Barefoot In the head

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Location: Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, United Kingdom

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Schools in the Cloud – What could they be?

 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.

2.     There are places all over the planet where it is difficult or impossible to build schools.

3.     There are places all over the world where good teachers cannot, or do not wish to go.

4.     Children who know how to read can use the Internet in groups to research and answer questions far ahead of their traditional curriculum.

5.     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.

6.     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.

7.     Reading comprehension is a key requirement for this kind (perhaps any kind) of learning.

8.     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.

1.     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.

2.     There should be no adult directing them, children don’t like having people breathing down their necks watching their every move.

3.     About four or five children with one computer seems to be the optimal number.

4.     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 questions important.

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.

Can the SOLE and the Granny Cloud come together?

Well, we have some problems:

1.     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 question.

2.     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.

3.     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 happens.

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 question.

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 phenomena?

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Three graves from another time..

As you enter the Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, you encounter an impressive Bengali 'Chhatri'. It is the grave of Raja Rammohun Roy.

Educational reformer, religious reformer and the man who abolished the 'suttee' system of burning widows on their husbands funeral pyres.

He was also the last Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zaffar's ambassador to Britain. The plaque on the tomb says it all.

The grave was built by one of the richest men of those times, Dwarkanath Tagore. It was designed by William Prinsep, a name that many would remember on the banks of the Hoogly in Calcutta. 

Its not so grand at the next graveyard, the Kensal Green Cemetery in London. Entering the cemetery, if you walk straight down, you will encounter an unassuming grave. It is the grave of Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize - Rabindranath Tagore. 

The Kensal Green Cemetery on Harrow Road, London

Dwarkanath was a businessman of some acumen. What is business was is, perhaps, best left unsaid (Rabindranath destroyed his papers). But he was rich. Rich enough to go to London to negotiate with Queen Victoria to buy out half the business rights of the East India Company and take over all trading in eastern India. But it was not to be, he died of a heart attack in London. 

Dwarkanath Tagore's grave


He would never know that his grandson would be India's national poet and one of the greatest poets of our times. 

But his grandson's story takes us to yet another grave. 

Far away, in Buenos Aires, Argentina is an incredible graveyard called the La Recoleta. It is a city of the dead. 

La Recoleta in Buenos Aires

If you walk straight into the graveyard for quite a distance, you will come to the grave of Victoria O'Campo.

Tagore met Victoria on a trip to Argentina and brought her to Shantiniketan in Bengal. That story is well documented, so I need not recount it here. 

Victoria O'Campo's grave

Well, that ends my story of graves. I feel fortunate to have touched the stone that surrounds the remains of Rammohun Roy, Dwarkanath Tagore and Victoria O'Campo.