Let’s look back at some past work:
1. Groups of children can learn to
use a computer and the Internet by themselves, under certain conditions
described a little later. This is a finding from a set of experiments between
1999 – 2004, often called the ‘hole in the wall’ experiments.
There are places all over the
planet where it is difficult or impossible to build schools.
There are places all over the
world where good teachers cannot, or do not wish to go.
Children who know how to read
can use the Internet in groups to research and answer questions far ahead of
their traditional curriculum.
This kind of learning is a
‘self organizing system’ in the technical sense of those words. It happens in a
‘minimally invasive’ environment and appears to be a ‘emergent phenomenon’, again, in the
technical sense of those words.
The emergence of learning in
children from a chaotic, self organized situation seems to be helped by the
occasional presence of an admiring, interested, but not necessarily
knowledgeable, adult or adults.
Reading comprehension is a key
requirement for this kind (perhaps any kind) of learning.
We don’t know, but can ask,
whether children in groups can learn to read by themselves. This question is
courtesy Nicholas Negroponte. We could also ask if children in groups can read
at higher levels of comprehension than individually.
Is it possible to put all this together
into a learning system for children in need?
If you give children, below the age of 13,
access to a computer connected to the Internet, they learn how to use it.
However, there are some conditions for this to happen.
The computer has to be in a
safe, public place so that parents will let children come there. A playground,
for example, is a good place. Public visibility is important so that people can
see what the children are doing and the children know this.
There should be no adult
directing them, children don’t like having people breathing down their necks watching
their every move.
About four or five children
with one computer seems to be the optimal number.
They should know that they are
free to do what they like and there is no pre-selected activity. What they
choose to do is a group decision. Usually they find and choose to play games.
If you then ensure the computer is in
working order, children begin to tire of games in a month or so and look for
other activity. Painting is a very popular activity and they learn to save and
load pictures in the process. Some children learn to look for and install games
from the Internet. In the process they discover Google.
If they can read sufficiently well in
English or some other language that is adequately represented on the Internet,
such as Spanish, Italian, Chinese etc., children begin to search for answers to
questions. These questions are usually about games, but in the process of
looking up these words related to games, they stumble upon other sites. In
about six months time, they begin to understand keyword searching.
Some begin to search for homework related
materials while others look for news or sports. I have seen some look for a job
for their fathers, a horoscope forecast for their family, or medicines for the
elderly. They must have considered these
If a group of children find a question that
they think is important, they will search for an answer. On the Internet, this
will usually result in finding good information. Groups of children, in the
presence of good information will discuss possible answers. Most of the time,
such a process results in the emergence of good answers. A by-product of this
process is learning.
We can bring this process into classrooms
through Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs). This is now fairly well
understood and accepted by many teachers around the world.
We can ‘beam’ people to places where they
cannot physically go by using the Internet. The ‘Granny Cloud’ is a group of
mediators that are Skyped into schools. It has been in existence since 2009 and
is currently (2013), quite active.
the SOLE and the Granny Cloud come together?
Well, we have some problems:
Are SOLEs really
self-organizing? When conducted in a classroom, children are asked to make
groups (by themselves), each group is given an Internet connection and they are
asked to answer a question. We allow them to move around, change groups, talk
and look at each other’s work. But it is we who are telling them to do all
this. Are we moving away from the chaotic self-organization of the hole in the
wall? (this question is courtesy C.Y. Gopinath). We could argue that an
‘attractor’ or a ‘seed’ is required for emergent behavior to happen in a self
organizing system. But is the adult organizing a SOLE just a seed? Or is this
adult the traditional teacher in disguise. Is it fake? This is a troublesome
If self organized learning is
an alternative to traditional teaching, then how is the Granny Cloud of any
use? Are we not bringing traditional teaching back, disguised with some clever
technology? To my mind the Granny Cloud was to improve children’s English, but
did I actually mean to ‘teach’ English? “The first granny said, "How did you do that?!" She
…sold them on their own power. Then (on the Granny Cloud) you said, "sorts
everything out." I hope you misspoke. I hope your granny cloud does
nothing of the sort. I hope they don't work one-on-one with struggling learners
because that would take us back to the empire.”
wrote Thomas Garrod in an email to me.
None of the original holes in the wall
are in working condition. Payal Arora pointed this out, several years ago.
Technical sustainability is a big problem, often confused with the
sustainability or the usability of the method of self organized learning.
The TED prize gives us the opportunity to
sort all this out and get some answers.
Schools in the Cloud must be sustainable
facilities that provide unsupervised self organized learning environments to
children. The role of the Cloud Granny reverts to the admiring adult, who
sometimes asks a question, but mostly observes and records learning as it
But what about reading comprehension? I
don’t know. The eMediators will have to
tell me how to do this, as we progress. This will be our central research
The role of the Granny Cloud will be
somewhat different when they are remotely in charge of a School in the Cloud.
In addition to developing one or more approaches to how they will interact with
the children, they will also have access to much of the hardware in the
facility. They will eventually be able to turn the lights on or off, check the
batteries in solar powered systems, look anywhere in the facility, and, perhaps,
‘walk’ around through multiple cameras.
“A session is not a lesson”, Jackie Barrow
had once said. That just about sums it up.
Seven facilities will be set up over the
next year or so. Five will be in India ranging from very remote villages to urban
slums and the urban middle class. Two will be set up in England, in relatively
affluent areas with excellent schools. What we do in each of them will, I
think, emerge, as we go along.
What else can one do when studying emergent