A small space for big ideas
Prof Sugata Mitra is opening the smallest School in the Cloud research lab in India this week.
SOLE comes into the playground
India 28 September 2016: Prof Sugata Mitra’s latest SOLE research lab is a discreet affair, tucked away in the corner of a school playground in West Bengal. At a mere 15ft wide it would actually fit rather snugly into his office at Newcastle University in the UK.
Located in a rural Montessori middle school in Dasghara, West Bengal, about three hours from Kolkata, it is the ninth research SOLE (self-organised learning environment) he has completed since winning the $1m TED Prize in 2013.
It is also the cheapest at £7,500 and part of an experiment to see just what was possible if he aimed small and employed local contractors, personally handling the project management from start to finish.
Prof. Sugata Mitra
Close family ties
Dasghara has a special place in Prof Mitra’s own family history, as it is located near his mother’s ancestral home and the lab is in a school that was originally funded by his grand uncle aunt.
“This was a chance to use all that we learned building the other labs,” explains Prof Mitra, who is director of SOLE Central at Newcastle University, the global hub for SOLE research and practice. “The fact that people knew who I was and my family was a huge advantage – I didn’t need to build up that trust with local people as I already had it, so they were happy to just leave me to it.”
The lab will be officially opened on 2nd October 2016 (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday). It has been designed for use by 24 children between five computers. As is the case with George Stephenson and Newton Aycliffe SOLE labs in the UK, the children will be in charge of the running of the lab – a first for the Indian SOLE labs.
As part of his TED Prize, Prof Mitra set up the School in the Cloud and eight SOLE research labs have been created: two in the UK, one in Harlem, New York, USA and five in India. Spanning from the hub near Calcutta to the remotest site five hours away in West Bengal, what these locations in India share is a lack of educational opportunities for the children living there coupled with a drive and determination from those communities to turn that around.
ABOUT THE SOLE PROJECT:
TED Prize 2013 winner Prof Mitra, Newcastle University set up Schools in the cloud facility in February, 2014. In recent years this idea has rapidly gathered pace, evolving into dozens of Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) where children search for answers to ‘big’ questions. It has also inspired Self Organised Mediation Environments (SOMEs) – better known as the Granny Cloud - where children interact with online ‘grannies’ to engage in a wide range of informal activities. SOLE 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 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 brings in the Grannies who use the SOLE approach in these settings. This bigger project has been made possible with the help of the $1m TED Prize to build School in the Cloud ‘learning labs’ in some of the most remote and deprived areas of India. Children are able to drop in to use the Internet for learning, and also benefit from regular face-to-face online Skype sessions.
Spanning from the hub near Calcutta to the remotest site five hours away in West Bengal, what all the new SOLE locations share is a lack of educational opportunities for the children living there, coupled with a drive and determination from those communities to turn that around. The primary aim is to improve children’s reading comprehension and search skills and develop their confidence.
Prof.Sugata Mitra Prof of Educational Technology, Newcastle University
TED Prize winner SugataMitra is at the forefront of a new approach to education which challenges how we teach today’s children in a technological age.
He is Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK and previously a Visiting Professor at MIT in the US.
Prof. Sugata is currently working on the School in the Cloud, which is the culmination of over a decade of research and observations from all over the world. The School in the Cloud is learning at the edge of chaos - a community, place and experience to discover and explore children’s learning as a self-organising system.
From his earliest experiments while working at NIIT in Delhi with the Hole in the Wall project, through to setting up SOLEs (self organised learning environments), Sugata discovered that children’s innate sense of learning is magnified when they are given the freedom to explore the internet in small groups.
Children in these environments, regardless of who they are or what language they speak, can competently search for answers to ‘big questions’, drawing rational, logical conclusions from their research. These are questions far ahead of what is expected of them in their school curriculum.
In 1999 Sugata and his colleagues at NIIT made a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in Delhi, installed an internet-connected PC, and left to see what happened. Almost immediately, children from the slum began playing with the computer and in the process taught each other how to use it and get online.
This experiment, which inspired the book ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ that went on to become the Oscar winning film of 2009, was replicated in other parts of India, both urban and rural, with similar results.
It challenged some of the key assumptions of formal education, demonstrating that, even in the absence of any direct input from a teacher, an environment that stimulates curiosity could result in learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge.
However, his research has shown that it’s not simply a case of taking teachers out of the equation: children in remote areas often perform poorly at school because they do not have access to good teaching.
As a result of further research which showed the importance of an encouraging adult in these circumstances, the Granny Cloud was born, after Sugata put out a plea for retired teachers in the UK to come forward who were willing to interact with children in India via Skype.