School in the cloud: Children with mentors on the other side of the world

Alison Gee BBC World Service [Magazine], BBC 25 April 2014 | Read the full report >>

Five years ago, an Indian schoolboy struck up an unlikely friendship with a retired teacher in London – and with her help he is now studying to be a doctor. Even though they live thousands of miles apart and have never met, they can’t imagine life without each other. […]

Khan made the most of his new friendship. His English improved in leaps and bounds.

As the years passed, Khan told Fewings that he wanted to become a doctor and planned to apply to university in the UK. […]

He [Prof. Mitra]  wanted to see if the children could teach themselves to operate it without any instruction and was amazed how quickly they gathered round the screen and worked together to pick up new concepts. “I began to suspect that reading in groups is different from reading individually,” he says.

Mitra saw “that children can go well over 10 or 12 years ahead of their time using this kind of method”.

He called it self-organised learning and expanded his project. In 2008 he installed computers in 11 schools in Hyderabad, including Khan’s. Since then, he has taken his idea of self-organised learning environments (Soles) to rural parts of India too.

The project provided the inspiration for the book Q&A, which in turn inspired the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire.

Last year, Mitra won a $1m (£650,000) prize from the organisers of the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference – he’s using the money to fund the next phase, which is known as the “School in the Cloud“. […]

This is a network of seven new centres for self-organised learning – basic cybercafes for children where every computer screen is visible to anyone nearby. There is also a large monitor where they can call an “electronic mediator”, like Fewings, for help.

Three of the new labs are in the east of India – the ones in Korakati and Chandrakona in West Bengal are in particularly remotes areas where children’s access to education is currently very limited.

But the focus is not just on India – Professor Mitra has opened two computer labs in the UK, in Killingworth and Newton-Aycliffe in north-east England.

The students there also have access to mentors who are known as Cloud Grannies – although many, like Fewings, are not actually grandmothers.

The name comes from the idea that they behave like a proud grandparent – offering encouragement and guidance rather than teaching. […]

Mitra thinks self-organised learning has the potential to replace lessons in the classroom but not the teachers. “The teacher is the one who raises or exposes the subject to the children, she constructs the questions which lead the self-organised learning,” he says.

Having spent much of her life in the classroom, Fewings thinks self-organised learning could help children develop problem-solving skills. “There needs to be a way of doing that so children aren’t sitting in rows learning facts, [but] working collaboratively and helping each other along.”  […]

As for Khan, he says he never feels alone. “If I have any problem there is someone to help.”

Professor Sugata Mitra spoke to Newshour on the BBC World Service.

Source: BBC News – School in the cloud: Children with mentors on the other side of the world
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