21st Century Classroom

Can SOLE offer a solution to the 21st century classroom or is it still in search of pedagogy?

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 ?

Turning the art world on its head

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning art world on its head - robot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.