Schools in the cloud to bring education to Indian slums

Vision outlined by TED prize winner Sugata Mitra

TED prize winner Prof Sugata Mitra provided details of the project and his vision for the future of education at the British Science Festival in Newcastle.Photograph: Sascha Baumann/Getty Images

TED prize winner Prof Sugata Mitra provided details of the project and his vision for the future of education at the British Science Festival in Newcastle.Photograph: Sascha Baumann/Getty Images

Wed, Sep 11, 2013, 21:49

Learning labs and schools in the cloud are being built to bring the latest in educational technologies to children in some of the most remote and deprived slums and swamps of India.

TED prize winner Prof Sugata Mitra provided details of the project and his vision for the future of education at the British Science Festival in Newcastle yesterday.

Through his “Hole in the Wall” project, which inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire, Prof Mitra discovered that children’s “innate sense of learning” was magnified when they were given the freedom to explore the internet in small groups.

“We found that groups of children given unsupervised access to the internet in a safe place would reach the same competency as an average office secretary in the West in nine months,” said Prof Mitra, who was the “Star Speaker” at yesterday’s festival.

With the help of his $1 million TED Prize, Prof Mitra and an army of volunteers will bring the schools to five Indian areas lacking educational opportunities for the children living there.

“When the engineer returned from the site visit in Korakati, a tiny village in a mangrove swamp that is the most remote of our Schools in the Cloud, he said it was ‘impossible’, so that made up my mind to build there,” said Prof Mitra. “This is all about building where you cannot and getting teachers into areas where they cannot, or will not, go.”

The “Schools in the Cloud” will be “learning labs where children can come and learn what they want”, said prof Mitra. Teachers are available on Skype if needed. “This way education can reach remote areas.”

The project also builds upon the successful “Granny Cloud”, which was set up in 2009 after a plea for retired teachers in the UK to come forward who were willing to interact with children in India via Skype.

“You can beam a gran over Skype,” he said. “Talking to grandmothers improves speaking and reading. They’re storytellers.”

At the schools, one computer will be used for every four or five children. “You need a crowd around the computer, said Prof Mitra.

He also explained that boys and girls took to the process differently. “Boys go at it like it’s a science research project. It’s very nice, they have lots of different websites open. In the meantime, the girls just have the answer.”

As part of the project similar schools are to be set up in England to compare outcomes.

The project also hopes to develop what Prof Mitra called “the physics of education”. While developing the earliest schools, he noticed the children “flocking and unflocking” over the day at the Hole in the Wall. “This might lead to understanding the physics of learning,” he said.

“The indication is that teaching doesn’t need a teacher as much as we thought.”