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Bees inspire flagship School in the Cloud lab


When Prof Sugata Mitra won the 2013 TED Prize, he wished to design the future of learning by building a School in the Cloud.

He called on TED and its extended community to help create “a learning lab in India where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online".

Not yet two years later, this extraordinary vision has been realized today (9 January 2015) with the opening of the final and flagship learning lab – Area Zero – in Gocharan, West Bengal, India (about 40 kms away from Kolkata). With Area Zero, Prof Mitra is providing an epicenter to further test, evolve and share his method of Self Organized Learning.

Area Zero will accommodate up to 48 children at any one time on 12-15 computers. It is the largest Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE), and was created specifically for optimized learning in which children are prompted to teach themselves.

“I am incredibly excited to see this vision come to life,” says Prof Mitra. “Area Zero is the first facility of its kind, and I’m proud to bring it home to India. My objective for the flagship centre is for children to learn and engage – while also examining and documenting the advantage of Self Organized Learning Environments. Here, children will be able to engage with teachers from around the world who can prompt them with big questions that encourage the exploration of a vast array of subjects.”

The solar-powered Area Zero is set in lush greenery and made almost entirely of glass, jutting out between two ponds with verandas on either side. Its hexagonal shape represents two things: the chemical compound benzene, which consists of six carbon atoms joined in a ring, with one hydrogen atom attached to each of them; and the basis of honeycomb, which is an engineering marvel that uses the least amount of wax possible to provide the greatest amount of storage and the most stable structure.

“How bees create honeycomb is one of the best examples of a self-organized environment in nature,” continues Prof Mitra. “A single bee has no knowledge at all about how it works or comes together, but as a hive they can create this phenomenal structure. And the benzene ring is the basis of all organic life - without it there would be no life at all. I hope this symbolism inspires limitless learning in the lab.”

The opening of Area Zero is complemented by what Prof Mitra has already achieved with his 2013 TED Prize wish and position as Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK including:

“The purpose of the TED Prize is for one remarkable individual to create a project with a global impact,” said Anna Verghese, Director of the TED Prize. “Our 2013 recipient, Sugata Mitra, has done precisely this with his School in the Cloud. The opening of Area Zero is another manifestation of Mitra pushing the bounds of how we can educate in the 21st century."

Background: Sugata Mitra & School in the Cloud

Prof Mitra developed the concept of the Cloud from his 1999 "hole in the wall" experiment, in which he carved a hole from his research centre into an adjoining Delhi slum. He placed a freely accessible computer in this hole, and found that groups of Indian street children, with no prior experience or knowledge of English, could teach themselves how to use the computer. For the next ten years, Prof Mitra, who joined Newcastle University in 2006, expanded on his findings and created a "Granny Cloud" of online e-mediators (largely retired school teachers initally) who could Skype into learning centers and encourage children with questions and assignments.

As a leading proponent of self-organized learning, Prof Mitra developed the concept of SOLEs (Self Organized Learning Environments), which embrace a process where educators spark curiosity by asking children to explore a Big Question using the Internet and working together in small groups. Learning happens spontaneously in these freer, more fluid environments.

Since launching his TED Prize wish, the SOLE toolkit has been downloaded more than 67,000 times and hundreds have applied to become Skype Grannies – in which they video conference with students, and encourage them.

Critical to mobilizing this effort is the School in the Cloud online community, which launched at TED2014. Microsoft and their Skype Social Good team stepped in to provide core technology and innovated the global community. Made By Many, the product design partners, co-created the experience with Sugata's team. The web platform ensures that anyone, anywhere around the world, can experiment with self-organized learning.??

The platform was recently transferred to Newcastle University’s Culture Lab, where it is under further development. It is part of this global experiment to explore self-organized learning, discover a worldwide community of SOLEs, and learn about becoming a Skype Granny. Building upon the ‘Granny Cloud’ and Skype in the classroom, this new platform brings together educators, kids and Skype Grannies in an experience that simultaneously guides and captures self-organized learning.                                                                                                      

About the TED Prize

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.

published on: 13 January 2015