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The rise of SOLES

Newcastle University's Sarah Cossom, examines the rise of self-organised learning environments (SOLES) across the global education sector

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | June 15, 2016 | Technology

"There’s a space between order and chaos where something strange happens, the kind of environment where dust devils form. If you create a chaotic learning environment for children with just the right amount of chaos, spontaneous order occurs." Professor Sugata Mitra

Ten years ago, barely anyone had heard of SOLEs (self-organised learning environments) and yet today this innovative approach to learning has captured people’s imagination all over the world.

Developed by Prof Sugata Mitra and colleagues in the UK and India, SOLEs - where children work in groups using the Internet to find their own answers Big Questions - is changing the way we approach education.

From its humble beginnings in a Delhi slum, SOLE now reaches locations as diverse as Greenland, where it is being used in a school with a large Inuit population, to the Indian jungle, where children from indigenous tribes walk for miles for this opportunity. 

It all began in 1999, when Sugata was chief scientist at NIIT in Delhi, India. He knocked a hole in his office wall and installed a computer that was freely accessible to the adjoining slum.

This first ‘hole in the wall’ was an instant hit with groups of Indian street children, who learnt how to use the computer and Internet by themselves within a matter of hours. He soon realised that there was no limit to children’s capacity to learn as long as they were left unsupervised and able to work in groups to solve a problem.

Ten years after the first hole in the wall, Sugata discovered another important aspect to this experiment when he placed a computer in the middle of a remote village in India, loaded it with molecular biology educational material in English and then left them to get on with it. The children there could speak no English and lived amid some of the worst conditions in the world.

When he returned months later, he tested the children and found they could get 30% of the questions on molecular biology right, but he wanted them to be able to pass – to get 50%. He went away again, but this time asked an older girl who knew the children to encourage them. The next time they were tested, they all passed.

Sugata realised that the SOLEs were missing a vital ingredient: the ‘grandmother effect’ of an encouraging adult on the sidelines. With this in mind, he put out a call for retired UK teachers willing to give up an hour of their time a week to share stories and talk to the children in India. Today, this is known as the Granny Cloud, where children interact with online e-mediators from across the globe to engage in a wide range of informal activities.

ABOVE: The Granny Cloud in action

Sugata then won the 2013 TED Prize with the wish to "help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together”. 

As a result, he set up eight SOLE research labs: two in the UK, one in Harlem, NY, USA and five in India. Spanning from the hub near Calcutta to the remotest site five hours away in West Bengal, what the locations in India share is a lack of educational opportunities for the children living there coupled with a drive and determination from those communities to turn that around. 

The School in the Cloud online network was also created to help foster ‘learning at the edge of chaos’, enabling children to work together to tap into their innate sense of wonder. Hanging out online in the School in the Cloud are children, SOLE facilitators (teachers, parents, community leader etc.) and Skype Grannies.  

Together, this global community is creating fun and intellectual learning adventures where children ask big questions, work together using technology to find answers, and then presenting their findings. 

The School in the Cloud physical research labs in India, the UK and the US are essentially like a cyber café for children with a few important differences: the computers are big, publicly-visible screens within a glass-walled room and children share the computers in groups rather than working alone.

Wherever they are in the world, the children can chose to investigate with a Skype Granny using online resources, or they can engage in other activities that interest them. The lab belongs to them; it's their School in the Cloud. In the absence of supervision or formal teaching, it’s an environment where curiosity is sparked through child-directed instruction and peer shared knowledge. 

“We’re putting a foot in the door by saying ‘here’s a new way - try it’. Let’s look at the curriculum top to bottom: if we can convert the curriculum into Big Questions (preferably questions to which no one has an answer) and get children to use problem solving rather than just apply memorised procedures; and turn assessment into peer assessment, then neurophysiology tells us that learning gets enhanced. 

ABOVE: Sugata won the TED Prize in 2013

“Finally, if you add admiration – the ‘grandmother effect’ – where you stand behind and encourage them and put all of this together, you get a completely new approach to schooling.” 

In 2014 Newcastle University set up SOLE Central as a global hub to bring together SOLE research and practitioners from across the globe and strong links and projects have been formed with many organisations working towards positive change in the world. This includes Pencils of Promise in Ghana; the Cambodian Children’s Trust; and Projects for All, whose CEO was inspired to create its Hello Hubs in Africa based on Prof Mitra’s original Hole in the Wall experiments. 

Prof Mitra’s work has already transformed lives in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world and our aim is to build on these strong foundations in the future. One of the ways you can help is by supporting a growing network of global SOLEs who are doing fantastic work within communities that need it most: from providing education for refugee children in Greece to enabling whole communities in Colombia to re-design their future. There is currently a crowdfunding campaign running until July 8th at www.crowdrise.com/SchoolintheCloud 

Find out more about SOLE at: www.theschoolinthecloud.org

What is a SOLE and how does it work?

A SOLE lets learning happen. Fuelled by big, child-focused questions, self-discovery, sharing, and spontaneity, a SOLE lets children's curiosity come alive. A facilitator sets the SOLE in motion with a Big Question, and then stands back and watches (and tries very hard not to interfere!) as learning happens.

Children search online and work together to seek answers and present their findings. This is what self-organised learning means. Educators of all kinds (parents, teachers, community leaders, Skype Grannies, etc.) play an important role in both facilitating how children problem solve but more importantly, giving them the space and freedom to feed their curiosity.

Research has shown that groups of children can learn almost anything on their own, given unrestricted and adequate access to the Internet. It doesn't matter who or where they are. This was originally tested in India, North East England and has since been replicated across the world. 

Children can competently search for answers to ‘Big Questions’, drawing rational, logical conclusions from it. These are often questions far ahead of what is expected of them in their school curriculum. This kind of learning is activated by questions, not answers.

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