Building Schools In the Cloud

Alys Francis Writer

At a time when India’s school system is struggling with scant resources and slipping standards, School in the Cloud promises to revolutionise how children study. But will this approach catch on?

Sugata Mitra was selling IT packages in Delhi, India in 1999 when he was made aware of a great injustice. Outside his office was a slum where children lived without access to decent education, and Mitra said he realised “the system was fixed so that only rich people’s children were able to get the training they needed.”

An idea dawned on him: Why not just give these kids a computer?

So Mitra cheekily placed a computer with Internet access in the slum, told the children he didn’t know what it was and walked away.

When he eventually returned, Mitra said he was stunned to find the children “teaching each other how to browse – in English.”

Putting Children in Charge of Learning

The experiment marked the start of Mitra’s journey – from computer programmer to revolutionary educationist who pioneered a new model for self-organised learning.

The self-organised learning environment (SOLE) model is characterised by limited teacher intervention. Rather than giving instructions, mediators pose questions and take a back seat while students work together to find the answers using the Internet.

After testing the model over the years, including setting up SOLE labs to observe how children learn, Mitra came to a groundbreaking conclusion.

He believes that, given the right digital tools and a friendly but by no means expert mediator, children “can pass school-leaving exams on their own”.

“I’m not saying that SOLE can replace a good teacher,” Mitra added. Rather, he thinks “SOLE can be an added bonus to (a child’s) education, inspiring them to go further than they thought possible”.

How Will SOLE Upturn Traditional Schools?

As SOLE challenges the common view that teacher instruction is key for learning, it’s not surprising that the model has met with differing views.

Teacher in a classroom of a Rural Indian Village School, teaching Mathematics. The language used in the teaching is Marathi Devnagiri which is quite similar to Hindi.
Mitra’s SOLE model is questioned by educators who promote teacher instruction as key for learning.

Teacher trainer Hugh Dellar reacted with outrage after hearing Mitra’s presentation at a conference in 2014, branding his idea as a “capitalist takeover of the state system”.

Some of Mitra’s research in self-organised learning has also attracted criticism. ResearchED founder Tom Bennet asserted that research published in the Journal of Education and Human Development in 2014, which measured children’s achievements in SOLEs, “represents a lot of what can go wrong with educational research”.

But SOLE has many fans, including Dr Suneeta Kulkarni, who lives in Pune, India. Kulkarni is the research director for School in the Cloud and has a background in educational psychology.

Online platform School in the Cloud facilitates the running of SOLEs and was established after Mitra won the US$1 million TED prize in 2013. The funding also went to set up eight SOLE labs across India and the UK as well as the Granny Cloud where children connect to mediators via Skype.

In Kulkarni’s opinion, SOLE has a key advantage over traditional education. Learner-driven learning means that children are free to pursue their interests and learn at their own pace, so they are more engaged in lessons, she explained. With an encouraging mediator “they can go really far,” she added.

Developing Engaged Learners

Kulkarni spends much time assessing SOLE learning and firmly believes it can bring about changes in children. “The most striking ones are to do with their involvement in learning, rise in confidence, (and) improved reading fluency and comprehension, particularly of English,” she said.

Dr. Kulkarni believes children learn better on their own.

Moreover, Kulkarni thinks SOLE could help improve India’s school system, which suffers from an over-reliance on rote learning, limited resources and large class sizes.

“The SOLE approach could heavily supplement what happens inside typical classrooms at a relatively low cost, and make the learning process far more enjoyable and meaningful,” she said. “It can also be a way to provide at least minimal educational opportunities to children in various remote or disadvantaged areas.”

Can the SOLE Model Scale?

“We certainly hope it will grow. It just takes people to believe in it and run with it,” said Mitra.

However, there is a significant challenge hampering the adoption of SOLE among schools: It doesn’t follow the traditional curriculum.

“Until that changes parents will not consider it a feasible alternative method of education,” he conceded.

Mitra’s pioneering School in the Cloud unlocks learning by putting children in control of the lesson. For students who can’t access schools, the model could provide at least some educational opportunities. It could also shake up schools that rely on rote learning. But given its departure from the standard school curriculum, it’s unlikely to be widely adopted at this time.

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