by Mark Ollig
“There are places on Earth, in every country, where for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go,” Dr. Sugata Mitra said in 1999.
As we learned last week, Dr. Mitra established a learning system for helping disadvantaged children understand computers enough to access the Internet, accomplish self-learning, and share knowledge via peer-teaching.
This learning system was Dr. Mitra’s “hole-in-the-wall” computer experiment.
However, in remote areas where teachers or mentors are not available, this type of learning becomes challenging.
Today, getting teachers and mentors into these areas is slowly becoming a reality, a “virtual reality,” by means of real-time video interaction, using computers connected to the Internet.
Children around the world no matter how rich or poor – should not only have access to the Internet for researching science and other educational subjects, but to teachers and mentors who can participate and assist them with their learning.
Using an online network of mentors, counselors, and retired teachers, Dr. Mitra is creating a virtual school, or as he calls it, “The School in the Cloud.”
Dr. Mitra, who holds a Ph.D., is now professor of educational technology at New Castle University in England.
Professor Mitra put out a call for British grandmothers to donate one hour of their time on the Internet, one day a week, to provide educational, two-way real-time video instruction (via Skype), with children using computers in remote locations.
Over 200 British citizens volunteered, with many being retired teachers.
The children refer to these British grandmothers, and other mentors providing them online educational guidance, as the “Granny Cloud.”
Professor Mitra said, “The Granny Cloud sits over there, and I can beam them [children] to whichever school they want to [go].”
Interviewed on a BBC program, Professor Mitra talked about the Granny Cloud, and his hole-in-the-wall computer experiment. You can watch it at http://tinyurl.com/a3dqjo8.
Professor Mitra has been encouraging the creation of children’s Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) in local communities.
One SOLE contains a group of four or five children, overseen by an educator, parent, or guardian acting as a peer helper. The peer helper encourages the children into taking responsibility in finding their own answers to questions, using Internet resources.
Educational peer helpers will offer the children feedback, and will be in charge of their behavior management (keeping them focused on learning).
SOLE can be used as a stand-alone learning venue, part of a school curriculum, or as an after-school program.
One of the benefits Professor Mitra and others have seen from the SOLE program, are children being encouraged towards independent thinking, when taking ownership of their learning.
“The Internet is full of the answers, but the Internet is not full of the questions,” says Professor Mitra.
Here are examples of SOLE questions asked by a group of fifth graders:
• What was ancient Egypt really like?
• How do my eyes know to cry when I am sad?
• Why do people slip on wet surfaces?
• Did dinosaurs really exist?
• Can anything be less than zero?
• Will robots be conscious one day?
• Are there more stars in the universe or grains of sand on all the world’s beaches?
• Why do things fall down and not up or sideways?
St. Aidan’s C of E Primary School, located in England, currently operates a SOLE. This school has been working with the Newcastle University during SOLE’s development.
During one of the school’s SOLE “session for science” groups, one question asked, “Why are people so worried that the ice caps are melting?”
According to the school’s website, “Within an hour, the children were telling everybody about such things as global warming, pollution, the possible extinction of species such as penguins and polar bears, whole cities being flooded, as well as what an ice cap actually is and where they are. All in all, we proved once again that SOLE is a brilliant way of learning where so much can be packed into our minds in a short space of time.”
A video demonstrating a SOLE can be watched at www.bitly.com/soledemo.
SOLE is powered by the self-discovery, sharing, and confidence children achieve from their own learning experiences.
“The children are capable of finding the big answers to believe in themselves, and to believe in the world around them,” said Professor Mitra.
Yours truly agrees with Professor Mitra when he said, “Who knows what we’ll need to learn 30 years from now? We do know that we will need to be able to read, we will need to be good at searching for information, collating it, and then deciding whether it is right or wrong.”
An information-packed, 25-page SOLE Toolkit is available online at http://tinyurl.com/a72ow4o.