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21/09/2014

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Heads in the cloud to educate the world

By Mark Viney

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Using teachers as a friend and grannies over Skype – the so called “School in the cloud” – is now being trialled in India and Northern England as a whole new approach to education, announced today at the British Science Festival.

In 1999 theoretical physicist and computer scientist Professor Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University had an inspired idea. He installed a computer in a wall of a New Delhi slum a metre off the ground – a good height for children to use –­ and waited to see what happened. Just four hours later children who had never before seen a computer were surfing the web.

Mitra found that the children were working together learning how to use the computer and learning a “functional English”, the language of the computer. He repeated the experiment in remote, rural India and just the same thing happened

Professor Mitra said he found that “groups of children with unsupervised access to computers would in 9 months be able to read at a level comparable to a secretary in the developed west”.

Professor Mitra has now won a $1 million dollar “TED prize” – awarded to an extraordinary individual with a creative and bold vision to spark global change – to now test and expand the idea that started in a New Delhi slum.

Trying the same approach in Gateshead, Northumbria, Professor Mitra found that children were learning from the web – they weren’t just copying because they discriminated between right and wrong information.

With the $1 million, “learning labs” are being installed in India – in remote, rural areas where there are no teachers or schools, in a New Delhi city school, and in a refuge for the children of sex workers – and in two schools in Gateshead. In the learning labs children can come and learn what they want, how they want – teachers are available on Skype if the children need help. Over the next three years the children’s learning will be tracked and compared with regular schooling.

Two hundred grannies (and grandfathers and uncles too) have also been recruited – “you can beam a gran over Skype” said Professor Mitra – “talking to grannies improves speaking and comprehension”. Mitra calls this new approach SOLE – self organised learning environments.

Reflecting on traditional schools and teaching in the UK, Professor Mitra says “children perceive school as a threat – they enter through gates that belong in a jail and are told not to use their phones or tablets at school, but at the end of the school day the first thing they do is go to their phones”.

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