Should there be one universal language in educational technology?
Why do we need robots to work for us if so many people do not have jobs?
Can you measure the speed of internet with a formula for speed as in regular physics?
Is there any technological development among indiginous communities (e.g.basarwa of Botswana ) living in their natural habitats?
How did each big advancement in communication change our lives?
SOLE Argentina aims to promote the SOLE methodology so that it becomes a well-known pedagogical theory which is shared, implemented and experienced by Argentine teachers on a regular basis. We aim to promote and advance 21st Century skills amongst primary and secondary students and teachers and enable them to fully participate and succeed in an interconnected global society. Our ultimate goal is to design and implement a set of educational policies based on the main tenets of the SOLE approach. To accomplish our vision, we have built a network of public-private partnerships with education professionals, NGOs, government and civil society agents.
As well as working in close cooperation with SOLE Central, we are setting up a research hub in Buenos Aires, Argentina through IITA (Institute of Research and Technology and Learning), a University of Buenos Aires agency.
Non-digital natives never cease to be amazed at how quickly small children learn to interact with technology, especially since many of us hadn’t even encountered computers until we were in our teens or older.
And at Area 4 Phaltan SOLE lab in India researchers are seeing first hand just how naturally this comes to very young children just six and seven-years-old.
Phaltan is an important research centre for SOLE. It is one of two School in the Cloud labs created inside a school and here Grades 1 to 7 are all involved in self-organized learning. Not only did the children help design the lab, they also take responsibility for it and have participated in many different kinds of ‘experiments’, including connecting with George Stephenson High School in the UK for joint SOLE sessions.
A key focus of research at this lab is to see what happens with the younger children. While early intervention is effective in most educational circumstances, School in the Cloud research director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni and one of the grannies, Prasanna Hulikavi, (now on a break to work on her doctoral research) were particularly keen to see how SOLE would impact Grades 1 and 2.
“We realized straight away that they had none of the inhibitions of the older children,” explains Suneeta. “From their very first day in the lab they just rushed to the computers to try them out – they had no worries about breaking anything or doing it wrong. The teachers were amazed how quickly found Google and began searching without anyone telling them anything.”
Suneeta told me how the teachers at A4 Phaltan have embraced SOLE even though they don’t completely understand it, instinctively recognising that it’s working for the children. “There was one teacher who was very strongly against it and was very angry with me the first time we welcomed the children to the lab and told him he should ‘stay away’,” explains Suneeta. “He didn’t see how it could work without telling them what to do, asking me ‘how can these little children figure it out?’. He’s now my biggest convert!”
On their own initiative, the teachers at A4 Phaltan have set up their own WhatsApp group to communicate with each other about what’s happening in the lab and to share updates and pictures.
Teachers in India do not undergo the kind of extensive training offered in many other countries and can often lack confidence as a result.
Suneeta explained how they initially thought it was easy for her to do SOLEs because she ‘knew a lot’. “I told them knowing a great deal is not necessary at all – but you do need to be open to trying it out and also learning a whole lot along the way yourself,” she says. “Rather than knowing everything and telling them, you just have to be able to keep on questioning in an encouraging manner. Then the kids keep exploring many different directions because they want to find out more stuff on their own.”
Suneeta’s fellow researcher Prasanna’s PhD focuses specifically on reading comprehension and digital literacy and the overall experience of these younger children in the School in the Cloud lab. While a second round of assessment is currently under way, early indications show that the children already recognize quite a few of the letters of the English alphabet (they are taught in their local language, Marathi, at school) and some words.
But more importantly, they are also beginning to respond and have conversations in broken English. They are also confident in how to use the computers – this week, for example, one six year-old went around adjusting everyone’s speaker volumes!
Phaltan just celebrated its first anniversary last week (December 3) and the youngest children have been using the lab since it opened, with the Granny Cloud brought in for this age group in July. The Granny sessions allow for craft and art work and for children to proudly show off their creations, building on the encouragement the school provides for such activities.
Val Almond, who regularly Skypes into this lab from the UK, loves her sessions with the younger children. “The best thing is their energy and enthusiasm,” she says. “They are uninhibited and spontaneous and eager to learn and engage. It is good that they are not dependent on or constrained by an adult, but on the other hand it can make it difficult to make sure I have their attention and they are on task.
“I did wonder how much the children were getting out of it and how much they were learning as sometimes it seems they are ‘all over the place’ but Prakash (who co-ordinates the lab with Madhura) says he has heard them using English words and saying they enjoy the sessions, so maybe they are picking up more than I think!”
The intention is that these children will find tackling Big Questions in SOLEs much easier and more meaningful when they are older as the process already makes sense to them and they are comfortable with the technology.
Future plans include trying basic SOLEs with even younger children – three and four-year-olds. “This kind of interaction comes naturally to them as they’ve just entered school and are learning new things all the time,” says Suneeta. “It’s no big deal to learn another language at pre-school level.”
Currently, the children’s time in the lab is limited (once a week for about 40 minutes) because there are so many children in the school who want to use it. This is their only exposure to computers and researchers worry it may be too little to have any long-term benefit. “Time will tell whether more ‘free time’ in the lab or increased interaction with the Granny Cloud will prove useful, but in the meantime, the kids are having a ball!’ says Suneeta.
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’.”
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!”
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.
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.”
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 ?