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Govt school seeds its best in ‘cloud’

Access to education, Online Education


The Times of India

NEW DELHI: In a tiny room in a south Delhi government school, runs another school “in the cloud”.

There are computers here in place of textbooks; a flat-screen television in place of a blackboard and a “granny” from Canada instead of a teacher who, in a bizarre reversal of roles, sits at the back taking notes while the ‘students’ Skype.

The Delhi school in the Cloud is run from the premises of a formal school but constitutes an experiment which questions the fundamental principles of formal schooling.

“The assumption is that kids need to be lectured,” explains psychologist Ritu Dangwal who’s been collaborating with scientist and educator Sugata Mitra from the “hole-in-the-wall” experiment days. “But Prof Mitra has demonstrated that kids can learn on their own. Also, these kids have never been heard before,” Dangwal added.

The more technical term for the School in the Cloud is “self-organizing learning environment” (SOLE) and the concept originated with Sugata Mitra’s “hole-in-the-wall” experiment in the late 90s.

The Delhi laboratory has three computers with internet connection and a television. Students gather for hourlong sessions with the “granny” – a volunteer who’s willing to help initiate and steer discussions with the group.

On Tuesday, a batch of seventh-graders introduce themselves to the 52-year-old Ron Grypma from Vancouver, and also tell him about their siblings and their favourite food – Khushbu says “cauliflower” and her teacher, Rekha Mishra, promptly goes into a giggling fit.

In turn, they learn that Grympa has three kids, his best friend is a lawyer called Cosmas from Netherlands, and that Netherlands is in Europe. If that doesn’t seem much of an achievement, consider this.

By the end of their first hourlong session, a group that has never handled computers figure out how to type in their responses, shift back to full-screen when the window is accidentally minimized and re-establish connection when it snaps mid-conversation. Dangwal gets up twice to help, but each time the girls fix it before she can get to the laptop.

“I think the children didn’t have much exposure to computers before,” says Grypma, once the session is over. “I found what Prof Mitra is doing very intriguing,” he says, “I heard his speech and read his research papers.” Grypma himself is working on a master’s degree in education technology.

The senior secondary school which houses the Delhi SOLE has a regular roll-strength of over 2,000, nearly all coming from the neighbouring slums.

The SOLE sessions are planned in a way they don’t interfere with the school’s regular schedule or require participants – each Class (VI-VIII) has three groups of 15. The school principal and teachers selected the candidates to attend these sessions following an equally informal method.

They went by “questions answered smartly”, “a little bit of academic excellence” and that least scientific of all indicators – “the light in their eyes.”

However, an initial reading and comprehension test had been conducted, says Dangwal, and the participants will be tested on their “aspiration and confidence” every four months. “This is part of a research study that will continue for three years,” she adds.

But this education is practically contraband, smuggled in “clandestinely” as the principal puts it. Government permission for this project is yet to be obtained. As the ‘file’ traversed government departments, the principal launched the lab anyway arguing that if she didn’t, she’d “always regret it”.

“Now, with technology, a child’s mind should gallop,” she says, “But most of them come to school like blinkered horses.” Computer labs were introduced but there’s no maintenance of these. She says she’s “past the stage” of fearing the government’s disapproval. “If they question, I’ll just say sorry.”

(Name of teacher changed to conceal identity)

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