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Studying in the Cloud

Ritu Dangwal shares the impacts of the innovative School in the Cloud program.


 

What happens when you give children access to computers and get out of the way?

“Their thinking ability, reading ability, comprehension, dealing with abstraction are completely changed and improved,” says Ritu Dangwal. “They learn how to attack problems and how to work in a group, learning from what the other kids are doing. Not just that, you can see the confidence level among these children building. It’s phenomenal.”

Dangwal is research and project coordinator for School in the Cloud, a program funded by a $1 million TED Prize that has helped establish five Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) labs in India and two in the United Kingdom. SOLE labs require only computers, Internet connections and children who want to learn. Educators—some on-site and some online—pose “Big Questions,” like why do people use maps? Do trees think? Students form small groups to find answers. They can move around, exchange information, change groups and, finally, share what they learnt with the whole class.

School in the Cloud grew out of the pioneering experiments by Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in England. In 1999, Mitra placed a computer near a slum in New Delhi, and let children use it without supervision, an approach in line with his concept of “minimally invasive education.” This, and similar experiments, persuaded Mitra, who subsequently persuaded others, that children could learn to use computers and the Internet for most tasks done by lay users, teach themselves enough English to use email, chat and search engines, improve their English pronunciation, as well as their math and science scores in school—all with minimal supervision.

“I feel we have moved completely away from ‘teaching’ to ‘learning’—a huge shift,” says Dangwal. “Technology has changed the face of education, and we all need to accept it. Children are becoming independent learners and we should embrace that fact, and encourage and make use of this paradigm shift.”

Dangwal had been working with Mitra for a number of years when, in 2012, she was chosen for the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, which in her case focused on “Education, Computer Science/Technology, and Youth Mentoring.” She visited colleges and schools in several U.S. cities, learning more about America’s approach to education from officials and teachers.

“I love the place; I love the people; I love their fierce love for independence and attitude toward life. I am deeply touched and honored by the way I was treated,” says Dangwal.

Although the U.S. and Indian educational environments are very different, Dangwal found a common thread. “What resonated for me was how instructors related to the kids,” she says. “They were wonderful. Children everywhere want to learn. If you supply the right ingredients at the right moment, things happen that are very unexpected."

While School in the Cloud has helped Indian children acquire knowledge and learn skills, Dangwal points out that there has been a deeper impact.

“These kids come from marginalized sections of society, but they have aspirations now. And most of them have chosen professions that can change the lives of other kids,” she says. “Just like School in the Cloud has changed their lives, they wish to do the same for others. One girl from the Delhi School in the Cloud said, ‘I want to be a lawyer because I want to do justice and help people who have been wronged.’ ”

Dangwal and Mitra want to see the School in the Cloud program grow. “We were able to construct schools and the necessary infrastructure,” says Dangwal. “Now, we are focused on sustainability. We have shown that Schools in the Cloud can work, and now we need someone to take the concept forward and support it.”

 

Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.