ghana.

When I spoke to him last week he was about to embark on his first trip outside of North America, to West Africa. He left last Saturday on a six-day trip to the Volta region, where he will be visiting new build sites and running teacher training sessions as well as SOLEs. There are two schools in Ghana – in Toklokpo and Agorhome – where SOLEs have been piloted with 5th and 6th graders since January 2014.

“I’ve tried Googling the places I’m visiting but they’re so remote they don’t show up,” says Joe. “It just hasn’t sunk in yet that I’m going as it’s so far removed from anything I’ve ever experienced. Pencils of Promise is doing some pretty innovative work there and I’m just excited to get my feet on the ground and get my hands dirty.”

Joe’s school district has given him a year of absence to take up the position. “They’ve been so supportive and generous about letting me go and work for someone else because they knew I had to do this,” he says. “I knew in my heart of hearts this was something I couldn’t pass up and I feel so blessed to be here and have this opportunity. Here I am working on something so awesome that I feel so passionate about – it’s certainly not an everyday office job.”

But it wasn’t a decision he took lightly. Joe told me the contract sat on his desk for over a week before he signed it. He knew it would mean a long daily commute between his home in Pennsylvania and New York (a journey made more bearable as his wife works for Amtrak, the national US passenger train service, so he can be door to door in about one and a half hours) as well as time abroad away from his wife and young family.

“In the end it was my wife who said ‘What is that still doing on your desk? Just sign it, you have to do this – we’ll find a way to work it out,” says Joe. “She’s been unbelievably supportive. One thing the SOLE process has taught me more than anything is that no meaningful learning ever takes place inside of your comfort zone. I saw this as an opportunity for me to learn and grow both as a person and a professional. I want my kids to be able to look at what their Dad’s doing and give them a more global view of the world.”

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Joe says the work in Ghana is going to ‘change the way they think about education forever’. He explained how it is opening teachers up to resources they didn’t even know existed. “I’m used to being able to drop everything and do a SOLE whenever I feel like it,” he says. “In Ghana, we turn up with tablets and hotspots on a schedule, so that will take some of the spontaneity out of it, but it is still workable. As they know when we’re coming, they can work it into teaching the curriculum.”

Although teaching methods in West Africa are more traditional than Joe is used to, he’s not phased by the prospect. “I don’t think teaching culture is so different across the world,” he says. “I’ve worked with some pretty old-school teachers in the US who wonder what on earth I’m doing. I’ve always thought the biggest obstacle to SOLE working is the teachers themselves.”

Joe concedes it’s hard for any teacher to step back and let the kids take the lead and that many feel threatened by someone like Sugata coming along. “It’s not his plan to replace teachers as some think – he’s said they are 100% necessary to steer the process,” says Joe. “What is needed, is for teachers to change how they do things. When something like SOLE comes along it really does raise the bar in a good way and shakes it up. I’ve seen the results and I think teachers just have to be excited.”

While out in Ghana, Joe will also be seeing the results of PoP’s e-reader pilots to improve English acquisition at primary schools, which is now being expanded to serve 3,000 students at 28 PoP schools. Children are measured using the standard EGRA(Early Grade Reading Assessment) indicator and will also be tested on how much they later retain of the concepts they are taught, with SOLE methods now being integrated into the learning.

One thing Joe is making sure is definitely in his carry-on is his laptop, so he can Skype his family. He says being apart from them will be the hardest part, but that he realises he’s a man on a mission. “Ever since high school I’ve wanted to make an impact,” he says. “I don’t care if people remember me. I just want the impact I made to be remembered.”

Follow Joe on Twitter @josephmjamison
Main photo credit: Natasha Scripture, TED.

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.