I’ve been prompted to post this comment on the inspirational talk I heard at the Scottish Learning Festival in September by the news that Sugata Mitra’s ‘Granny Cloud’ will feature on The Culture Show this coming Thursday on BBC2 at 7p.m. Mitra -professor of educational technology at Newcastle University – has recruited hundreds of grannies in Newcastle to go online to help children in India with their education. And he has reversed the process for children in Gateshead.

The academic who inspired ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ believes all pupils should be given time in groups with a computer to teach themselves. One of the most powerful things Mitra says – again and again – is ‘…and then I went away’. That’s the key!

Teachers simply need to design questions that evoke curiosity and interest, then ‘sit back and admire as learning happens’.

Mitra’s work over the past decade has shown what exciting things happen when we let these children take learning into their own hands.

Since 2006, Mitra and colleagues have been asking the question: How will learners in remote areas get an equal opportunity? These areas are not necessarily geographically remote. They may be remote in other ways, for instance, areas in big cities that are socio-economically remote, areas that are religiously or ethnically remote.

This is where computers come in. Laptops were sold to the richest schools in the world. But the richest schools already had good teachers and, mostly, good students.

Mitra decided to modify and develop technology and take it to some of the remotest locations he could find (including Gateshead). He wanted to examine whether it would survive, and if it did, what would it do for education.

He started to install computers into brick walls in public places in hundreds of villages and slums in India, Cambodia and Africa. The media called this the “hole-in-the-wall” project.

The computers were designed to be used by 6- to 15-year-old children, free of charge and free of any supervision. In the first five years of the experiment, they showed that groups of children could teach themselves to use a computer and the internet, irrespective of who or where they are; irrespective of what language they spoke and of whether they went to school or not.

Ten years later, a girl in rural Maharashtra is studying aeronautical engineering following her encounter with the computer in the wall. A village boy who became a genetic engineer in one of India’s premier laboratories found the subject by reading the New Scientist at his hole in the wall.

What else could children learn on their own, apart from the use of computers? In Hyderabad, groups of children showed significant improvements in English pronunciation, with just few hours of practice on their own. They used a computer and a speech-to-text program that had been trained in a native English accent.

In the tsunami-hit village of Kalikuppam in southern India, children with access to a hole-in-the-wall computer taught themselves basic biotechnology, reaching a test score of 30% in just two months. They had started with a score of zero. If Tamil-speaking children could teach themselves biotechnology in English, on their own, how far could they go? A 30% score may be impressive, but it’s still not a pass. The researchers decided to use a local woman, working for an NGO, to help them go further. She had no background in biotechnology, but she took on the role of an untrained friendly mediator to encourage the children, using their desire to impress each other and their adult friend. Two months on, the scores in Kalikuppam rose to over 50%, close to what is achieved by trained subject teachers in the posh private schools of Delhi.

Mitra brought these results back to Britain. By chance, Vikas Swarup, whose book became the film Slumdog Millionaire, revealed that he had been inspired to write his story by the hole-in-the-wall experiments. Following that, he made an appeal to British grandparents to give an hour of their time to talk, using Skype, to children in the slums and villages of India. Within days, 200 volunteers, of all ages, many of them retired teachers, had come forward.

In the following months, 40 of these “eMediators” had over 200 hours of contact with children in India. They read them stories, played games with them, and chatted about their two countries. A child development expert, Suneeta Kulkarni, is measuring the effects of this on the children’s English communication skills.

Two years ago, they decided to try the same approach in the UK and have been working with three schools in the north-east. In Gateshead, 10-year-olds working in groups were able to answer GCSE questions they would normally encounter six years later. Mitra asked if they could have done this more quickly if they had not shared a computer but worked on their own. They said they could not have done it at all that way

Mitra now believes that groups of children, given the appropriate digital infrastructure, a safe and free environment, and a friendly but not necessarily knowledgeable mediator, can pass school-leaving exams on their own.

The new model is straightforward. It’s called a Self-organised learning environment. It’s ‘just’ a “cybercafe” environment for children – light, comfortable, safe and inexpensive. Children work in self-organised groups of four or five. They have the freedom to work as they please, or not to work, if they so please. Order is maintained by the children themselves. Sessions should be timetabled, just as playtime is. Each session is driven by a question designed by teachers.

Now Mitra is calling for such learning environments to be built in every primary school. He says that teachers

need to be trained to design simple questions that will evoke curiosity and interest while gently nudging a group towards the curriculum. Then, they can sit back and admire as learning happens.

The teachers have to learn to let go.

In the language of physics: “Education is a process of self-organisation and learning is its emergent property.”

Fascinating stuff. I’ll be watching on Thursday.

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