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Building a school in the cloud

In 2013, education scientist Sugata Mitra, a leading advocate of the self-directed learning movement, won the $ 1-million TED prize to fulfil his dream of creating ‘Schools in a Cloud’ — where children could explore online resources to answer questions. “Give them a laptop and a group of pupils will teach themselves,” believes Mitra. His idea not only tackles one of the greatest problems of education (that the best teachers and schools don’t exist where they’re needed most), but it also involves students in both the learning and teaching process.

Mitra’s hypothesis has grown from his now famous 1999 “Hole in the Wall” experiment in which he placed a computer in a Delhi slum to be accessed free of cost. He found street children with no knowledge of English soon becoming adept at using the computer. “This inspired me to study Self-Organized Learning Environments, or SOLEs — places that aren’t necessarily schools, but where children learn through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge,” says Mitra. To facilitate this learning process, what students need aren’t teachers, but motivators. “We decided to use grandmothers as models. A granny admires her grandchild’s smallest achievement and encourages rather than teaches,” says Mitra. So, he created an expandable ‘Granny Cloud’ of voluntary mentors (not necessarily grandmothers) who are available on Skype from remote locations and who guide students’ explorations of the Internet. “This way, learning is minimally invasive, yet it is focused,” he says. This also gives his model a great deal of flexibility — it can replace, or at the very least, complement conventional learning paradigms.

I visit a SOLE lab in a government girls’ school in Kalkaji, Delhi. (There are seven SOLE labs in all — five in India and two in the UK). Skype Granny Prerana Majumdar from Tarzana, USA, is playing Sudoku with Class VII girls. They aren’t all familiar with the game, but soon begin helping each other to place numbers across the grid. The Granny speaks directly to a girl not quite fluent in English, and the others quickly help her frame a response. Without a teacher or textbooks, the girls are learning and, more importantly, enabling each other to learn new skills. On another monitor, a girl is engrossed in making an e-card for a Skype Granny. She types, “Maam, this is only for you. Your sole class student, Archana Kumari.”

“The change I see in them is amazing,” says Rekha Sharma, the SOLE facilitator at the Kalkaji school. “The mere fact that someone across the world is interested in them motivates them to learn more. Earlier, most of the girls were shy. Today, they fall over each other to talk with the Skype Grannies.” Sharma tells me that most students at the SOLE lab come from economically underprivileged backgrounds. “Although they are in Class VII, most of them can’t speak English. But the other day, after an interaction with an Australian Skype Granny, they suddenly developed a distinctly Aussie twang,” she laughs.

“The children interact with people from other cultures, collaborate with one another to find information on the Internet and develop an inner motivation to learn,” says Mitra. These are traits that savvy employers look for, yet they aren’t on any school curriculum. “Schools across the world focus on good handwriting and memorising information easily available online. If students can use the Internet freely in school, their mental space would get freed up for creative thinking,” he says. Mitra’s educational paradigm poses ‘Big Questions’ to guide students’ quests for knowledge. “For instance, instead of learning the multiplication tables for nine our big question could be, ‘Why is it that when you multiply a number by nine, the sum of the numbers in the product always equals nine?’” Mitra says. The more students dig into such questions, the deeper their understanding will be.

Sugata Mitra outside the cloud school in Korakati, West Bengal

If banishing conventional teachers wasn’t enough, Mitra makes a convincing case for banishing examinations too. “Instead, I want students to be able to use resources on the Internet to answer questions during exams. They should walk around and discuss the questions with their peers,” he says. If implemented, this will change everything. Factual questions will have to be replaced with more creative ones and this, in turn, will change the way a subject is taught in the classroom. “A South American country is seriously considering implementing this paradigm. In the meanwhile, our SOLE toolkit is free to download and I’ve lost count of the number of schoolteachers the world over who’re using it already,” he says.

Mitra’s grant from TED runs till October 2016. During this time, he and a team of researchers will collate their observations of the seven SOLE labs. Meanwhile, their blog is already brimming with stories of children embarking on SOLE-inspired quests for knowledge. “I hope to refine the SOLE kit by 2016,” he says. “If we’re able to inspire many more Kalkajis across the world, I’m certain we’ll see some real social change.”

To learn more, visit theschoolinthecloud.org
Download the SOLE toolkit at ted.com/pages/sole_toolkit

Next fortnight, an NGO has come up with an inspiring strategy to empower women by arming them with sanitary napkins and information on menstrual hygiene

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