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School in the swamp


Getting teachers into remote places is at the heart of Prof Sugata Mitra’s work and the latest addition to his School in the Cloud fits the bill perfectly.

Korakati, in the Sunderbans of Bengal, is at first sight not the most likely spot for a high-tech learning lab. More than 800 miles west of Calcutta, visitors have to undertake an arduous journey by boat and rickshaw to finally reach the village, which is located in a mangrove swamp.

But yesterday (March 9) it became the world’s first independent, solar-powered School in the Cloud, with a 40ft bamboo tower receiver providing the necesssary bandwith. It is the fourth of seven new Self Organised Learning (SOLEs) locations to open as part of Prof Mitra’s $1m TED Prize-funded project. While the others are attached to schools, Korakati is the first to stand alone.

Yesterday, children who had never seen a computer before were browsing on the Internet within minutes of the school opening - reflecting Prof Mitra's earliest Hole in the Wall experiments in Delhi over a decade ago. "The children changed our beautiful logo-based wall paper to one they much preferred with three penguins on within about 20 minutes of encountering computers for the first time," said Prof Mitra.

A SOLE is somewhere learning is allowed to happen. It inspires children’s innate sense of curiosity to tackle ‘big questions’ by searching online in groups to discover answers and then present their findings. Online voluntary educators of all kinds, including ‘Skype Grannies’, help facilitate their learning.

This latest site in Korakati was chosen thanks to the efforts of a local schoolteacher who made the long trek from his village to see Newcastle University’s Prof Mitra in Calcutta after hearing about his research.?

“Early one morning last February a man turned up on my doorstep who had travelled through the night to get there,” explains Prof Mitra. “This schoolteacher wanted to do something positive for his village, which had no electricity, health care or primary education. It was just the kind of place I was looking for.”

Local children will be able to enter this new ‘learning lab’ and interact with an English-speaking Skype Grannies from all over the world, projected onto a wall from a computer with an internet connection. The lab belongs to them - it’s their School in the Cloud, a place where they can learn on their own and teach each other, using resources from the worldwide cloud without supervision or formal teaching.

Currently, seven physical learning labs are being built in India and the UK to discover, research and share SOLE best practices and compare results across diverse social, cultural, and economic contexts.

The first lab opened in Nov 2013 at George Stephenson High School in the UK.  Two more (one in Delhi, India and County Durham, UK) opened in February. Korakati and Chandrakona, Bengal, both opened in March 2014 and the final two, the flagship lab at Gocharan, Bengal, as well as the lab at Phaltan, Maharashtra, will open in May 2014.

Prof Mitra teaches on Newcastle University's MA International Development and Education degree programme.

Background to the School 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. They are not all ‘grannies’ and in this context the term is actually becoming less tied to gender or age as it is seen by many as a ‘badge of honour’!

??What makes this work is the universal ‘grandmother’ approach, where children get to interact with a person who is encouraging and appreciates their efforts, and in doing so enables them to learn what they need and also find out more about what interests them.?? The need for the Granny Cloud became apparent during the preliminary experiences in the SOLEs (self organised learning environments).

The SOLEs were originally initiated to provide educational support for children in remote, disadvantaged settings in rural and urban areas in India. ??The SOLE approach appealed to many educators world-wide and is now used by many teachers and schools in their own classrooms. The School in the Cloud joins these two components together and will bring in the Grannies who will use the SOLE approach in these settings.

About the TED Prize and Sugata Mitra?

The first TED Prize was awarded in 2005, born out of the TED Conference and a vision by the world's leading entrepreneurs, innovators, and entertainers to change the world – one wish at a time. What began as an unparalleled experiment to leverage the resources of the TED community has evolved into an ambitious, million-dollar award to spur global-scale change.??

In 2013, TED awarded the prize to educator Sugata Mitra who wished to "help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together." ??He looked to TED's extended community to do two things: build the School in the Cloud, a series of learning labs across India and the UK where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online; and bring SOLEs (Self Organized Learning Environments) to their own communities. ??

The response to Mitra's wish has been remarkable. Microsoft is leading on innovating the School in the Cloud web platform with product development partner Made by Many. IDEO and Newcastle University are conducting research, Dropbox is providing storage, and a network of researchers and community leaders are giving time and resources to help build SOLE labs across India and the UK.

All of this will be captured in a documentary made possible by the Sundance Institute/TED Prize Filmmaker Award.?? Thousands of people from Colombia to South Africa have also downloaded his SOLE toolkit for use in their homes and classrooms, experimenting with his learning method on the ground. They are also sharing their discoveries to help advance his research.

published on: 10 March 2014