As I wait for my Skype call to connect to Gocharan, a far-flung village in the interiors of West Bengal, I peruse my question set one last time, a bit nervously. Communicating over the Internet and to a linguistically different region is not something one does every day. Rather any day, unless you have heard about the School in the Cloud. School in the Cloud developed out of Dr Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the wall” experiments with startling results – that a group of children with access to the Internet can learn almost anything by themselves.
I would have passed it as just another theory if it hadn’t been for this call. My apprehensions turned into amusement and then amazement. I will use the word ‘fancy’ for the class at Gocharan with its red walls, casual placement of chairs around pink and yellow tables, and most importantly the suave technology. It may be widely known as a laboratory, but I would recognize it as a learning center with computers, projectors, a big television, speakers and a group of children with access to the Internet. What can this access do? D has made his own program using the JARVIS Software, S has used it to learn photography, kids enthusiastically tell me about carbon footprints and they are more adept at using Google Earth than I am. I needn’t have been nervous really, I barely referred to the questions I had prepared. These children have so much to share about their School in the cloud lab. There are five such labs in India including the one in Gocharan. Three of the labs are set in really remote locations of Phaltan in Maharashtra, Chandrakona and Korakati in West Bengal – and the fourth is in the National Capital Region. I am using the word ‘remote’ only for the geographical placement of these locations, for these are far more connected to the outside world through Granny Cloud than some of the urban cities are.
Granny is usually one’s grandmother, but someone who makes us aware about interesting theories, tells us stories and facilitates learning is also a granny. This is essentially what SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environment) revolves around – facilitating learning. Grannies from all walks of life – young and old, male and female – communicate with these kids via Skype. Sometimes these grannies share stories, sometimes pose big questions around which debates revolve, other times they introduce key topics for kids to research on the Internet and share insights, but mostly they provide a stimulating environment where kids learn in a fun and interactive manner.
As the name suggests, self organized learning environments aim at sparking curiosity among children, which becomes an important driver for self-learning. The essence remains tied to the original concept – let children have access to the Internet and they can teach themselves. In India, the first such experiment was conducted in 2006 in Hyderabad, when a SOLE Lab was integrated into a school setting. However, due to restricted access of the technology to children, language barriers, and the nascent stage of the concept, it saw limited success. This is when the grannies were introduced to SOLEs. Grannies not only became the facilitators of these environments, but also opened the doors for cultural exchange and exploration. This assimilation and innovation helped overcome the problem that was initially faced. The children built a basic language vocabulary through their interactions with the grannies. As the interactions increased, so did their understanding of the language, and them accessing the technology. This knowledge transfer directly correlated with the growth of confidence in these kids. Most importantly the exchange of puzzles, stories, ideas and the session structure made the kids take the onus of their learning.
A typical SOLE session has a granny as a facilitator who also presents a big question. These questions are generally open-ended so as to not confine the thought process of the children. Children then use the Internet to research and extract information to find the answers to these questions. As the activity takes place in groups, the kids first initiate a debate in their small groups and then later present their conclusions in a large group. Once all the small groups have presented their ideas, the group as a whole arrives at an answer. All this while the granny merely looks on. This structure not only helps boost critical reasoning and team building skills but also rouses a sense of ownership in the children. This system promotes independence while underscoring inter-dependence to find solutions to challenging problems.
It is not just the big questions, grannies may conduct art and craft classes, read stories, play games, etc. As basic as it is, these grannies connect with the kids to infuse curiosity; they offer mutual support, mentor individual children, provide technical support, gather data for research, explore fund-raising opportunities, promote the project through the media and help recruit new grannies.
Mrs Suneeta Kulkarni, Research Director for the program proudly talks about the debates and discussions she has witnessed in these learning labs. She adds how discussions span across a wide range of topics such as the longest river, and Hitler and Holocaust among other things. She has a plethora of stories to share. She remembers a discussion when the children asked a granny from the United Kingdom why the U.K. didn’t have an independence day. She talks about the challenges the program faces while dealing with children with limited attention spans, varied learning styles, and the program’s integration into a classroom curriculum, but eventually she says they always find a solution to the problems they encounter.
It is getting dark in Gocharan, but the children patiently and enthusiastically answer my questions. They have figured out the distance from my office in Chandigarh to Gocharan. They are listing the travel options, the time constraints and the geographical differences. They have already shown me around Chandigarh using Google Earth. They have used the satellite view to check the terrain and street view to see the city. Let me remind you again, these kids are in Gocharan, a remote village in India with high speed Internet in a SOLE Lab.
The author, a former Teach for India Fellow, is currently juggling between writing, teaching, and exploring tech spaces. She can be reached at [email protected].