Professor Sugata Mitra’s wish to inspire children and teachers across the globe is taking shape in a North East classroom.When he won the 2013 TED Prize, Newcastle University’s Professor Mitra talked about his plans to design a School in the Cloud, a learning lab where children can explore and learn from each other by tapping into online resources.
Now the first of the seven new Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) that will help make this happen has just opened at George Stephenson High School in Killingworth, North Tyneside.
“From other research we’ve already seen that reading comprehension is likely to improve in the children taking part in these activities but we do not know what else might happen in the process,” explains Professor Mitra. “What we do know is that order emerges out of this creative chaos.
“In India, we will be looking at two things – whether the children can learn to read and also search the Internet accurately by themselves and if they can do this, then it’s the end of schooling as we know it.”
Schools in the Cloud is the culmination of over a decade of research and observations from all over the world. From his earliest experiments while working at NIIT in Delhi with the Hole in the Wall project, which inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire, through to setting up the original SOLEs in India, Professor Mitra discovered that children’s innate sense of learning is magnified when they are given the freedom to explore the Internet in small groups.
On Friday 22 November 2013, he was joined at the school by teachers, pupils and, from India via Skype, Dr Suneeta Kulkarni, research director for the School in the Cloud project. Dr Kulkarni is currently visiting the new SOLE locations in India (as well as existing mediated environments that regularly interact with the Granny Cloud ) with Skype ‘granny’ Liz Fewings, from London. The locations range from urban slums to remote villages.
The children who helped to design the SOLE conducted tours of the new facility and also linked up with a school in the USA.
Amy-Leigh Dickinson, Head of Design and Art at George Stephenson High School, was inspired by Professor Mitra’s approach two years ago 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 from Professor Mitra, finally extending this up to Year 13.
“From the outset, the children’s love of learning came through and there was a fantastic buzz in the classroom,” she says. “The idea of thinking about your subject in ‘big questions’ and letting children take ownership of the lesson really gets them engaged.
“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.”
Headteacher Ian Wilkinson adds, “We’re really excited to be working with Professor Mitra on this project and delighted that he has chosen to work with us, as one of only two schools in the country. It’s a really exciting and innovative project to be involved in and the early signs are that it is helping our student become more independent and resilient learners.”
The SOLE will also be open for the local community and nearby primary schools to use, and there has already been interest from a parent who home-schools her children.
Visitors to the new SOLE in North Tyneside are likely to have a far more comfortable journey than those in India, who have to travel firstly by boat and then endure an hour and a half on an uncomfortable van rickshaw to reach the remotest site in Korakati, West Bengal. But the point of this project in India is to bring teachers into those areas where they are least likely to be.
“Many people have put so much energy into this project already and will do anything to make it happen,” says Dr Kulkarni. “It’s wonderful to be at this point where so many people believe in it and we finally have the capacity and resources to take it forward on a larger scale.”
There will be seven Schools in the Cloud in total, five in India and two in North East England: Area 0 – Gocharan, West Bengal; Area 1 – Korakati, West Bengal; Area 2 – Chandrakona, West Bengal; Area 3 – Kalkaji, New Delhi; Area 4 – Phaltan, Maharashtra; Area 5 – George Stephenson High School, Killingworth; Area 6 – Greenfield Community College, Newton Aycliffe.
Background to the ‘Schools in the Cloud’
This project builds upon the successful Granny Cloud, which was set up in 2009 after a plea for retired teachers in the UK to come forward who were willing to interact with children in India via Skype. The e-mediators are not all ‘grannies’ (many are actually grandfathers and uncles!) - others are just interested teachers and committed people with some time available who want to help. ??
What makes it work is the ‘grandmother’ approach, where children get to interact with a person who is encouraging and appreciates their efforts, and in so doing leads them towards further discovery and learning.??
And now, with the help of his $1m TED Prize, this army of volunteers is becoming part of a much bigger project to create these ‘learning labs’ in some of the most remote and deprived areas of India. Children will be able to drop in to use the Internet for learning, and also benefit from regular face-to-face online Skype sessions.
Microsoft, Made by Many and IDEO are supporting Professor Mitra and Newcastle University to create a global network and toolset to share the School in the Cloud approach with children and educators across the globe.
Photo credits: Banner picture (front page) James Duncan Davidson;smaller image on this page: Mark Pinder.
published on: 22 November 2013