VIDEO: In Kalkaji SOLE, it’s all about earning respect

It may be a tiny research lab, but Kalkaj in Delhi certainly packs a lot in. There are almost daily Granny Cloud sessions and a seemingly endless stream of visitors since it opened two years ago.

Located in a government girls’ school just a stone’s throw from the original Hole in the Wall, this lab is helping to give young people the opportunity to aim high.

Sometimes I find it’s better to leave others to say the words for you and when that individual is Jaya, who has firm views about how she wants to change the world, it’s a no-brainer.

This short interview above, taken from footage by filmmakers Dan Oxenhandler, Will Sloan and Alfred Birkegaard, perfectly illustrates how much a SOLE lab means to children like Jaya, who are inspired to aim high thanks to this interaction.

And it’s not just the children who have benefited from this experience over the past two years, many members of the Granny Cloud also Skype in regularly and love taking sessions here. “From the very beginning they were a bubbly, enthusiastic group displaying a lot of confidence,” says ‘granny’ Edna Sackson, who is based in Melbourne, Australia. “They were able to understand my English and my accent and many responded well in full sentences. It’s great to see how they work collaboratively and offer each other support.”

Sunita Lama, who is based in Dubai, echoes these sentiments. “The Granny Cloud session is always such a boost for a teacher like me and the reason is the innocent effort of each child to participate,” she says. “Though they are young minds, I like to challenge them because critical thinking and analysis are important skills and with so much knowledge available, I personally feel there should be no limitations drawn, especially if it is probing into topics that will benefit them. It is lovely seeing a young bunch of enthusiasts and interacting – these young girls have a lot of eagerness and zeal.”

The children using this lab are in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. Although the school is Hindi medium, one section is English medium across all classes and it’s this group that uses the SOLE lab.

Children coming to the school are from the lower socio economic classes, whose mothers are either domestic helpers or housewives. The parents’ educational level is also very low.

Kajal Gupta has been the local co-ordinator at this lab since last July. She says she has seen a big change in herself as well as the girls, despite it taking some time for them to feel comfortable and realize that she wasn’t going to tell them what to do like a teacher would! “I am very happy to be a part of this project because it is amazing to bring improvement in the students like this,” she says.

Kajal has seen the girls’ confidence and self-assurance grow tremendously, so much so that they are unfazed by the many media crews and VIP guests who regularly turn up to find out more about the SOLE lab. Every day there are usually granny sessions in the lab and Kajal finds that the students would much rather study there than anywhere else in the school, despite its size!

In the ASER tests of English reading comprehension, early research shows an improvement of nearly 10% on the baseline a year ago.

Kalkaji SOLE is located in a government school for girls. The school runs in the morning, as the premises are shared with the boys who attend school in the afternoons. It is among the smallest of the School in the Cloud labs, with a handful of computers, one of which is connected to Skype during Granny Cloud sessions. The girls who use the SOLE are typically 11-15 years-old from the lower socio-economic classes who attend the English section of an otherwise Hindi medium school.

Grannies on tour: India

“It is only years later that people will realise the effects of the Granny Cloud on the lives of children. It will be a story of patience and unassuming achievement” – Professor Sugata Mitra

The Granny Cloud is going on tour this month to India. On February 13 2016, a number of these dedicated volunteers are flying out to meet the children and co-ordinators they have been talking to via Skype for years. Only a handful have ever actually met face-to-face.

Along with a conference in Phaltan where educators, children and grannies from all over the world will be sharing their expertise and stories, they will also be touring four or the five Indian TED SOLE research labs – Gocharan, Korakati, Chandrakona and Phaltan to find out more about what happens behind the scenes.

Professor Sugata Mitra will join Dr Suneeta Kulkarni and colleagues in welcoming these amazing individuals to India, where they are sure to go down a storm with the children and teachers they meet on their travels. Look out for updates on the blog, Facebook and Twitter during their trip!

And for everyone’s viewing pleasure, a film some of you may have seen before, but Liz Fewing’s ‘jelly moment’ went down in history so we thought we’d share it again! Liz is already in travelling in India and she’ll be one of the grannies sharing their experience with us.

Thanks to Jerry Rothwell for his kind permission to use this video.

Hello Sugata, Hello Uganda!

Most of us take Skype for granted these days, but for a group of children in sub-Saharan Africa it’s nothing short of magic.

Yesterday morning Sugata beamed into Hello Hub Uganda to talk to a group of children who had never used this technology before. Initially, there was a lot of nervous giggling while it sunk in that when they waved, this strange man on the computer screen responded to them in real time.

However, within a matter of minutes the community at St James Primary School gained in confidence, with one student asking Sugata where he was in the world. When he responded with a description of the harsh reality of weather in North East England this time of year, their faces were a mixture of fear and disgust – they decided pretty quickly they weren’t keen on the idea of winter!

“It’s a lovely moment when they realise they’re actually talking to a real person who can see and hear them too,” explains Katrin Macmillan, CEO and founder of Projects for All, which is installing these Hello Hubs – solar-powered outdoor computer stations – across sub-Saharan Africa.

But this wasn’t just memorable for the children – it was also a significant event for Katrin Macmillan and Roland Wells. They were inspired to set up Hello Hubs after watching Sugata’s TED talk ‘Build a School in the Cloud’ so having him Skype into the project was a dream come true.

“Seeing children access the Internet for the very first time is a moving and humbling event to witness and it’s great to link Sugata into a Hub as he’s the reason we’re here,” explains Katrin. “Without him we wouldn’t know so much about child-led education and his research helped to define this project. This was a chance for Sutaga to welcome the children at the Hello Hub to the world’s body of knowledge, and also an opportunity for us to thank him, to say ‘you inspired this’.”

medium_4eaf5b95-2a3f-480c-a770-c0cb7f0697b1

It was an encounter that only lasted a matter of minutes but is likely to have a lasting effect on everyone involved. One of the most touching moments for Projects for All partner in Uganda Drew Edwards was when one of the children asked Sugata ‘What is your tribe?’. With a smile he replied, ‘I am Indian and within my country my tribe is Bengali. What tribe are you?’.

Then followed ‘a beautiful moment of chaos’ when everyone raised their voices to explain their tribe and languages (there are 69 across Uganda). 

Sugata also answered questions about his job as a professor and asked the group a mini ‘Big Question’ about trees to illustrate how the Internet can be used to explore ideas and come up with answers.

Katrin was a human rights advocate staying on the Ethiopian border with the Hamar tribe, arguably one of the most marginalized in the world, when she realized existing educational philanthropic gestures were simply not working. Everywhere she looked there were crumbling schools that had been built but not maintained, and no teachers or resources.

“After watching Sugata’s talk I started to talk to Roland about how we can adapt all this research into an environment where there are no schools or teachers,” she says. 

The answer, they realised, lay in community-led development. All the Hello Hubs are built by the community so they not only have ownership of the project, but also know how to maintain and repair their Hello Hub. This is a significant paradigm shift from the traditional aid model.

There have also been some ingenious techniques to prevent teenage boys from monopolising the Hub. “We were scratching our heads about how to solve this problem,” explains Katrin. 

“Fortunately, Sugata (who is also on the Projects for All Board) knew exactly what to do – drop one of the Hub screens right down low to the ground. We also had the children design and paint the children’s side of the Hub themselves – there aren’t many teenage boys who want to sit on a tiny little rainbow bench to use a computer!”

medium_a5bb22e3-a274-421a-b6bc-2e0d472c2c1e

Katrin tells me how she has valued being able to tap into the wealth of experience within Sugata’s team, which has given her strength in the difficult times. “You have to believe education for all children is possible before you even begin,” she says. “This kind of work can be demoralizing at times, so it’s important that NGOs support each other to bring about change for those born into terrible inequality. Nothing less than reaching every child with top quality education will do.”

She explains that although Sugata’s talk resonates with many people and they believe in what he says, it is difficult for the majority to get past the post-industrial educational system so many of us have grown up with as the ultimate paradigm. As a result, very few foundations will take a risk on something this innovative.

But Katrin found support from innovators Lessons For Life Foundation and Stephen Dawson, who have just helped install four Hello Hubs in the central and western regions of Uganda, bringing Internet access and digital education to communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, where over 134 million children are not in school.

Katrin tells me it’s also having an impact on the adults. The first thing they wanted to ask the Internet was who built the Ugandan National Monument. Once they were satisfied that it knew the answer, and so could be trusted with more complex questions, they went onto ask why Africans are black while Europeans are white.

Projects for All was established as a non-profit organization which exists to give developing communities the tools they need to thrive. During the first build for their Project Hello World initiative in 2013, a Hello Hub was installed in Suleja, Nigeria. Now they’re a US and UK charity with Hello Hubs across Africa. Their aim is to reach more than two million people within the next five years across Africa and the Middle East.

“Sugata started a movement that is changing how we think about education, and we’re really proud to be a part of that” – Katrin.

You can follow Projects for All on Facebook and Twitter

One small step for a frog, but a giant leap for Cambodia

Have you heard the story about the frog in the well? Well, for Chantha Poeng this Khmer proverb perfectly illustrates why School in the Cloud is so important for Cambodia.

The Frog in the Well (Kong Keb Knong Ondong) knows nothing of great oceans and has a very narrow view of the world. He is king of all he sees and never jumps out; the well is ‘good enough’ for him.

“I want these children to stop being that frog – to get out and experience what life is like elsewhere,” explains Chantha. “This is a chance to experiment, to know and learn new things and have a conversation with the outside world.”

Chantha is the teacher at the School in the Cloud just outside Battambang. It’s the first time we’ve ‘virtually’ met and yet we spend a lot of our time laughing on Skype like we’ve known each other for years. It’s easy to see why the children are so keen to learn with her.

But she has a serious side too: she challenges the young people who come through these doors, encouraging them to be more than they ever thought possible. This approach is a sharp contrast to the country’s traditional, authoritative teaching methods which focus on teachers giving the answers and students learning by rote.

The School in the Cloud, which is run through the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), is based in a fantastic recycled classroom which includes glass bottle walls and painted tyres and is designed to inspire children to think differently about their education.

medium_6eb66ca2-b592-4282-9540-0df1120d5be3

Just two weeks ago the Granny Cloud started to ‘beam’ into Cambodia for the first time, bringing much excitement and confusion along with it. Chantha tells me how the children ran to the wall, desperately searching behind the big projector to find where the granny was hiding, as they had never seen anything like it.

For the children who know a little English, they are able to talk with the grannies about the subjects they study at school and what they do in their free time, but for many others, it’s still very hard for them to communicate, although they all love a good sing song!

There are about 10 children at a time in the School in the Cloud, ranging from nine to 16-years-old. They choose their own topics and Chantha sets a Big Question.

When they first join, the children are asked what they want to be when they grow up and who their role models are. This question will be asked again at a later date to see if there are any changes. “Many say they want to be a teacher because that’s all they can think of, but we want to expand their aspirations through the School in the Cloud,” explains Chantha. “This is a new way of learning and we want to encourage them to explore it.”

To begin with, many of the children constantly turn to Chantha for help, but gradually they find their own way as she tries not to tell them much at all about the Big Questions they are tackling. “Suddenly, they say to me ‘teacher, I can do it without you!’ and I say ‘yes, you are doing it – now do you believe you can do it without me?!’” she says. “They are starting to understand it a lot better.”

Attempting a new way of learning is difficult for most people, but many of these children are from nearby slums where good quality education is hard to access. However, Chantha has already seen them start to change their minds. “They are moving from passive to active learning,” she explains. “They thought they could only learn from one computer per person but now realise that’s not true and are getting better and better at working in groups.”

The children are now talking to each other, collaborating, starting to build relationships and changing their behaviour. Where before they fought to solve a problem, now they are more likely to communicate instead.

“This is such an inspiring project – it is a first for me and for this country and I’m excited to be part of bringing about a whole style of learning, not just for Cambodia, but for the whole world,” says Chantha.

The Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) is a secular non-profit NGO helping children to break free from the cycle of poverty to become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.

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.”

medium_76c50d61-2085-463f-a7cb-60f7dce6538d

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.”

medium_0ce800d9-c8d0-4781-8578-93e26ed28393

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

Grannies go for a song

When Sugata Mitra gives you an assignment, you can be pretty sure he’s not going to be impressed with a cut and paste from the Internet.

But it’s not as daunting as it might seem: students report that you simply have to think for yourself, look at things from a different perspective and the rest just fits into place, SOLE-style!

Hilary Meehan, who has just finished a Masters in International Development and Education at Newcastle University, knows this first hand. When asked to tell the story of the Granny Cloud as part of Sugata’s Future of Learning module, she knew she was going to have to push the boundaries a little. “Sugata said he didn’t want a traditional write up,” she says. “He simply told us ‘don’t make it boring’, and didn’t give any more guidance than that.”

She realised most of the students were either doing videos or voice-over slide shows and wanted to do something different, so decided to “go for it” and record a song instead.

Fortunately, her boyfriend is a musician and just happens to have a recording studio in his house. Once she’d bought the rights to the backing track,the lyrics and melodies soon fell into place.

There should be a bit of prior warning, however, before you listen to the track below. “The tune gets seriously stuck inside your head,” says Hilary.“One of the tutors on the course loved it but said he couldn’t shake it for the rest of the day. I hadn’t thought about it in ages until just now and I’ve realised it’s still in there, going round and round!”

Listen to Hilary’s song here.

The 25-year-old used information from the Granny Cloud blog, School in the Cloud website, and also chatted to one of the ‘grannies’ on Skype, to piece together the chronological story of this dedicated group of volunteers and how they approach their sessions.

Hilary, who is originally from Calgary in Canada, has enjoyed being in England so much that she’s just got a job here as an HR policy and research advisor for Durham University. “The course was a big part of the draw to study in England initially – as well as the fact my boyfriend lived here,” she says. “The four- week placement in Delhi, India, where the Hole in the Wall first began, also really appealed to me and was a fantastic experience.”

And did the song impress the tutors? It certainly did: she got a distinction.

Have you got an unusual SOLE story to share with the School in the Cloud community? If so, let sally@theschoolinthecloud.org know!
Granny Cloud lyrics

Who’s a coach, a helper, family and a friend?
Who has compassion and some extra time to spend?
Who’s fun, patient, and ready to help out?
Grandmothers of course, and Skype Grannies in the Cloud!

It’s easy to have a Granny showing kids the right direction
All you need is a computer and an Internet connection!
From India to England, France to Pakistan
All around the world, Grannies show kids, yes they can!

It started with a computer, set in a hole in the wall
And children learned to use it, without any help at all
Now we’ve got a cloud school, and self-organising learning
And through mediated chaos, Grannies keep the wheels turning

Grannies ask big questions, like why is the ocean blue?
Why do your teeth fall out? Why are elephants so huge?
They like to share stories about their countries and their homes
They tell about traditions, of monuments, of snow!

A Granny’s not a teacher they don’t control the conversation
They offer reinforcement, help and admiration
The children help decide what to talk about each day
They learn new words or songs, or about new games to play

Not all Grannies are grandmothers they are moms and brothers too
Nurturing and caring, they’ve got the right attitude
Aunty, dad, or sister, they want children to succeed
Encouragement and guidance, that’s what children really need!

Grannies have so much to offer, children want so much to learn
Children’s eyes can be opened to new parts of the world
Sharing knowledge and caring, it’s a beautiful thing
Watch the work they’re doing, it will make you want to sing

It’s difficult to guess what the Granny’s future holds
But technology spreads fast, with so much knowledge to behold
It’s likely now that people all around the world
Will join in the community and make their voices heard

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.”

medium_379cc1c3-917a-4695-8f57-daf11e90e488

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.

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.

NLSM 23Oct09 smiles all around

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.

medium_04a2ba73-4991-41eb-9ecf-c098c9253b8b

medium_04a2ba73-4991-41eb-9ecf-c098c9253b8b

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.

medium_786e1ec7-38b7-4acb-8bb9-2e6734d0077f

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.

 

Touching the clouds at Gocharan

Most journeys in India involve a fair few sharp intakes of breath for those unfamiliar with the infamous driving: creating three or even four lanes where there is officially two is commonplace and the horn is a means of constant communication. So I was pleasantly surprised to suddenly pull up outside Area 0 at Gocharan after a relatively short and relatively uneventful road trip from Kolkata.

And what a sight to behold! It was like turning up at an elaborate Indian wedding – flowers strewn everywhere, shehnai music blaring out and women milling around in their best saris. I felt somewhat under-dressed for such an occasion.

medium_e8f46cf6-5f04-4c35-861f-4cea19494868

We were met by Ashish Biswas, Ted Prize labs project manager, looking as proud and slightly apprehensive as any father of the bride. One of the most rewarding parts of this trip has been meeting people in person who I would normally only communicate with via email or phone or Skype, such as Ashish.

Before all the formalities began and the light began to fade, I decided to tackle the challenge set down by Sarah Schoengold at TED – to get a photograph which illustrated the unique honeycomb design of Area 0. The design of this flagship lab was actually the first Sugata sketched out very early on in the project.

medium_be5621a1-8256-4311-a153-3df68e92e423

I never thought it would be that easy, but I didn’t actually think I would personally be scaling great heights to achieve it. A trip to the roof of the nearby nursing home resulted in a good, but not complete shot (above). So it was off down a dirt track and into the darkness of a bemused local man’s house to climb his many stairs to his roof across the way.

Unfortunately, this view was blocked by some impressively tall coconut trees so my trusty companion had a brainwave and, as we didn’t understand each other’s language, simply beckoned me to follow him up a spiral staircase onto the roof of Area 0 (fortunately I have a good head for heights). When he realised I still couldn’t get the hexagon from there either, he decided to help me up to the actual pinnacle of the roof, much to the bemusement of the gathering crowd below. Don’t anyone let the University know though, as this wasn’t on my risk assessment…

medium_a762d839-36e4-45cc-8236-8299f2d39266

I was somewhat relieved to be safely back on terra firma and for something else to be the focus of attention, namely the opening ceremony, which began with a blessing. Candles are lit and a song is performed to invoke the blessings of the gods and is symbolic of driving away darkness and ignorance to let knowledge spread – a fitting analogy to the School in the Cloud’s ethos.

medium_5f7b674d-b782-4e28-ac88-755a012b6504

There followed a speech by Sugata explaining what School in the Cloud meant and how it differed from regular schools and that, used wisely, it can open up new horizons for the children in the future in terms of career paths.

Beautiful dancing and singing and input from B.K. Basu, who heads the NGO that initiated and maintains the Chandrakona School in the Cloud site, followed and then it was time for what everyone had been patiently waiting for – the chance to try out the School in the Cloud.

medium_24f6009d-745e-4039-8c57-2b279eefacfd

As there were so many children to get through, they had to be called in batches and a huge crowd formed all around the hexagon’s glass walls to see in while they waited patiently outside. It was such a melee of people and shoes outside that it wasn’t until several hours later that I was able to reunite my left sandal with the right!

medium_08b373b8-e3b7-4423-9d4f-89f2b5720c3d

Paint and games were popular with the children and, once over their initial shyness, speaking with Katy Milne from Area 6 at Greenfields in Newton Aycliffe, UK over Skype was a real hit. She picked a real challenge for her first appearance as a ‘Granny’ – the noise and learning going on right ‘at the very edge of chaos’ made conversation pretty tricky.

All too soon the last of the children filed out and made for home with their parents and Area 0 became suddenly quiet. As we left, tired but content, the blue neon sign became visible in the darkness, signalling to everyone passing by that Area 0 was here to stay.

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.