Grannies to the core

We catch up with Liz Fewings, one of the members of the Granny Cloud Core Team, to talk about its origins and what the future holds.

Liz, a self-confessed ‘cloudaholic’, has been part of this project since 2009, when it first began. Like many others, she responded to an article in The Guardian newspaper in the UK which asked for retired teachers to volunteer an hour each week to talk with children in India.

“Back then we were a small band of English men and women, many of whom had never even heard of this strange thing called Skype, let alone actually used it,” says Liz. Following a long telephone conversation with Newcastle University, she then had to work out how to install Skype ahead of her first call to India.

“I was so anxious, waiting at home with a reassuring cup of tea within reach,” Liz admits. “And suddenly there was Suneeta (Kulkarni), in a hotel ‘somewhere in India’ with her own mug of tea and a beaming smile – and that was me hooked! Just two ladies chatting over a cup of tea which set the tone for the years to come.”

In those early days, communication was through email and a Wiki, which was rather formal and didn’t offer any real chance for the Grannies to get to know each other. However, following the first Granny Cloud conference in Newcastle, UK in 2010, friendships started to form and a Facebook group was set up shortly after, which remains an important and active community today. Prof Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize nomination was even made through this group!

“Facebook is where we support each other, share new ideas, get glimpses of the centres and keep up to date with what is happening,” says Liz. “Posts are monitored by the Core Team so that if someone is in distress or there is a technical problem, we can quickly respond. However, it is mostly the Grannies themselves who leap in offering support and empathy if a session hasn’t gone to plan.”


Liz Fewings talking with children in Pune, during the Granny Cloud India visit

Despite no funding available for a few years, Suneeta and a few of the Grannies kept the Granny Cloud going at the Ganga Learning Centre in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh and Khelghar, Pune, Maharashtra because they had developed relationships with these centres and believed strongly in the concept.

The Granny Cloud grew following the TED Prize in 2013 but once the new platform launched the demand was becoming too much for Suneeta to handle in her trademark friendly-style. Then disaster struck shortly after when she was involved in a car crash which left her immobile and not in a position to work for some time, despite her still trying to from her hospital bed (much to the chagrin of the Grannies!)

Ritu Dangwal stepped into the breach in India and the Core Team – consisting of Clive Elsmore, Jackie Barrow and Liz in the UK, Edna Sackson in Australia and Suneeta (once she recovered) in India – was born to keep the Granny Cloud operational. Its members, like the rest of the Granny Cloud, all generously give up their time for free.

The Core Team gets together on Skype early every Friday morning to discuss issues, new applications and ways forward, but usually communicates on a daily basis as well.

Over time the interviewing process for new Grannies has been refined and the first hurdle of any new recruit is to record a video of themselves. “Being a Granny is challenging and you do need to be able to rise to a technical challenge, although we do offer advice if it is too tricky,” says Liz. “It’s hard to say who will make a good granny so at least two of us view the video to give different perspectives.”


The Core Team hat including all the members!

The Core Team spends a lot of time interviewing potential Grannies over Skype to make sure everyone has an understanding of what is expected of them and also what to expect.

About 85% of those who send a video are interviewed and most of them sign up for an initial session. “Then reality sets in!” says Liz. “It is not as easy as it appears. We were losing a lot of people after that first session.”

The Core Team spent a long time looking at this issue and now when a new granny is interviewed, they try to put them off a bit first by explaining all the things that could go wrong!

All new recruits have to join the (secret) Facebook group and support is offered through email and Skype; buddying is arranged with an established granny; and initial sessions are recommended with ‘less challenging’ groups.

“Grannies on Facebook have infinite patience answering the same sort of question over and over again, and offering tips and insights,” says Liz. “They will spontaneously offer to Skype for a chat with someone feeling overwhelmed and any new Granny is welcomed into the group and their posts are quickly responded to. We have noticed that this strategy is working and our retention rate is improving.”


So what does the future hold for the Granny Cloud? A lot of hard work and commitment from all areas of the School in the Cloud has gone into getting this far and so it’s important to ensure that the Granny Cloud and the project as a whole can move forward and expand without losing its integrity.

One very good model of expansion is the Granny Cluster, operating in two schools in Greenland and also Quest Wada. The Grannies self organised a weekly Skype meeting, to which the coordinator is regularly invited. Minutes are circulated, and a copy is sent to the Core Team which helps them to have an overview, pick up trends and share good practice.

“We will be encouraging other groups to get together like this, with all parties involved,” says Liz. “Of course there will always be free spirits who like to dip in and out of sessions and locations, who do not want to be attached to any one group and that is fine. We cater for all tastes!”

The Core Team is also putting together guidelines to give structure to key areas such as recruitment, child safety, communication, roles and responsibilities of co-ordinators as the Granny Cloud expands to different locations (including a consistent recruitment and training policy) and dealing with the media.

“We need to attract high calibre Grannies who, with initial support, can help build an ever-stronger group,” says Liz. “The intimacy of those early years is gone. But, our experience has shown us that when the Grannies feel connected with each other and with the centres everyone’s experience is enhanced. Our aim is to grow, but in such a way that this connection can continue.”

In February 2016, the Granny Cloud recently went on tour to India to meet the co-ordinators and children they regularly talk to.


Korakati: where learning happens against the odds

Korakati is well off any popular tourist trail: to get there you have to spend many hours on the road, take a boat up the Ganges and finally, a very bumpy van rickshaw up a dusty track passing huts, chickens and children along the way.

There’s an ‘other worldly’ feel about the place, which adds to its remoteness and is one of the reasons Sugata Mitra chose it for one of the TED Prize research labs. He knew just how hard it would be to create, but also just how much untapped potential there was here.

One person who probably questioned Sugata’s sanity on more than one occasion was project manager Ashis Biswas, whose job it was to sort out the logistics involved in constructing the building and getting it up and running. For example, when you look at the glass sides of the lab and then back at the only track they could have come along, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they got here in one piece!

The children at Korakati use the Internet to learn many things: for example, we were presented with beautiful handmade paper boxes topped with a rose when we arrived last month and inside were an origami flower and a jumping frog! The children had taught themselves how to make them using YouTube, with a little help from granny Jackie Barrow.

Natural challenges

There are, however, times when nature gets the better of this lab: the Internet connection, which is made possible thanks to a large bamboo pole erected on the roof, can be unreliable due to the distance from the hub, so a dongle has to be used instead, dangled from an open window. Water is also often scarce, and when there isn’t enough, it’s not safe to open the lab.

The solar power works well most of the time, but as co-ordinator Ankit Bubai Mondal (who runs with lab with Milan Mandal) told me, it’s not as effective at night! He once got stranded at Korakati and had to sleep in the guest accommodation with no power. This left him with the unenviable decision between being ‘eaten alive by mosquitoes with the door open or boiled alive with the door shut!’

Due to the limited bandwith, there is often just one computer connected to the Skype screen, but this alone has made it possible to have nearly 40% of all the granny sessions scheduled, which is no mean feat when you consider the challenges involved in making this happen.

“The impact of the lab and granny sessions is very visible, not only on the children, but even the co-ordinators,” explains research director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni. “The change in Milan’s (the local co-ordinator) English comprehension and ability to speak in it were quite remarkable when I met him again last month.

“Attempting to run regular granny sessions in these remote places can be frustrating for those on the other end, but even if the interaction with grannies and access to the internet isn’t as much as we would hope for, it still makes a huge difference.”

A subsistence life

Life in Korakati is hard. Agriculture and fishing are the main occupations, but making a decent living from either is increasingly difficult. Most people will barely earn the equivalent of £20 a month and children often have to work with their parents in the fields. When Cyclone Aila came through the area in May 2009, it brought with it winds of over 120kph and devastating tidal waves which flooded miles inland. This saltwater turned much of the land already badly hit by previous storms such as Cyclone Sidr in 2007 into dry, saline deserts that will take decades to become fertile again.

There is saying in West Bengal that the people are lazier than elsewhere in the country because you only have to drop a fruit stone on the ground and it will grow because the land is so fertile. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case here.

Many of the villagers also used to farm fish in small ponds next to their homes but these too have been turned into saltwater, so they have had to diversify and grow shrimps instead.

Ranu Ghosh, a Kolkata-based filmmaker who works on Jerry Rothwell’s TED/Sundance film about the School in the Cloud project, likened this research lab to ‘an alien thing, dropped into the middle of the Sunderbans’ and it certainly feels that way, nestled as it is between traditional village huts, surrounded by fields. However, the community are embracing this ‘alien’ in the same way they welcomed the recent Granny Cloud tour: with open arms and a sense of nervous anticipation for what is to come.

Korakati lab is in the heart of the Sunderbans, close to the Bangladeshi border and surrounded by rivers, canals and deltas. It was inaugurated on 9th March 2014, but had to be closed for a few months afterwards to address connectivity and construction issues. The climate is governed by the monsoon and the majority of people live below the poverty line, with limited sources of income. There are nearly 600 households and 300 children in the village, which has three primary schools and two secondary schools but no medical amenities or other facilities.

How powerful ‘fantastic and curious learning’ really is

2015 was a year of unexpected opportunities, amazing connections and wonderful learning experiences for the SOLE lab in Room 13.

Located in Greenfield Arts in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, UK, it is one of the original seven TED Prize labs and recently celebrated its second birthday.

Co-ordinator Katy Milne marked the occasion in style by joining the Granny Cloud and other educators for the India tour in February 2016.

“One of the most powerful and rewarding things for me is the understanding the Engine Heads (the committee of students who run Room 13) have developed and the language they have found to express and reflect upon how they learn,” says Katy. “They have flourished in a learning environment that has allowed that to happen.

“It is so powerful as they make meaning for themselves and know how to apply their capabilities to any situation. They are also amazing advocates for SOLE and I’m looking forward to extending this further and providing even more opportunities for more learners.”

To celebrate Room 13’s 2nd birthday artists Nicola Golightly and Laura Degnan were commissioned to make the short film and a Little Book of Big Questions, with the first copy being handed to Sugata to mark his birthday which is coincidentally just a day before Room 13’s!

In the past year, Room 13 has:

  • Hosted educators from across the UK, India,The Netherlands, Belgium, France, New Zealand
  • Skyped with Grannies, Suneeta (Dr Kulkarni)in India and new friends across the country
  • Asked Big Questions about the moon, dancing, clouds, the Internet, ourselves,each other, the Victorians and how rivers work, among others
  • Shared experiences with teachers and students and organised SOLE sessions forprimary and secondary schools from across the country
  • Spoken at conferences in the UK and Europe, including the Great North Greatsconference in Newcastle last October, part of the Great North Run Culture Programme.

“We have pondered and puzzled, questioned and wondered, searched and explored, talked and debated and been challenged and had our curiosity stimulated,” adds Katy. “And the best thing is there is so much more to come.”


SOLE gets royal seal of approval

You know how most conferences are just a little dull and you end up daydreaming at least once during yet another Powerpoint presentation? Well, not this one. From the outset, when the hall was filled with the children’s voices singing their ‘welcome song’ written and composed by lab co-ordinator Madhura Rajvanski, it was evident this conference was going to be a bit different from the norm.

All the grannies, co-ordinators, teachers and School in the Cloud team gathered in Phaltan, Maharashtra last Thursday for the conference which marked the end of an amazing week visiting the TED Prize research labs in Korakati, Chandrakona and Gocharan. We’d travelled by bus, boat, car, plane and van rickshaw and clocked up more hours on the road in under a week than most of us would do in a month (Sugata put it into context by saying we’d travelled the equivalent of Newcastle to Athens!) and yet everyone was still upbeat and full of energy.

In each lab we visited, we were blown away by the generosity and welcome we received, but at Phaltan, where the lab is located in Pragat Shikshan Sanstha’s Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan Marathi medium school, it was taken up another level.

As we arrived, handmade necklaces were placed around our necks and the children greeted us in their own languages, dressed in amazing finery to represent the diverse cultures and religions within the school.

Parents had been up since 6am to create artworks such as this peacock below, made from powdered paint, and the walls of the classrooms were adorned with everything from flamingos to flowers. We were blown away by the creativity of the whole community, as well as by their amazing culinary talents. We not only enjoyed sweet treats in the wonderful Diwali room, but also at the many stalls set up by the children for us to sample regional delicacies before our long bus journey back to Pune.

We even had a VIP tour of the King of Phaltan’s palace beforehand and when he addressed the conference he charmed the audience by saying the grannies were all a lot younger than he’d imagined! Shrimant Ram Raje Naik-Nimbalkar, who is also a politician, admitted that although he had been in politics for 25 years, in his heart he was a teacher and promised to do everything in his power to help spread “this unique model of education (SOLE)” across the region.

Everywhere I looked during the day there were impromptu granny sessions popping up as children – over the moon to finally meet their ‘own’ grannies – were making the most of having them there in person. The grannies also got an insight into what it’s like to be famous, hardly able to take a few steps without a child wanting to take a photograph or get an autograph. One of my favourite moments was when one granny leant over to me and whispered ‘They keep asking for ‘selfies’ with us but they don’t know what they are. Should I tell them?!’

During the conference, there were ‘surprises’ built into the programme, which we all agreed should be a feature of all conferences as they were an absolute delight. In one, a little girl sang the ‘jelly song’ granny Liz Fewings had taught her and in another, a group performed a skit where they pretended to hold a granny session, complete with the ubiquitous cup of tea for the ‘granny’, Lorraine Schneiter. We had to constantly remind ourselves that this was a Marathi medium school, as even the youngest children confidently spoke in English.

Many of the families have very little – over 50% of the children who attend the school either have part or all their fees paid for them. Every student in this school from grades 1-7 has a granny session at least once a week, which the director believes is a great leveller. They are also trialling sessions with early years children.

“When they learnt English in the traditional way they just didn’t take it in – I wanted them to learn in a more authentic set up,” explains director Dr Manjiri Nimbkar. “I approached Suneeta (Dr Kulkarni) about setting up a SOLE lab here and we’ve not looked back since. This is not an extra-curricular activity – we believe every child should have this. If it’s left to chance, then maybe those children who need it most might not get it.”

During the conference we heard from Emma Crawley, the teacher who first tested SOLE in the UK with Sugata at her school, St Aidan’s in Gateshead, and updates from Katy Milne and Sally Rix about the Greenfields and George Stephenson High School labs respectively. The visiting teachers from Masham in North Yorkshire also spoke about their experiences, and even ran a maths SOLE during the day with the children.

It was also a chance to hear from Moumita Dey and Ritu Dangwal about the one Indian lab the granny tour didn’t have time to visit – Kalkaji in Delhi and a look behind the scenes from Ashis Biswas, who talked us through the challenges – which included lizards in the CPUs – of building the labs. Sarah Schoengold of the TED Prize, who is also a part-time granny to children in Mexico, provided a global perspective on SOLE.

Dr Suneeta Kulkarni (above) shared the Granny Cloud perspective and how this intervention made such a difference to both the children’s lives and how the SOLEs worked, which was complemented by granny Liz Fewing’s talk on the core Granny Cloud team and how they work to bring everyone together and consider how to make it sustainable in the long term (look out for a blog in the next few weeks about this).

All too soon it was time for Sugata’s closing address in which he spoke about creating a ‘curriculum of things’ and changing our approach to education from ‘just in case’ to ‘just in time’.

One of the grannies, Sunita Lama (fifth from left above), who is originally from India but now lives in Dubai, shared her thoughts about the week with me when she returned home and it perfectly sums up the effect of this amazing week on all who took part. “It has been difficult to come back to reality after the wonderful days in India,” she says.

“Having met all the grannies, coordinators, children, teachers and parents I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this opportunity. We are now a family nourishing and supporting each other. This I think is the best part. The love and affection that was showered upon us shows how great this project is and I’ve made up my mind to give even more. For me it was a humbling experience and a lesson to take home. I intend to visit other SOLE labs as well on my next trip home and I also cherish a dream to start this project in my home town Darjeeling someday soon.”

In India, when people leave they don’t say ‘goodbye’ in any language. Instead, it’s simply different variations of ‘I’ll come again’, which will resonate with many of the grannies as they settle back into normal life this week.

First TED Prize lab has global reach

It hardly seems two years ago that George Stephenson High School opened the doors of the first School in the Cloud lab in the world. Head of Design and Art Amy-Leigh Hope, who was there from the beginning, shares some of her highlights below. You can also watch a new video of Amy in action in a SOLE session, filmed as part of Jerry Rothwell’s upcoming documentary The School in the Cloud.

Some of Amy’s highlights since the opening:

Interacting with other schools – UK and across the world

“I have been lucky enough to meet and work with many amazing people, from Newcastle University to schools in America, Australia and beyond,” says Amy. “We have Skyped into a SOLE session alongside schools in New Jersey, had visitors from Australia and shared many ideas, resources and experiences.”

One of her favourite sessions was linking up with a local middle school to take part in a joint science SOLE with Year 7 children around the Big Question ‘Can science solve world hunger?’. “Being pestered by the children for more lessons like this afterwards was a very proud moment.”

Seeing the room grow and develop

Amy says the room has gone from strength to strength since it opened – so much so that it’s now difficult to get in for a session as it’s often fully booked! “I know I am lucky to work in a school where teachers and senior management totally embrace SOLE,” says Amy. “Working alongside such a dynamic team has developed my own practice and created a buzz in the school among both staff and students.”

Skyping into India

Last year Amy’s Year 7 class Skyped into Phaltan SOLE lab in India, with School in the Cloud Research Director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni on hand to help translate. “It was fantastic for our children both to see their world view expand but also have it made to feel that little bit smaller by connecting with this group so far away,” says Amy. The children, who were all roughly the same age, chatted about cricket, football and chicken! “It was wonderful to finally see the children I have heard about and imagined across the other side of the world.”

Sugata taking part in SOLE sessions and teacher training

The school has strong links with Newcastle University and takes part in regular events and visits. Sugata has led several SOLE sessions and staff training across the teaching schools, which include local primary schools. “It is amazing to have this support,” says Amy. “It develops your love of learning even further and helps us realise how SOLE can continue to develop and inspire children.”

Inspiring me to push myself

“On a personal note as a class teacher, SOLE has inspired me to push myself to develop and let children lead the way – after all it is all about them,” says Amy. “I feel I have improved and developed as a teacher over the years I have been involved with SOLE. I believe it has improved my relationships and created enjoyment and excitement in lessons. Just sitting back and watching learning happen creates an understanding as a practitioner that you too can learn so much.”

The lab at George Stephenson High School is located in Killingworth, North Tyneside, Tyne and Wear, UK and was opened on 22 November 2013.

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.”


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.

A testing time for students

How do you tell one quantum particle from another? No, it’s not a bad joke, it’s a question posed to the Engine Heads at Greenfield Community College.

Seventeen-year-old Harry Crawley was shadowing Sugata Mitra for a day to find out more about SOLEs. He’s currently studying maths, further maths, physics and Spanish and his questions certainly had this group of 14-year-olds scratching their heads.

The scientific challenges he devised were based on A level questions normally tackled by students four years older.

“They found it quite difficult as it was quite a bizarre experience, unlike anything they normally do in a SOLE,” says Katy Milne, Director of Arts and Creativity. “They were given the Big Questions to explore SOLE-style in groups but had to answer it on their own as if they were taking an exam.”

It was all part of Sugata’s plan to illustrate how the examination system could be changed to better suit the needs of students and their future employers. He argues that the current exams do little other than test their ability to retain facts, which fails to prepare them adequately for today’s workplaces.


Visiting journalist Joseph Lee from the TES, a weekly UK publication aimed primarily at school teachers in the UK, sat in on the Greenfield SOLE. He wrote a feature for the TES earlier this month about Sugata’s research which showed that eight-year-olds could answer exam questions seven years ahead of their age group if they worked together using the Internet.

Pupils from nearby Byerley Park Primary School have also been taking part in SOLEs in Greenfield’s Room 13 several times a term since January. Katy has noticed that regular sessions with these 10-year-olds have already resulted in some interesting developments. “Their answers have become much deeper over time,” she explains.

For example, Katy said that at the last SOLE session their Big Question was about why the Victorians were such good inventors. “Not only did they find out what type of inventions they discovered, but also how this related to the conditions at the time and why they were needed,” she said. “This led onto what inventions the children thought we needed today to overcome the world’s problems. I’ve not seen them engage with a SOLE session to that level before and this seems to suggest that regular exposure to this way of learning can have a lasting effect.”

Sugata is now testing whether students at Greenfield can answer degree-level questions to discover just how far he can stretch their ability to answer complex questions. This research is the beginning of a study to come up with an alternative method of assessment that could eventually replace the current exam system.

He suggests that if the exam system included different types of questions then learning could encourage the kind of deeper thinking which can sometimes be limited with a more knowledge-led curriculum.

About Room 13

Room 13, which opened in February 2014, is one of the labs opened as part of the TED Prize. It is a creative space for independent learning by students and the wider community, as well as part of Sugata’s ongoing research.

Designed to be very different to a normal classroom, it has an ‘outdoor feel’ — complete with artificial grass and rabbits — and quirky seating to make it an attractive and social space to spend time in.

It is run by a group of students called The Engine Heads, who are responsible for driving things forward in the SOLE and helping to share knowledge about how Room 13 can be used to experience a new way of learning.

Greenfield Arts works together with Greenfield Community College in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, UK and students there have been part of Sugata’s research for several years.

Filmmaker gets stuck into SOLE

When you bring together inspiring individuals who are trying to change the world, you create a force to be reckoned with. Such is the case with the pairing of documentary filmmaker Jerry Rothwell and Sugata Mitra.

I caught up with Jerry over Skype from a bustling café off London’s Victoria Station, as he took time out from promoting his upcoming film How to Change the World.

Jerry has been following Sugata around since 2013, having secured the first Sundance Institute/TED Prize Filmmaker Award to help bring the School in the Cloud story to life.

“Sugata is a fascinating individual for a documentary – he’s articulate, funny and provocative,” says Jerry. “He seems to be able to combine a great simplicity in his approach with a great complexity of ideas. I’ve seen him running a SOLE in various locations and he’s very engaging – you get a very real sense of what it’s about from watching him.”

However, making a film about Sugata and SOLE is not without its challenges, both physically and metaphorically. It’s a hard trek to reach some of the rural locations in India: Korakati, the most remote, can often take the best part of a day, including travelling by cycle rickshaw and boat. In self organised learning environments you also never know exactly what will happen when you turn up!


Jerry and his film crew resort to going barefoot to get to the lab at Chandrakona during the monsoon.

“By its very nature it’s anecdotal, about telling stories rather evaluating the process,” says Jerry. As a result, he’s decided to tell a selection of individual stories over a longer period of time to give a feel for how SOLE develops and its importance to local communities.

The film The School In The Cloud will focus on the more remote locations of Korakati and Chandrakona in India, as well as George Stephenson High School in North Tyneside, UK.

It will include Indian children who speak no English and have little or no access to education, retired schoolteachers in the UK who are part of the Granny Cloud and students in North East England. Together, they represent the many voices that are part of this visionary educational experiment and Jerry’s film asks these two Big Questions:

  • What happens to a small remote Indian village when its children get connected to the internet?
  • What happens in a Western-style school, when a lab gets built which allows children take a lead in their own education?

“There’s two sides to it,” explains Jerry. “There’s the story from the bottom up about these people experiencing the project and it’s also an ideas film exploring the impact of Sugata’s ideas in action.”

Filming the project as it evolves gives Jerry a unique insight into how it works. He’s noticed that in the early days of the labs the best results come from sessions that have input from the Granny Cloud or a local co-ordinator. But he’s also quick to point out that he has also seen boys at Chandrakona working out how to use DJing software and teaching themselves to remix Bangla songs.

“The skill from an educator’s point of view is in knowing where the balance lies between leaving the kids to get on with it, and giving some input,” he says.

Jerry told me a story that helped to illustrate exactly what he means. “When I’m shooting I just hang in there for a very long time with the kids on radio mics so I can catch every little exchange. Then perhaps a teacher comes around the back just looking to push it on a bit.

“If you listen from the kids’ point of view you can see they were just in the process of trying to work something out, or just about to make a leap, and then they were interrupted and that derailed them in a subtle way. It’s very delicate how SOLE works and the tiniest intervention can completely disrupt it.”

Jerry says from his experience as an observer ‘a very light touch’ works best, where structure is applied at the start and then the educator steps back and lets the learning happen.


Students using the lab at George Stephenson High School, UK

He’s also found it interesting how the students on ‘The Committee’ at George Stephenson High School talk about their lab. “There is a real sense that SOLE has given them a way to talk about their education and that’s had an impact on the student/teacher relationship and how they approach their learning,” he says. “They take full ownership of the SOLE, seeing themselves as its ‘guardians’.”

However, SOLE is not just about education, but also what happens when you connect kids in remote locations to the wider world. Jerry told me about one young boy in Korakati who he introduced to Google Earth (although he realised afterwards he’d done exactly what Sugata advises educators not to do!)

“One lad was interested in travel and I showed him how you can use street view to walk along roads in another location,” he recalls. “He then started visiting places he’d always wanted to go like Sri Lanka and New York, which is an amazing thing to get your head around. In some ways it’s opening these kids to a much broader world than those of their parents and it’s interesting to see a different world view emerging in these kids that will affect them for a very long time.”

Jerry is used to filming in remote places – he travelled to Ethiopia for his documentary Town of Runners about young athletes from a highland town that has produced some of the greatest distance runners. He says its more straightforward making The School In The Cloud because the filming infrastructure in India is much better than in Africa and he has the added bonus of a ‘fantastic team of very skilled people’ working with him in-country.

He shares filming with Ranu Gosh, who is based in India, and has already made three trips there with another two planned next year. “At the last shoot in Korakati it was raining non-stop,” says Jerry. “In fact I always seem to turn up in the rainy season – but even in a monsoon you realise that (the SOLE) was attracting young people and had become a bit of a hub for the community.”

Filming for The School In The Cloud is taking place over a two-and-a-half-year period, with plans to release the film at the end of 2016.

“SOLE connects with a lot of my ideas and interests, particularly the link between education and technology,” says Jerry. “It’s also very much about children’s autonomy and taking control of your own learning and how they pick things up without hardly noticing and that’s something I find fascinating.”

Watch out for a sneak preview of Jerry’s recent filming for School In The Cloud coming up on our social media channels next month.

Jerry’s latest film, How to Change the World, a feature documentary about the founders of Greenpeace in the 1970s, opens in the US, UK, Germany and Australia on September 9.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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!


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 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.