Barefoot In the head

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

A Hole In The World


There is a space in her home. It is a 8’x8’x8’ cube. Or 3m x 3m x 3m if you like metres. When she enters it, one wall lights up with the Internet. She finds a webcam in the Amazon delta. The climate control in her Cube reproduces the temperature, humidity, sound and light levels of the webcam in minutes. Sweating, she rents a virtual drone and flies. She wants to get to the coast and meet some people there. When she reaches the blue-and-muddy water, the children come running out to their cube and screen. She smiles and speaks, hoping the translator will do a reasonable job with Portuguese. It does not, and the children laugh and roll around on the ground. 

All the technology to do this is there already. It is not expensive and can get cheaper if we keep electric cars and spaceships on hold for a while. We don't need to isolate ourselves with expensive VR headsets - we need to share screens.

We need reliable batteries, broadband, a projector that can project high resolution images vertically without having to be placed horizontally away from the wall. All of this exists. We need a climate controller that can cool, heat and humidify a small space quicky. We need 3D surround sound and variable lighting. All exist.

The idea is really simple. Imagine you are on a video conference with someone, using Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp video or whatever works for you. You would be using a screen of some sort, and so would the other side. On your screen you see a bit of the environment of the other side, just as they see a bit of your environment on their screen. Now imagine if your screen was the size of the wall in front of you and it was the same on the other side. It would now be as though the two walls have merged into one glass wall – the two environments have become one. If you are in your study and your friend is in her living room, it would now look to you as though her living room was an extension of your study. Similarly, to you friend it would look as though her living room had your study attached. There would be a hole in the world connecting your spaces.

To enhance presence, you would need to match the sound, light temperature and humidity of the two connected environments. You could decide which one to replicate on the other side. It would be cheaper to do this to a small, enclosed space, hence my suggestion of the cube.

We can create this world, a world as alien to a virus as a virus is to our biological selves. Unless, of course, we would rather go back to the world that we left behind. A world where we kill the enemy and live happily ever after. Just as there are people who want to go back to the 20th century or the 7th – even today.

COVID19 has changed our world, swiftly and immensely. It has emptied the world and put people in their homes. It has closed commerce, industry and almost all physical human interactions. It has shut down the world as we knew it. We need to create a new world.

We are now alone, except perhaps for immediate family. We have to avoid the outdoors, except to get food and medicines. We have to be as clean and isolated as possible. In the process, along with the COVID, we will also avoid all other infection, viral or bacterial. Presumably, we will need less medicines. Presumably, we will need less food.

Gradually, we are getting used to the ideas of silence, clean air and living with ourselves.

Along with this physical isolation there is a growing new world, seething with activity – the Internet. It is rapidly replacing the unidirectional world of television and print. In this new world, we live with the Internet (I think we should get used to spelling it with a capital I). It is our collective consciousness, our collective Self. It has no physical form, it exists but is not ‘anywhere’.

We access the Internet all the time, with devices, usually small phones, tablets or laptops. Sometimes we use a desktop screen and love the size and presence it offers.

We respond differently to large screens than to small ones. I learnt this from watching children learning off the Internet on large screens. Large screens have large presence. Large screens can be seen, shared and heard by others. Children clustering, physically or virtually, around large screens learn rapidly through shared experience. Twenty years ago, I saw this by embedding Internet connected computers into walls in public spaces in the slums and villages of India. The experiment was dubbed the ‘Hole In The Wall’ by the media. Over the years, the hole in the wall became ‘Self Organised Learning Environments’ in England and then the ‘School in the Cloud’ all over the world. But it remained a curiosity in the physical world of classrooms and playgrounds and shopping malls.

I think we need those ideas now in our new world. From social distancing we can move to a life that is more full of activity and learning than it was ever before. 

We need a Hole In The World.


Saturday, March 14, 2020

The School in the Cloud - when children and teachers cannot come to school


The Corona Virus, Covid-19, has done what experts have suggested, but not been able to implement, over decades. It has stopped children from being herded into classes. At least for a while.

So, what’s going to happen to the children who are at home? Who is going to look after them if their parent(s) are away to work? What will they do all day?

I have worked with children, both in and out of school, for several decades. In particular, I have worked on what the internet and children can do together. Maybe, in all those years of work, are some answers to what could happen in a world without schools as we know them.

In what follows are some ideas that I know will work, some that may work although I have not tried them and some that are just guesses. If you are a teacher or a parent, I hope you will find some of this useful.

Groups of unsupervised children sharing an internet connection on a large screen in a safe and public space, can learn anything by themselves – if they want to.

This was the main finding from the ‘hole in the wall’ experiments of 1999-2005 in India that led to the development of ‘self organized learning environments (SOLEs)’ between 2006-2009 in England. Later, we added a ‘granny cloud’ from 2010 to augment the process and whole thing was called ‘the school in the cloud’. Its all there in my book ‘The School in the Cloud – the emergning future of learning’ (https://us.corwin.com/en-us/nam/the-school-in-the-cloud/book257918). References to published research work are available from my website at www.cevesm.com .

Maybe it is time to bring the school in the cloud to this strange new world we have been plunged into by the Corona Virus of 2019. Here are some of the things you could do – and some that you should not.

Make a group of 24 children using, say, WhatsApp, FB messenger or something similar. This is not a ‘class’ and you are not going to do ‘online teaching’.

Take anything that you think would be interesting for the children to learn about and make a question out of it. Start a group chat and build up to the question. This is a very critical part of the process you are about to start. Don’t make the questions too easy. Not the kind that google can produce an instant answer to. Questions that you or anyone else does not know the answer to are sometimes the best! There are lots of questions that teachers have tried, good or bad, available from sites such as https://startsole.org/. Also, the Granny Cloud (http://thegrannycloud.org/) has people who have used the internet to talk to children for over 10 years. They can give you invaluable advice.

It may be poetic justice to ask, ‘Is a virus dead or alive?’ as one of your first questions. No one, I think, knows the answer.

It would be ideal if the children in your group could form groups of about four each, maybe by gathering at someone’s home. They should access the internet using a large screen, such as a desktop computer or a smart TV. Tiny devices like smart phones and tablets are not good because it is difficult for more than one person to see what’s on the screen. Giving a device or computer each to every child is not a good idea – you want them to share the resource and share their ideas.

If it is not possible to make physical groups of children, things are bit more complex. Try to get each child to access the internet from a large screen and, at the same time, be in touch with other children in the group, using whatever means works best – phones, tablets, Bluetooth, whatever.

Tell the children they must collectively arrive at an answer, or answers, to your question. Suggest a time to reassemble. They could present that collective answer in whatever form they want – video, audio, document, presentation etc. But it must be only up to six answers for your group of 24. Not more. They have to discuss and figure out how they will assemble the answers. They must figure out how they will go about finding the answer. Don’t make this sound like an order, tell them you are helpless, you don’t have the time to look at 24 answers. Ask them if they can figure this out by themselves

This is your new sci-fi school. Just some learners and you, floating in cyberspace. ‘You go there, I will go with you’ is all you can say.

This is called a Self Organised Learning Environment. A SOLE. It works with children from 8 years old to young adults in Universities. That is as far as I know.

You can map an entire curriculum into questions. A curriculum that is made of the things that we don’t know is more interesting than one that is a list of the things that we know. In trying to figure out what we don’t know, learners will come across what we do know, anyway.

The statement, ‘No one knows the answer’ attracts all of humanity - we are built that way.

The SOLE as a method of learning needs no tests or examinations. After all, the whole process consists of learners attempting to answer questions, which is what tests are all about anyway. You could give a score to each SOLE session, if you like. You won’t find out how much learners remember, but you will find out how they can critically examine issues and problems.

This then, could be your school. The Corona Virus may have closed schools down, or it may have expanded them to cover the globe.

If these suggestions interest you and you do try them, please let me know how it went. There will be many ways to let me know, I think. You figure that one out 😊