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How Self-Organised Learning Environments bring kids closer together during lockdown

Paradise School in Goa that has adopted the SOLE method

Paradise School in Goa that has adopted the SOLE method   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

During the COVID-19 lockdown, when children may feel isolated, technology brings communities closer, if only it is used right

Suhail Saini* is in Class XII, in a Delhi school that has daily classes on Zoom. The school sends out a schedule and the students log on. “We have a 40-minute period and then a 20-minute break,” says Suhail. He adds that some teachers know how to use the software, with the white board and messaging, but some do not and that makes it difficult to understand a subject like Accounts. “We can direct message each other, which is like passing notes in school,” he says, though once the school realised what was happening, they barred this feature. “We have to all turn our cameras on, but many will say that they have bad connections, so they’ll just be on audio,” he adds, laughing.

Suhail’s school is typical of most city establishments that are struggling to cover the syllabus. Many feel they need to justify the school fee, and are keeping children engaged. Teachers attempt to mimic a classroom setting, even as they themselves sometimes grapple with tech. Schools are also using Microsoft Teams for communication, though some schools who have been on Google’s G Suite for Education (that includes Google Classrooms), and Apple’s K-12 Education, make the transition to lockdown almost without a glitch. How does all the tech in the world bring a community together though?

The privilege of tech?

Shilpa Mehta, the founder-director at Paradise School in Goa, says her school has a culture where tech is embedded in the system, but is not an end in itself. There is Internet cabling in the school, with room by room connectors, so they don’t just rely on routers, making going online a seamless experience. “We are on Apple as we believe this provides the optimal digital experience for our children,” she says, adding that Apple Education offers avenues for both digital and educational growth. “We are aiming to become an Apple Distinguished School, so we are innovating education using tech.” The digital ecosystem of learning makes it easier for children to transition into a learn-from-home model, while still retaining the collaborative ethos.

Shilpa started the school, affiliated to the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) in 2014 to help her daughter get a better schooling experience. She talks of “personalised learning”, of school being a “thriving environment”, of “ripping up the worksheets”, creating “a seeking spirit” in children who are often bored by the pedagogy of school, and “a living culture” in school being translated online into “digital bonds”.

Tech without borders

It is these digital bonds that The Granny Cloud talks about. Started by Professor Sugata Mitra, now in the UK, in 2008, it consists of about 75 volunteers, from around the globe, who hold fluid interactive sessions with children online, mostly over Skype. They introduce subjects, talk about things the children want to hear of, and build a bond with them that manages to cut across the space and sometimes a time gap, says Pune-based Suneeta Kulkarni, who heads the organisation that has spread as far as Greenland and Cambodia.

Prof Sugata Mitra

Prof Sugata Mitra   | Photo Credit: Michael H. Ebner

Way back in 1999, Prof Mitra, as head of NIIT’s tech function, had set up a computer outside the office, with an internet connection, to see what the children of the slums around would do with it. Called the Hole in the Wall, it evolved into the School in the Cloud, based on a system of Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLE) in 2007. The principle was simple: that children are able to self-learn with the help of the Internet, with guidance from the facilitator.

Ideally, what is needed are a few screens that show life-size images (about 20 inches on the diagonal) and a cluster of children who could gather around each, and find solutions to ‘problems’ proposed by the facilitator. The ‘grannies’ were a subsequent introduction, so children could participate in their own language, and gain the confidence of interacting with people from outside of their circles.

Gouri Chindarkar, who was introduced to the system in 2009 in a lab in Shirgaon, Maharashtra, says, “The process helps to brainstorm and come up with various perspectives and ideas behind simple tasks or activities. It helps to grow as a group while exploring various possible aspects behind a single thing rather than sticking to a single solution for any task.” In 2016, she was on BBC’s 100 Women list, as the first student of School in the Cloud.

A community in isolation

But these were children clustered together physically. How would such a system work at a time of physical distancing? Prof Mitra tried it out in Paradise School with about 70 children. “The first challenge is: How do you get everyone’s interest? If I ask them about the Kalinga war, they’re unlikely to be interested. So I said, ‘You’re at home because of the virus, but how do you know that the lockdown is right?’” The children were divided into Zoom rooms, were given time to discuss it, and then present their work. “There were nine-year-olds talking about it,” he says.

While the sceptic may say online learning is okay for what is considered extra-curricular in the traditional Indian education system, Prof Mitra says the entire curriculum can be mapped into a series of questions that children find answers to. The key is for parents and teachers to see technology as an ally and an aid to building a community.

“The school and university have been struggling in the last decade with the idea of how to factor the Internet in. On one hand, we say children are constantly staring at their phones, but my kind of work says, ‘What about the time when they look things up?’ One group feels libraries are better because the internet is full of junk, which is rubbish because it is those same people who are looking up the internet to check for information.”

He says the problem is that we are not using it in the right way. “What they are doing is they are trying to create a classroom on the Internet. It doesn’t make sense. Imagine if all the cars disappeared and there were only aeroplanes, and we say we will drive around using the aeroplanes. It’s an old human habit of moving towards the past... Children can answer a lot of questions if you give them their phones back,” he says, adding that adult supervision is always important and a large screen always better, even at home.

Cost accountancy

All this tech does not come cheap though. With a yearly fee in the region of ₹1,65,000 to ₹3,85,000, Paradise caters to upper-middle class India, but a large part of our country gets left behind.

Sandip Gund doesn’t see it that way. As a teacher who began in a school at the zilla parishad level, in Pashtepada, Maharashtra, he, along with the community, with funds from the people in the area, set up a solar smart e-learning centre, in a place where electricity was erratic. Today, he says the challenge is that while people have a TV and a smartphone, they may not always have data packs on their phones, and connectivity in remote areas can be tricky.

What children need is offline content that he is currently making available free of cost during the lockdown period. This can be downloaded on the phone and then projected onto a regular TV via a screen-mirroring device that costs between ₹500 and ₹700. Children can then take quizzes or use the pen tool to make notes.

In rural areas, Sandip points out, there is usually only one smartphone per family, so even at a time of lockdown, people in the house will gather around a large screen to see what a child is learning. In houses where there is Wi-Fi, curiosity may push adults and children to discover what the Internet has to say about, say the weather, and can grow into a professional tool used by farmers.

Katrin McMillan, founder of Hello World

Katrin McMillan, founder of Hello World  

Shared tech tools, in whatever way we can share them, are what people working in the tech-education space speak about. “In a world riddled with inequality, tech is a tool to open a window, a tool to solve problems,” says Katrin McMillan, who started Hello World, solar-powered digital schools called Hello Hubs, in Africa. She says that rather than assuming what communities need, or silicon valley stepping in ‘to solve the problem’, tech solutions can be found by each community. “Rather than the teachers, ask the children: ‘What should we do?’ They will know, and they will have the answers.

*Name changed to protect identity

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 4:32:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/classrooms-in-the-cloud-how-technology-brings-kids-closer-together-during-coronavirus-lockdown/article31331547.ece

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