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Kids & ‘ghosts’ in the class

Boys huddled in front of a computer monitor as they begin to discover the icons and apps by themselves at the School in the Cloud in Chandrakona. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta

March 13, Thursday

Chandrakona, West Midnapore

A 12-year-old raises his hand to ask Sugata Mitra a question that immediately brings a smile to his face. “Kaku, ‘megher koley’ maney ki? (Uncle, what does in the lap of a cloud mean)?” the boy asks.

“Internet-er arekta naam megh. Aar jodi proshno thake tahole jiggesh korbe kakey? Megh! (Cloud is another name for the Internet. And if you have any more questions, who should you ask? The cloud!),” Mitra replies, moments before leading him and the other kids into a glass-walled room with computer monitors atop red-and-yellow tables and a floor dotted with colourful stools.

But for the paddy and potato fields surrounding the classroom, this could have been mistaken for a part of any well-maintained city institution. Mitra’s School in the Cloud has come to Kiageria village in Chandrakona, a four-hour drive from Calcutta and populated by 20 families whose primary occupation is farming.

The education scientist describes the zone as “rural but not as remote as Korakati (Area One), nor semi-urban like Gocharan (Area Zero)”. To the villagers and their children, he is just the opposite of what they would expect someone running a school to be!

“If the children want to walk around the room, allowed. If the children are talking to each other, allowed. If they want to leave their computers and go join another, allowed. Everything is allowed,” he instructs the supervisors as Tagore’s Megher koley plays in the background.

Within minutes of the class starting, some of the children are glued to animation clips on their computer screens while a few are exploring MS Paint. “Could it get any cleaner than this?” says Mitra, 2013 TED prize winner.

Yes, the kids are on a roll. But how does SOLE, or unsupervised self-organised learning environment, begin to take on a more constructive shape?

According to Mitra, children begin to tire of computer games in a month or so and start looking for other activities. If they can follow the words and icons in English, they begin to search for answers to various questions on the Internet, stumbling on various sites in the process. In about six months, they begin to understand keyword searching.

Mitra has observed that children go on to “look for jobs for their fathers, horoscopes for their family and medicines for the elderly”.

While computers do crash frequently in the classroom, what is “a perpetual mystery” for Mitra is how the children “themselves manage to reboot the computer and solve problems, unless there is a hardware failure”.

By the end of Day One in Kiageria, 450 children from the neighbouring villages have registered for the School in the Cloud. Mitra, who started two such schools in England before bringing the project to India, is amazed by the similarities despite the two locations being at opposite ends of the development spectrum.

“Language is different too, but when it comes to behaviour of the children, they are strangely similar. Which is a good thing because it shows that we are looking at a universal approach to learning. That we don’t need to create special solutions for these areas but design the special inputs carefully,” he says.

Research director Suneeta Kulkarni, who has run a baseline assessment, explains: “The assessment is primarily for reading fluency. Many children (here) can’t use the Internet because they don’t know English, which is where the Granny Cloud comes in. Also important is to understand their aspirations. We need to see if we are uprooting the children from their surroundings, culture and traditions.”

Shadowing Mitra is British documentary maker Jerry Rothwell, winner of the first annual Sundance Institute TED Prize Filmmaker Award.

His $125,000 grant will be spent following Mitra over the next 18 months to make a documentary on the fulfilment of the education scientist’s $1 million TED wish.

Rothwell has followed Mitra from Killingworth to Korakati to Kiageria.

“I am filming three or four kids in each place for a sense of what their parents’ aspirations are and how their lives might turn out to be different from what their parents lead. I am trying to show the School in the Cloud from the perspective of the different people within it,” the Briton says.

As Rothwell follows him with his camera, Mitra has a job to do. It’s not easy answering a question like: “Will our children be taught by ghosts?”

What is the most fascinating aspect of School in the Cloud? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com