Technology is so often paraded as the ultimate answer to educational problems that it's hard not to be sceptical when another "solution" appears. Spend billions on virtual learning environments and education will be transformed, enthused the tech-evangelists a decade ago. Billions were spent but education resisted the transformation. Equip every child with a tablet and results will rocket, claim today's gadget enthusiasts, with similar ardour and an identical lack of evidence.
Now an Indian professor is aiming to transform learning with a "granny cloud", which sounds like a sinister scent developed by Elizabeth Arden with the help of Stephen King, wafting around the new set-ups that he has called "cloud schools" (see pages 9-10).
A few years ago, Sugata Mitra installed a computer linked to the internet in a Delhi slum wall. Incredibly, the children worked out how to use the thing for themselves without any instruction. He is now linking that initiative with another, the granny cloud, which allows the retired - or "grannies" - to connect with children via Skype and nudge them to explore topics, giving encouragement and praise but no actual teaching. For those readers old enough to recall the 1980s BT advert in the UK, imagine several virtual Maureen Lipmans enthusiastically intoning "Anthony, you got an ology?" and you will get the picture.
Mitra plans to set up several of these "cloud schools" - rooms with no teachers, just computers and the ethereal supervising presence of the "grannies" - in India and England. Does his scheme have the potential to transform learning, or is it just another gimmick destined to go the way of all those other tech initiatives that promised so much and delivered so little?
It does have some things going for it. For a start, it's relatively cheap. It has the potential to connect hundreds of children with willing volunteers for a relatively small outlay.
More impressively, it is less about kit and more about kids. Its successes are based on sound pedagogical concepts: that children can learn from each other; that they learn more when they have a hand in deciding the content; and that constant praise and encouragement can work wonders. According to the UK's Education Endowment Foundation, peer-to-peer learning is one of the most effective educational methods there is, so any system that incorporates it must have a reasonable chance of success.
There is, however, one enormous problem with Mitra's initiative. It is being promoted as "learning without teachers". Along with so many other fixes that promise educational nirvana, it cannot resist scrubbing out the role of the teacher.
Accepting that self-directed and autonomous student learning has a place does not mean that there is no role for the non-virtual pedagogues usually found in front of a class. Pictures on the internet of Mitra's now defunct and vandalised street computers provide an apt metaphor for one reason why. Children can learn a great deal from each other. But it's not all good, and most learn a lot more, and a lot more intelligently, with some direction from the traditional non-grannies we have come to call "teachers".