The ‘granny cloud’: the network of volunteers helping poorer children learn

[For a number of years I’ve followed the work of Sugata Mitra. I shared his “Hole in the Wall” project with my graduate students at Carnegie Mellon. When he proposed the School in the Cloud” strategy I shared his ideas. Like many educators I’m skeptical that his ideas scale and would provide the basis for an entire system, but they challenge our existing notions and provide fodder for educational conversation. This article from the Guardian does an excellent job highlighting both the reasons to challenge Mitra’s ideas and as well as the reasons to test out the strategies.]

Sugata Mitra with children at a hole-in-the-wall project in Delhi in 2011 Photograph: TED

Sugata Mitra with children at a hole-in-the-wall project in Delhi in 2011 Photograph: TED

August 2, 2015

Every week Lorraine Schneiter, a former Open University tutor, sits down in front of her computer, opens up Skype, and calls a group of children in India. And then they chat.

What about? “It depends on them. I have some suggestions up my sleeve but I always try to wait and see what they want to talk about. And then I’m always trying to make sure it’s relevant to their lives. I don’t like the idea of us zooming in from the west and trying to wave some wand over Indian children.”

Lorraine is 53 and has been running the Skype sessions for the last three years as a member of the “granny cloud” – a hundred of so people who have volunteered to talk to, read with, question and encourage schoolchildren via Skype.

Not all the grannies are grannies – Lorraine has only recently become an actual grandmother – and they’re not necessarily women or any particular age, but Suneeta Kulkarni, the research director of the project, tells me that they’ve never been able to shake the name. “We called it something like ‘self-organised mediation environment’ but we’ve given up. It never stuck. It is the granny cloud now.”

It’s just one part of a bold education experiment – the “School in the Cloud” – that began in Newcastle and has now gone global. It’s the brainchild of Sugata Mitra, 64-year-old professor of educational technology at the University of Newcastle, who stumbled across what he considered a startling discovery 15 years ago when he was chief scientist at a computer company in Delhi. A theoretical physicist by training, his job was to look at new technologies and one day his boss asked him to investigate public computers. On nothing much more than a whim, he undertook an ad hoc experiment. “I just called my two assistants into his office and said, ‘Let’s make a hole in that wall and stick the computer out there at a height children will be able to use.’ We just pulled out wires from the office network and connected it and pushed it out of the wall. ”

His office bordered a slum. “I had a piece of software which would show me what’s on the screen on that computer. And things just started appearing on it.”

Like what? “Well, first we saw the mouse beginning to move. We said, ‘Oh, so they’ve figured the mouse out.’ Even that was a surprise because these children had never seen a computer before and were mostly illiterate. And then after about an hour they were double-clicking on things. And then a night passed and we came back and found a Word file with someone’s name written on it. And we were like, ‘We haven’t given them a keyboard. How are they typing?’ So we had to go out and see what they were doing. They’d found something called a character map, which is in Word. Most people didn’t even know it’s there. But they’d found it and were using it to type.”

The Times of India wrote a story about the slum kids who’d taught themselves to use computers and Mitra went on to conduct further “hole-in-the-wall” experiments in different areas of India.

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