Room 13

Site: UK Lab 2 – Greenfield Arts, Newton Aycliffe, County Durham

The centre has undergone a major transformation to include two new creative spaces that provide a social area for independent learning by students and the wider community, as well as helping with Sugata’s on-going research.

Designed to be very different to a normal classroom, Room 13 has an ‘outdoor feel’ – including artificial grass – and unusual seating and decoration 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.

Katy Milne, Director of Arts and Creativity at Greenfield, said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to continue this global research and development into enquiry-based approaches to learning here at Greenfield Arts. It’s a chance to learn above and beyond the curriculum, helping to ignite a curiosity for learning, and that’s what makes it really exciting.”

Greenfield Arts works together with Greenfield Community College and students there have been part of Sugata’s research for several years.

The Greenfield Arts lab opened in February 2014.

Read the Room 13 blog

George Stephenson High School

Site: UK Lab 1 – George Stephenson High School, North Tyneside, Tyne and Wear

The world’s first School in the Cloud opened its doors at George Stephenson High School.

Students designed the interior of this one-room learning lab – which has colourful beanbags scattered throughout and fluffy clouds painted on the walls.

This lab is run by a group of students called The Committee, who manage a schedule to let different classes and groups use the lab in time slots before, during and after school. They also meet regularly to develop a Big Question curriculum to assist teachers across all subjects to deliver SOLE sessions.

Amy-Leigh Hope, Head of Design and Art at George Stephenson High School, was inspired by Sugata’s approach following a talk about his work by their headteacher. After discovering that his self-organised learning methods had not really been tried in secondary schools before, she set about testing them with Year 7 with help and support Sugata, finally extending this up to Year 13.

“The idea of thinking about your subject in ‘big questions’ and letting children take ownership of the lesson really gets them engaged,” she says. “When they work in groups of four there’s less chance to opt out and they naturally self correct each other, helping to develop not only their literacy and understanding but also good social skills.”

The SOLE, which opened in November 2013, is also available for the local community and nearby primary schools to use.

Read the TED blog about the opening.


Site: Area 4 – Pragat Shikshan Sanstha (PSS) – translates as Progressive Education Organization Phaltan, Maharashtra

Located in the small, historic town of Phaltan, this lab is approximately 115 km from Pune in the Satara District of Maharashtra in Western India.

The lab, which opened in December 2014, was set up on the same site where the Granny Cloud originally beamed in to talk with middle school pupils.

This co-ed school, as its name suggests, is progressive in outlook and attempts to give the children a variety of learning opportunities inside and outside of the classroom.

Music and gardening are as much a part of their school day as are formal lessons. The children come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, from lower income to relatively wealthy homes.

The school runs volunteer and sponsorship programs to ensure that those from the lower income groups are not deprived of an education.

The main language used in the school is Marathi, with English taught as one of the subjects.

The school PSS runs is located is Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan, in an underprivileged area of Phaltan and has around 425 students. It has an outreach program that seeks to connect with other mainstream schools and the community to support child development in the critical early years (0-3). The school operates in two shifts with the preschool and primary school operating in the morning, and the high school from noon until evening.


Site: Area 3 – Government Girls Secondary School (GGSS), Kalkaji, New Delhi

Kalkaji is located in the capital, New Delhi, in a girls’ school close to the site of Sugata’s original Hole in the Wall experiment.

The school only runs in the morning as the premises are shared with the boys who attend school in the afternoon.

This is one of the smallest School in the Cloud labs, operating with just a handful of computers, one of which is connected to Skype during Granny Cloud sessions.

The girls who use this lab are typically between 11-15 years old from the lower socio-economic classes, and attend the English section of an otherwise Hindi medium school. However, even their fluency in English is quite limited.

It’s an example of how a place can be remote, even when it is located in a region that has easy access to facilities and resources and is exposed to all that the world has to offer.

Kalkaji lab opened in February 2014.


Site: Area 2 – Chandrakona, West Bengal

Kiageria village, where this lab is located, has a population of about 2000, with approximately 800 children under the age of 16.

While there are three primary schools for Grades 1 to 4, there is only one high school [for Grades 5 to 8]. Approximately 400 children are spread across these four schools. Their parents are mostly involved in agriculture.

The lab at Chandrakona, which opened in March 2014, was initiated by the NGO Sarbik Pally Kalyan Kendra [SPKK]. This NGO works towards rural development and is based in the village where the lab has been built.

Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar – a key member of the Bengal renaissance who was given the title ‘Vidyasagar’ meaning ‘Ocean of Knowledge’ – was born in a nearby village. Despite this, the district still faces many challenges today and the lab opens up a variety of possibilities. The lab itself has been built on land owned by the SPKK overlooking a large pond.

Kiageria is located in West Midnapore [Paschim Medinipur] district of West Bengal and the closest town is Chandrakona, 3km away. It is approximately 150km from Kolkata.


Site: Area 1- Korakati, West Bengal

Our remotest lab in every sense of the word, Korakati is located in the village of Sandeshkhali, 125km from Kolkata.

Setting aside issues of connectivity in such a rural location, it poses a challenge simply to get there. Not for the faint-hearted, reaching this site involves an adventurous journey by road, boat and subsequently a contraption called a van rickshaw.

The region is impoverished in many different ways, including socially and economically, which can often lead to a different mind set where time doesn’t carry the same meaning it does in an urban setting.

With no school close by, some of the villagers do their best to share whatever knowledge they have with the children of Sandeshkhali.  Fishing and agriculture are the main occupations.

A local family, one of whom works as a teacher in Kolkata, has provided the land on which the lab has been built. The closest school is a primary in Korakati, approximately 9kms away, which caters for about 135 children from the area.

In a place that is difficult to reach, even if you want to get there, technology could be the saving grace. Therefore, accepting the challenge to build a lab in this situation perfectly fits in with the ethos of School in the Cloud in wanting to reach out to children that are otherwise deprived of learning and other opportunities.

Korakati lab opened in March 2014.

Read the TED blog on the opening

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.