Learning in the Cloud

By  Anjali Shenoi

Suneeta Kulkarni of Sugata Mitra's School in the Cloud initiative discusses how free and open internet access helps underprivileged children take control of their own learning

Suneeta Kulkarni is Research Director of the School in the Cloud, an initiative that aims to spark creativity, curiosity and wonder in children and inspire them to take control of their own learning in Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs).There are seven SOLE Labs at present, one of them on the outskirts of Pune, in Phaltan.

The Schools in the Cloud follow-on from Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiment of 1999, in which groups of children from low-income neighbourhoods, with little or no knowledge of English and no exposure to computers, learnt to use computers by themselves. Over the next few years, through many experiments, Mitra learned that children with access to computer and related technology are capable of successfully answering examinations without traditional schooling. Since successfully completing school is such a widespread concern, the project took on the task of studying whether such self-organised learning can enable groups of children to successfully answer government Board examinations and obtain their school certificates using such 'minimally invasive' methods. Mitra is Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newscastle University, England. He is the winner of the TED Prize 2013.

By 2009, with institutions beginning to 'dematerialise' into what Mitra calls 'strings of ones and zeroes inside the evolving internet or The Cloud', it was possible to ‘beam’ teachers to places where they could not go. Mitra formed a ‘Granny Cloud’ of retired school teachers who would encourage children to learn by themselves.

By 2012, teachers around the world were using the Self-Organised Learning Environments, where children would group around internet connections to learn. The teacher would merge into the background and watch as learning happened. 

The key to all this is open and free internet access.

Recovering from an accident on a recent site visit to one of their centres, Suneeta, who has a PhD in psychology and has been associated with the initiative since 2008, took time out to speak to Netpehchaan about the Schools in the Cloud and how  access to the internet is helping children learn.

Background

Sugata’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment in 1999, wherein a computer was placed in a kiosk created within a wall in a slum in Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely, proved that children could teach themselves to use computers and also pick up some English language skills without any formal training.  In 2006, Sugata moved to the UK and began the next initiative which we call Self-Organised Learning Environments or SOLEs. Through SOLEs children could work in groups, access the internet and other software, follow-up on a class activity or project or go anywhere their interests led them. They began to flourish in the UK. Teachers were willing to use it for their classes and it seemed to work. The children were given these ‘big’ questions that were beyond what they were expected to do at their age. And it was shown that with complete freedom and internet access they could figure it out.

In India the SOLE experiment was carried out in government schools in Hyderabad. These were in the heart of the city, the walled city, urban slums, semi-rural areas etc.  The focus was on disadvantaged areas where freedom of movement, interaction, choice, thought, and therefore access, is often dictated by stringent social and religious norms. The schools were only required to provide a space; we arranged for the computers and internet connections. The schools we chose were English-medium schools.

However, we soon realised that this model was not working. The labs were usually kept locked up and children were allowed to use it only when we were visiting. Free access, which was the basic assumption of the programme, was lost. Moreover, although the language of instruction in the schools was supposed to be English, in most cases the children did not speak any English, and even the teachers were unable to speak in English.

This is when we decided to launch the Granny Cloud or the Self-Organised Mediation Environments (SOMEs). The idea was simple. How did you learn your own mothertongue? Through stories and songs sung to you by your grandmother. What the children needed was not proactive supervisors but in fact mentors. Most of us remember with fondness the days of being ‘spoilt’ by our mentors. Those were perhaps our best learning experiences. So we put out an ad in The Guardian in the UK and this is how the group of Grannies –  people who make themselves available over Skype for say one hour a week – emerged. When it first began we would schedule sessions with schools in India, to begin with, where a mediator would interact with a group of children. This could involve reading stories, conversing, singing and all those things friendly people do with children. Many of the original group are still on board though currently there is minimal activity in the Hyderabad SOLEs. But others have been set up and SOMEs now extend to Colombia as well.

When Sugata won the Ted Prize in 2013 we decided to go a step further and see if we could integrate the two approaches -- of free access anywhere, and in-depth explorations in schools -- and set up the School in the Clouds. In our current phase we have seven such schools in the clouds – two in the UK and five in India. In India we have chosen a range of locations, so we have the very remote rural locations of Korakati and Chandrakona, a government school in Delhi, and a fairly progressive independent school in Phaltan on the outskirts of Pune.

These schools are basically centres with computers. The computers are big, publicly-visible screens within a glass-walled room, which is an effective control on what they are doing on the computers. The children work in groups of four or five per computer. It has low-level searching and the Granny comes on live over Skype. In India the focus is on language skills and reading comprehension in English. This phase has only just begun and we are only just starting to get feedback on progress from these sites.

Challenges

Issues with service provision and access

Access to the internet and service provision has been one of the biggest challenges for us. For example at the site in Korakati in Bengal, there is no electricity. We have had to put up solar panels and mount the modem on a 40-foot bamboo pole to catch the internet signal. We have to constantly follow-up with service providers. However, these remote areas are not the priority for any providers. In a centre on the border of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, they regularly lose their connections because wild monkeys snap the wires. In such places we advise the organisation to use wireless dongles instead of wired broadband connections. However, the speeds dongles offer are often lower than wired connections, which becomes a problem while using Skype for the Granny Clouds.

Funding and sustainability

Going back to our initial experiment with SOLEs in Hyderabad, we discovered that once the funding ran out, the schools were not interested in continuing the programme. Although we had provided for the computers and their labs, they were not willing to pay even for the internet connections. From 2009 onwards we decided to set up centres only when people themselves approached us with a request. In these cases, they used their own equipment and internet connections and all we facilitated was the Granny Clouds. We would source the Grannies and put them in touch with these centres. The Grannies are all volunteers and give their time for free. These centres ranged from community-based organisations, NGOs, schools, individual homes, etc. In another recent experiment in an urban slum in Pune, the centre is currently funded by a young entrepreneur, who wants to see if it will be feasible to get people to pay a small amount to let their children use computers with internet. At this centre there is no Granny Cloud. Just two computers in the middle of a slum in a small recycling unit.

Attitudes of parents

Another huge challenge we face is that parents are unwilling to send their children to the centres if no direct, tangible classes are provided. They do not see the value of children simply using the internet to surf, search for things or play games.

Similarly, parents are not willing to pay for their children to use the internet for these purposes. Other than this, many parents also consider the internet to be a dangerous and evil space that is unsafe for children.  At all our centres we ascertain that all screens are completely in the public view and can be accessed by everyone in the room.  The children can see each other’s work, which thus leads to a sort of self-regulation. We also feel that pornography and other ‘undesirable’ content is not something that children consciously seek out. Yes, if the content exists on the system then their curiosity might get them to check it out. For example, again from the Hyderabad experiment, teachers reported that children were looking at such ‘undesirable’ content on the computers. When we investigated the matter, sure enough we found some such sites in the history. However, the time at which these sites were looked at was 2 am in the morning. Clearly suggesting that it wasn’t the children that were looking at it but probably a guard or another teacher.

Similarly, I find many teachers concerned over social media sites such as Facebook. I for one feel that Facebook helps us in our work in such great ways. We manage to keep track of the children who have been through either SOLEs or Granny Clouds and it also becomes an important tool to track longitudinal change and impact. We also have grannies who are dead against Facebook and greatly restrict their use otherwise. However, on the group they are extremely active.

Coming from a background in parenting, I feel that restricting a child’s access is definitely not the way out. Parents can in fact use this medium to communicate with their children better. They can send the children links to interesting groups and pages on Facebook, widening their exposure in a positive way.

Measuring and evaluating change

Measuring and evaluating change in programmes like this one is always difficult. One of the criticisms we get is that children are showing no tangible changes in their language skills. Now we use four parameters to monitor our initiatives: A tool to measure reading fluency with comprehension; Ability to counter big questions and search for answers; A tool to study and map change in aspirations and attitudes; A tool to measure change in confidence levels. All these parameters together define change for us.

In the Pune experiment, for instance, the children started out with a vocabulary of barely three words and now they have an English language vocabulary of about 45-50 words, which for me is a huge step. Besides, some of the children have also showed a change in nuanced vocabulary; for instance they now know the difference between a house and a building, or a monkey and a gorilla. Similarly, we also encourage the children to write reports and then work on their interests that reflect in these reports. For instance if a child shows interest in Michael Jackson, we help her carry this interest forward by creating a big question, say  around dance. This has helped children in a big way. For example a lot of the children play the game ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ at the Pune centre. Recently when they had a visitor from Alaska, they actually sat down to explore Google maps and managed to identify several countries on the way. The next step would be to frame a related question -- for example, figure out how long it will take to get to Alaska by a certain mode of transport.

Another aspect that interests us greatly is to look at whether the initiatives are making any difference to the aspirations that the children have. When you ask children, they will probably promptly say they want to become a teacher or a doctor or an engineer. However, what we’d like to know is whether, over a period of time, these aspirations become more realistic and relevant to their local contexts, based on the exposure they are getting. For instance it would be interesting to see if any of the children say they want to become a forest ranger in Korakati.  Similarly, through many of the Granny Cloud sessions we have managed to get the children to start questioning and rationalising a lot of their beliefs. For example a boy being mentored by a Granny not only went on to study medicine in the Philippines under her guidance, but she would also challenge him to think about things like gender roles within his family and community and religion.

Another criticism we often get is that not all the children are changing, and it's taking too long. As all of us working in the education sector with disadvantaged children know only too well, we cannot expect change overnight! It's just not possible. Perhaps their language skills are not changing fast enough, but what about other things – like confidence levels, attitudes, ability to work in a group? Moreover, change can never be uniform. All children are different and will grow and change at their own pace. While some may go on to big universities others may rightfully choose to stay within their communities. Given all the exposure, if this is what they choose, I think we must also welcome that!