School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences

News Items

Film explores the future of education

The School in the Cloud documentary follows Newcastle University educationalist Professor Sugata Mitra on his quest to turn education on its head.

By bringing self-organised learning environments (SOLEs) into the mainstream, Professor Mitra has introduced new ideas about how children learn.

Now audiences can make up their own minds when the film goes on general release next month. It will be first shown at a special screening at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema on Monday, 8 October before its official UK premiere at the Bertha Dochouse in London on 19th October, where it will run for a week. It will also be available to download on Vimeo from 26th October.

Shot over a three-year period in India and the North East of England, director Jerry Rothwell explores the challenges of bringing the TED Prize winner’s vision to life.

“Mitra is often accused of naivety about the way children learn, but I think the power of his ideas – even if they are utopian – is in challenging education systems that have failed to acknowledge how the internet has changed the world,” says Jerry, the first recipient of the Sundance Institute/TED Prize Filmmaker Award in 2013.

“During the film we see both the difficulties of implementing his ideas of self-organised learning environments in remote locations, and their potential for children itching to explore the world.”

Big questions

Professor Mitra began his self-organised learning experiments in 1999, when he knocked a hole in the wall of his office in Delhi, India, into a nearby slum and placed an Internet-ready computer there (that went on to become the Hole in the Wall experiment). Children flocked to the computer and taught themselves how to use it.

But Sugata wasn’t satisfied with that - he wanted them to be able to pass the same tests as children in private education. By introducing an adult into the mix who offered support and encouragement in much the same way a grandmother does, he found his answer.

With this, the idea for ‘The Granny Cloud’ was born. By bringing in e-mediators to chat and tell stories with the children over Skype, the children’s comprehension and language skills significantly improved.

The Granny Cloud, which existed before and now after the three-year School in the Cloud  project, is run entirely by volunteers. Headed by Dr Suneeta Kulkarni from her home in Pune, India, a core team of ‘grannies’ ensure children still get to experience the benefits of an encouraging adult on the sidelines to help them with their English language and comprehension skills. Their focus is on hard to reach communities in some of the most deprived areas of the world where grannies are Skyped in for free. 

Adding this encouraging adult element showed that rather than teachers being obsolete in a SOLE, they are actually crucial to not only choosing an inspiring Big Question, but also in skillfully guiding without leading.

A physicist by training, Professor Mitra draws on his scientific background to explain how a SOLE works: chaos theory, where groups of children, without a teacher’s intervention during the process, operate like a hive to learn collectively just at ‘the edge of chaos’.‌

Design the future of learning

Winning the TED Prize in 2013  gave him the freedom to test his theory on a much larger scale and over a much shorter timespan. Sugata’s wish was to build a School in the Cloud that would "help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together”.

Professor Mitra urged people to have an open mind when they go and see the film.

"The hole in the wall experiment of 1999 was ignored for years,” he says. “Then it resurfaced and was called 'naive' around 2005 when a paper on the subject was judged 'the best open access paper in the world' by the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

"Then, in 2009, when the work was associated with self organised learning environments (SOLEs) and the much awarded film 'Slumdog Millionaire', it got attacked by academics and sundry bloggers. Finally, in 2013, when it got the million dollar TED prize, everyone said it's the next best thing after sliced bread.

"I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi's famous misquote (he probably never said it): 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win.'

"Do watch and make up your mind." 

Anyone wanting to see the film can either attend an existing screening, check out Met Film’s website for an up-to-date list; organise their own screening or add it to an educational institution’s library through TUGG : or download the film from Vimeo.

Professor Sugata Mitra and Indian children taken from the School in the Cloud film by Jerry Rothwell

published on: 9 October 2018