Technology - Cloud schools form with 'granny' army

Pioneer Sugata Mitra drafts in retired teachers for $1m project

A futuristic $1 million experiment into learning without teachers is to take place in the mangrove swamps and urban slums of India - and in a new town in England, TES can reveal.

Professor Sugata Mitra believes that his "schools in the cloud", designed to allow groups of children to teach themselves using the internet, could trigger large and fast improvements in students' English reading comprehension. "We must not assume that the only way they can learn to read is the way they are learning now," the Newcastle University academic said. "Maybe they can learn to read by themselves."

He will test the idea in seven "cloud schools", funded by the $1 million (#163;670,000) TED prize he won this year. Five will be in his native India - two in city slums and three in remote villages - and another two will be in secondary schools in Killingworth and Newton Aycliffe in the North East of England.

Professor Mitra is building on his famous 1999 "Hole in the Wall" experiment, in which he installed an internet-connected, child-height computer in the wall of a Delhi slum. Children worked out its functions for themselves, leading to Professor Mitra's idea of a self-organised learning environment, or Sole.

Now he is marrying this with another concept that he has pioneered - the "granny cloud" - to create "cloud schools". The idea is that retired professionals, or "grannies", from four continents can connect to a Sole via Skype.

Their role will be to suggest research topics to children and encourage and praise their learning, without actually teaching them. Professor Mitra hopes that the grannies will be able to supervise everything in the cloud schools remotely, including physical features such as lights and windows.

"It means I could make these anywhere, wherever I had access to the internet," he said. "And I could run them with a well-meaning adult who doesn't have to know anything, whose job is to ensure health and safety."

The cloud schools will be known as Areas 0-6 (see panel, left) - "a nice sci-fiway of numbering them", according to Professor Mitra. Their physical structures will vary. The most ambitious and expensive, Area 0, will be a hexagonal glass pod. Area 1 - the most remote, in the Ganges Delta - will be built from mud and grass.

The two cloud schools in England will be housed in specially adapted rooms in existing schools.

"What they will all have in common is they will be high visibility," Professor Mitra said. "Hopefully, if you are near them you will be able to see everything inside. That is very important for everything to do with children."

He envisages that all the cloud schools will have several computers with large screens, each with seating for four or five children. They will also have an even larger screen on which the life-size image of a supervising "granny" will be projected.

The concept is designed for remote locations without teachers or where teaching is very poor. But Professor Mitra also wants to see how it would work in areas that already benefit from good schools, such as George Stephenson High in Killingworth.

Headteacher Ian Wilkinson is keen to put the idea into practice. "We have increasingly found that if you give young people a bit of autonomy and independence, they run with it," he said.

His cloud school will be used by the school's 11- to 18-year-old students, as well as seven- to 10-year-olds from feeder schools. And because George Stephenson is open on Saturdays, Professor Mitra will be able to see whether cloud schools can attract children in developed countries to use them in their free time.

At Greenfield Community College in Newton Aycliffe, a new town in County Durham, it is hoped that students' families will also use the cloud school, which will be based in an adjoining arts centre that opens until 9pm and at weekends.

The community it serves includes two council wards that are among the 5 per cent most deprived in England. Katie Milne, director of arts at the 11-16 school, said that an earlier Sole experiment had yielded positive results. "There was a colossal shift in students' perception of their own role in learning after 10 weeks," she said. "There was more of a desire to engage because they were part of the process and were deciding the content."

Professor Mitra hopes that the cloud schools can be built this summer and will be running in England in the autumn and in India from December.


The seven 'cloud schools':

Area 0: the flagship, most expensive, cloud school. A hexagonal glass pod to be built in Gocharan, a village in West Bengal, India.

Area 1: the most remote cloud school, to be built from mud and grass in Korakati, a tiny village in the Sundarbans mangrove swamps in the Ganges Delta, West Bengal.

Area 2: in an existing room in the village of Chandra Koma, around 200km from Calcutta.

Area 3: in a yet to be identified urban slum in Delhi, India.

Area 4: in a yet to be identified urban slum in Pune, India.

Area 5: in a converted classroom at George Stephenson High, Killingworth, England.

Area 6: in an arts centre at Greenfield Community College, Newton Aycliffe, England.

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