Education TED Prize

The first School in the Cloud opens in the UK

Posted by: TED Guest Author
A group of students explores a question at the Killingworth School in the Cloud.

A group of students explores a question at the Killingworth School in the Cloud, as a volunteer member of the “Granny Cloud” gives them guidance from the screen.

By Sarah Schoengold

Sugata Mitra has opened the doors of the world’s first School in the Cloud.

Located inside George Stephenson High School in Killingworth, England, this one-room learning lab is a space where students can embark on their own learning adventures, exploring whatever questions most intrigue them. Students even designed the interior of the space — which has colorful beanbags scattered throughout and (very appropriately) fluffy clouds painted on the walls.

Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the CloudSugata Mitra: Build a School in the CloudOn the glass doors of the lab is the acronym “SOLE,” which stands for “Self-Organized Learning Environment.” It’s a concept drawn from Mitra’s TED Prize wish, in which he offered up a new vision of education that pairs the vast resources of the Internet with children’s innate sense of curiosity. SOLEs are a minimally invasive education technique that lets kids puzzle through big questions on their own, teaching each other in the process. This method can have stunning results. (Read a Wired story on that.)

Since Mitra’s TED Talk was posted online, more than 40,000 people have downloaded the SOLE Toolkit to bring the method into their homes and classrooms. But Mitra’s plans are even more ambitious — with his $1 million TED Prize seed money, he is opening up a series of seven learning labs, two in the United Kingdom and five in India. The Killingworth lab is the first.

The Killingworth School in the Cloud opened its doors on November 22, with a group of students investigating the question: “Who invented algebra?” As the students gathered around computers and began their research, they were guided by an online mediator from the “Granny Cloud,” which Skypes retired teachers into the lab not so much to instruct the students but to offer them encouragement. Appearing on a large screen on the wall, this “Granny Cloud” volunteer appeared almost life-sized.

A look at the room before use.

A look at the interior of the first School in the Cloud, which was designed by students.

Amy Dickenson’s year 7 class took part in the learning lab’s first session, and was thrilled to see her students unpacking big questions. She says, “I believe strongly that this way of teaching — engaging students and inspiring wonder, and at the same time creating independence and self-motivation — has to be the way forward for education today.”

The Killingworth School in the Cloud is run by a committee of 12-year-old students, who manage a schedule to let different classes and groups use the lab in time slots before, during and after school. The lab is, of course filled with computers and touchscreen devices, as these are the tools students use to do their detective work. This lab is the first live demo of the School in the Cloud web platform, which not only connects labs to the “Granny Cloud” but also serves as a community foundation for SOLE practitioners and contains an evolving library of guides and resources. Microsoft and Skype are the core technology partners for this digital platform; Made By Many is the co designer and development partner; and IDEO assisted with design research.

Five more School in the Cloud learning labs of varying resources and bandwidth are scheduled to launch throughout India in 2014, and the second UK lab will go live in the spring. All seven Schools in the Cloud will be directed by the School in the Cloud web platform and its community of Grannies. Beta testing for the School in the Cloud platform will begin publicly in March at the annual TED Conference in Vancouver.

To read more about the School in the Cloud, visit the SOLE Stories Tumblr »

The learning lab has both computer stations and an area for group discussion.

The learning lab has both computer stations and an area for group discussion.

Comments (67)

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  • Matthew Gudenius commented on Dec 23 2013

    PS. I am very much a believer in ways that technology can benefit education (see my current 1:1 paperless classroom efforts at http://www.paperlessmojo.com ), but this “Class in the Cloud” concept certainly seems like a gimmick.

    For one, it’s not truly a “class in the cloud” — I have been there, done that, when I got my MS in EdTech (entirely virtual / online.) For another, how is this any different than what I have been doing for the past 10 years as a teacher, making computer technology available to my students to use and explore various resources on the internet as a repository of tools to help them complete their work?

    • Fabian Joseph commented on Dec 23 2013

      The Matthew Gudenius comments? This guy (assuming male) is clearly trying to promote their own educational ‘gimmick’, attaching too much ego to his own ‘product’. I think the importance of intrinsic motivation driven by actual interest is lost on him. I would start by explaining all the things we currently know did not come from books but exploration and discovery so who is to say children can’t do the same…then point out the hole in the wall video. So in short I feel a little annoyed by these comments but it also reminds me of the reasons why this form of curiosity based desire for learning is so important.

      • Matthew Gudenius commented on Dec 23 2013

        What product do I have? What gimmick?

        Here’s some food for thought: “self-directed” and “autonomous” learning are not new ideas. They simply aren’t. As part of my research (Master of Science in Educational Technology) I did a lot of research involving this, and the articles went back to at least the 1980s (but there were mentions and pushes for this even earlier)

        I think what a lot of constructivists and “student-centered learning” advocates confuse is the idea of MOTIVATION/SATISFACTION versus the idea of LEARNING. The former is beneficial and useful for the latter, but they are not synonymous. Kids absolutely love doing things that are not learning, and have little to no academic value. Just like they love eating candy — does that mean it’s good for them? Just because you “like” or “enjoy” something does not mean it’s best for you.

        Intrinsic motivation is great. It is not an end-product. Anybody and everybody is “intrinsically motivated” to “do what they want to do.”

        Yet, that doesn’t work too well when you reach the real world. You also have to be able to deal with things when they are NOT “self-directed”, and when they are not a task that may have been your own personal preference to be doing at that point in time. Most people end up calling the things they do “hobbies” because sometimes what you WANT to learn or do doesn’t correlate with what the WORLD NEEDS DONE. Case in point: plenty of people WANT to be YouTube stars, so they go out and spend their time and energy making videos. How many of them can actually make a living at it? About the top 1000. Out of MILLIONS of people attempting it.

        Yet here we are setting up a school to encourage just this sort of mentality: “If you want to do something, then it’s valuable to do!” That’s a false statement. Encourage dreams and goals? Yes. Tell kids that they can FOREGO doing or learning about OTHER fundamental things (which may not be their cup of tea at the time, but ENABLES them to reach their goals and dreams in life later)? Not responsible. And it’s why, after all these decades of these ideas being proposed in the fringes, it still hasn’t become the mainstream: because sometimes you DO have to step in and TELL (or TEACH) kids what is best for them. They don’t just automatically know. I’m sorry, but the notion is absurd.

        Here’s a fun anecdote: when I was a child, I was intrinsically motivated to play video games (first Atari 2600 and then NES) for hours on end. And you know what? It got me curious enough that I taught myself how to program, and I created video games started at the age of 8 (using MS Basic programming language on a DOS system.) All of that was outside of school hours.

        Even though that seems like a very healthy use of my inquiry-directed self-directed learning journey, there are a few things to keep in mind:

        Would it have been healthy for me to be doing JUST that learning (my focus of choice), but at the cost of getting “the fundamentals” that I was being, essentially, forced to learn at school? No. It would have been absolutely unhealthy.

        (a) Doing well in math, reading, and writing allowed me both to become BETTER at programming (which is really a combination of . I wouldn’t have had the patience — not the “intrinsic motivation” — to learn those foundational skills if they hadn’t been imparted to me over time by my teacher in, yes, traditional, non-student-centered classrooms. In addition, mastering these skills — which I didn’t particularly care to learn, but which my TEACHERS (the classic Vygotskian “more knowledgeable other”) knew I would need — allowed me access to collegiate programs which then furthered my ability to choose and grow my areas of interest (computers and media.) In other words, without teachers TELLING me what I needed, I would have avoided those things (much like kids might avoid eating broccoli or spinach because they “don’t like it”), and thus would not have had the PRIVILEGE to pursue my own passions and inquiry-based learning later in life. Think about that. Feeding children what is best for them (whether it is green veggies, or knowledge and skills we know they need) may not be “intrinsically motivating”, but it is what is best for them and their health, and that’s why we do it.

        (b) There is an extraordinary need for reading and writing skills, even in the tech world — when I DID eventually become a computer programmer (my first career, before teaching — and one I still partake of, on the side), I had to write documentation, technical writing, not to mention resumes and cover letters, and use math both in the algorithmic coding AND in my day-to-day life. To be clear: I like computers and coding, but do not really care for math. If I had been a “SOLE” student, this likely means I would have simply avoided learning the essential math skills, because that would have been unpalatable to me, and would seem like a waste of time — I would think I could just learn to “code” without knowing things like reading, writing, and arithmetic. In short, I would have been naive — like most people are, until they are taught and learn otherwise.

        This is where systems like SOLE fail, unless they are actually fairly rigidly structured to give SOME autonomy, but only after GUIDING students toward a certain preferred outcome or problem to address,

        One of my graduate papers I wrote was for a theoretical framework I called “Escalating Independence”, which DID incorporate a lot of time for inquiry-based and project-based learning — authentic, constructivist opportunities to synthesize and apply knowledge.

        BUT the key here is that you don’t just “automagically” get to that place of autonomy. To apply knowledge or to solve a task or problem, some level of guidance / direct instruction must be applied. If you don’t even know what you don’t know, and you don’t know how to find out, how can you overcome those gaps in knowledge? How do you know where to look? If nothing else, direct instruction must occur to teach the metacognitive skills required to even become a self-directed learner. (studies cited in “The Dumbest Generation” by Mark Bauerlein also outline this: that even “digital natives” do not automatically learn things on their own — they end up opting to discover how to do frivolous things like text-messaging or watching YouTube or playing video games, maybe even pirating music… but then when it comes to productive tasks — or even just critical evaluation of information on the web — they are clueless until somebody explicitly models/teaches it.)

        This is not a framework I have published, and it’s not a “product” I am “pitching”, but it’s something I believe in, and incorporates the results of research and decades of academic studies.

        I used the same approach in a recent PBL task I assigned to my students — which was inquiry-based, yes, but NOT open-ended and NOT necessarily “student-driven” (even though it gave some student choice and autonomy, and thus increased motivation). At times, when I had allowed students to be “truly in charge”, the first thing they opted to do was: follow the path of least resistance. To do whatever is “easiest.” This is not unique to my students; it is human (and animal) nature — quintessential Behaviorist theory at its most basic.

        The result? My students ended up creating digital and printed geo-tourism maps for our area (we live in a tourist destination, with some interesting geological features and geothermal activity.) This did not happen through “self-directed inquiry-based student-driven” model. I tried that at first — when the students had their choice, they wanted to know

        It is also the model I used when I guided my students to “think outside the box” and create their own inventions for a Smithsonian / ePals global invention competition. A team of girls in my class won first place, beating out international entries. And it wasn’t because they were completely self-directed; if they’d had it their way, they would have “invented” something that already existed, and would have done half as much work and effort as it actually required to win the competition — THAT motivation was extrinsic, coming from an adult. But once they saw the results of the hard work, it has now instilled a model and an intrinsic motivation to strive for similar results in the future.

        So, be inspired by this academic, pure-constructivism fantasy land all you want, but the fact that this guinea-pig experiment could be detrimental to these children and their futures (and likely as some money-making ploy for these SOLE / Granny Cloud sellers) is what REALLY bothers me…

        When they’ve graduated and have learned how to make Harlem Shake videos (because that’s what they’re self-guided inquiry leads them to be curious about), but don’t know how to calculate their personal finances, don’t say I did’t tell you so…

        • Martin Belk commented on Jan 6 2014

          ABSOLUTELY!

          In my school c. 1976, they traded English and History with ‘Language Arts’ and ‘Social Studies’ and we were lost form then on. I had to make incredible efforts to catch up later on in life.

          What are they really doinghere? Creating perfect ‘consumers’.

          This is a major fail

      • Randy Little commented on Jan 6 2014

        HUH? Dude Mathew is right this isn’t new in anyway shape or form. I don’t get why its getting all this press like its a whole new things. The only thing its a first at is getting a lot of PRESS instead of just in trade mags and educational circles.

  • Matthew Gudenius commented on Dec 23 2013

    I find the unbridled enthusiasm for this experiment a little disturbing, to be honest.

    “Kids get to call all the shots! Great!”
    We’ve already done the “Kids govern themselves” experiments throughout history… it doesn’t end well. It ends with things like being malnourished because you want to eat cotton candy every day instead of vegetables. And did nobody read “Lord of the Flies?”

    I am all for giving children the opportunity for open-ended problem-solving, for self-directed discourse and discovery in pursuit of creativity and productivity. There is a place for that. But being a CORE of the curriculum or environment? Not so sure about that. I see it much more fitting as something like a “Genius Hour”, in which SOME time is set aside for students to pitch and pursue their own problem-solving endeavors (similar to how Google allows their employees some — limited — time to do the same thing)… but without compromising the premise that children are precisely children because they DON’T know what they need to know, and for that, they must be taught and guided. (There is a reason we aren’t governed by children and why we don’t let kids vote until they are 18)

    Honestly, in my book a failure to feed kids the “basic knowledge” that they don’t even know they are going to need later is tantamount to neglect.

    • Fabian Joseph commented on Dec 23 2013

      The Matthew Gudenius comments? This guy (assuming male) is clearly trying to promote their own educational ‘gimmick’, attaching too much ego to his own ‘product’. I think the importance of intrinsic motivation driven by actual interest is lost on him. I would start by explaining all the things we currently know did not come from books but exploration and discovery so who is to say children can’t do the same…then point out the hole in the wall video. So in short I feel a little annoyed by these comments but it also reminds me of the reasons why this form of curiosity based desire for learning is so important.

      • Matthew Gudenius commented on Dec 27 2013

        Have you actually READ or researched Mitra’s research and experiments? (Here’s a link to help you, because it seems that you haven’t actually done any research about Mitra’s “studies”: http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet21/mitra.html )

        Some facts:

        1) The Hole in the Wall experiment was conducted about 15 years ago. That is important to note, because the “intrinsic motivation” (ie. curiosity) that comes simply from being exposed to a novelty (a computer, which Mitra himself noted that the slum-kids had never even seen before) diminishes when the novelty wears off. In other words, as more and more kids have access to computers and technology as a commonplace item, simply putting one in front of them is no longer going to “motivate” them. I have seen this myself, in my 12 years of teaching kids with computers: 12 years ago, many kids still did not have a computer at home, and they were thrilled to use one at school. Now, this is no longer the case. 5-year-olds bring smartphones in their backpacks. You put a computer in front of them, and they just shrug their shoulders. Kind of like they do with pencils — another technology which, maybe when they were first invented, would have elicited voracious curiosity and interest. Like pencils, computer technology is now ubiquitous (at least, outside of the slums of India and Cambodia where Mitra’s projects have focused…)

        2) The Hole in the Wall experiments decided to fabricate their OWN metric for “learning”, claiming that a suitable one didn’t exist… which is false — there are several valid measures of computer literacy dating back to the 80s and early 90s, before Mitra’s experiment occurred. But, those probably wouldn’t have yielded the results (aka confirmation bias) that Mitra wanted, so they invented their own. And you know what it is? Whether kids can identify what icons do in a software interface. That’s it — icon recognition. This is what he calls “computer literacy”, but it’s certainly not what I would define computer literacy as. Sure, kids can figure out an interface and intuitively discover how to use buttons… does this make them computer literate? My students have demonstrated they can figure out how to make various programs work very quickly… and yet, years later, they still don’t know how to make something meaningful with those programs, or how to properly format a document — until they are TAUGHT how to do it.

        In other words, the Hole in the Wall experiment conclusions was equivalent to saying “Kids can figure out how to play video games without reading the instruction manual.” This is not news. We knew this already — that human beings are able to play with an manipulate things until they figure out how they work. This is what we all do, as babies and toddlers. It’s not a mind-blowing idea.

        3) Mitra’s conclusion is that this means “put a computer in front of children, and they will learn on their own” — technically, that is true, but is it MEANINGFUL learning? WHAT do they learn on their own? Simply a user interface — not academics, nor even meaningful application of the software.

        A study of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project in Peru found that simply giving computers to children does NOT lead to meaningful academic gains. Students in the program had NO gains in math or reading skills (the 2 academic areas that were tested.)

        4) Mitra’s studies also showed that, even though kids eventually learned the computer interface on their own, it was still learned FASTER through formal teaching methods! If you compare the rates of success from the “Minimally Invasive Education” (MIE) groups using the Hole in the Wall to the other test groups he chose, including a formal classroom and technical school (again, possible selection bias here — so many types of bias evident in Mitra’s body of work), you will see that after 1 month, the school-taught groups performed better than the self-taught ones… And that’s even with the fact that those MIE (hole in the wall) kids were allowed UNLIMITED time with the device (while classroom students had limited daily time — in other words, another apples-to-oranges lack of variable control)

        5) The conclusion by Mitra is that kids “teach themselves” and are “self-directed”, yet even in Mitra’s own MIE experiments, this is not the case. For example, in one study, children were presented with problems involving molecular biology, and given access to the computer. They didn’t make much progress or learn much. So an adult supervisor stepped in and guided them, and prodded them with more questions and information. In other words… they had a TEACHER!

        By definition, these kids were NOT “self-directed”… #1) they were not allowed to explore anything they wanted, they were given a very specific prompt/goal; #2) they only improved and made progress toward that goal with additional support/guidance from an adult.

        That’s a great way of doing things — allow for a lot of inquiry and independent learning and problem solving, but in a more structured way (with prompts, problems, and/or support provided by a teacher or guide); unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be the way this SOLE is set up, which means it is ignoring the findings of even Mitra’s own studies…

        6) Conclusions drawn from Mitra’s experiments do not even apply to these kids in London. Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” and MIE workstations were placed into poverty-stricken slums and rural environments where kids didn’t even have access to formal education, at all. In other words, it was basically an attempt to be a band-aid for a third-world problem.

        In other words, the “Hole in the Wall” approach to education is sort of like a “better than nothing” approach to education. These kids don’t have teachers or schools available to them, so ANY educational opportunity (even if just a computer) is better than none. I’m not going to argue with that (I don’t think anybody in their right mind would)… but as Mitra’s own studies showed (both by the rate of learning in formal schools vs. MIE, and by his experiments which required adult guidance for students to make progress), it’s still not as good of a solution as having a guide/teacher. In short, “better than nothing” does not equal “a great solution.”

        I lived and worked in London and, while there are some bad neighborhoods, it’s not the same situation. The UK is a first-world country, and provides public education to all children in the country. Given this scenario — and the fact that kids might even have technology access outside of the school — there is no reason to apply the Hole in the Wall in a UK (or other first-world) setting. Now, I don’t know if the above SOLE is simply an “extra-curricular” space that allows additional activity time outside of the school day, but if not, it is a real shame, because — unlike the case in India — you are actually TAKING SOMETHING AWAY (valuable instructional time) and replacing it with something inferior.

        7) In 12 years of educating children with computers, I have had PLENTY of opportunities to see what students do when “self-directed” (ie., if you give them a device, but not guidance/instruction.) Here are some examples:

        a) Until I installed monitoring and filtering software, some of my 12-year-old students in a suburban environment spent their time trying to listen to explicit-lyric rap music, and searching for pictures of scantily-clad women. This was what their “self-directed inquiry” led them to.

        b) Two years ago, a 4th-grade teacher requested iPads for his classroom in my school. When I went into the classroom months later, here is what the students were doing with the devices (since he had taken a “hands-off, let the kids do what they want on their own” approach): half were playing non-educational video games; the other half were watching rap videos on YouTube. Now, to be fair, they probably DID “teach themselves” how to find and use these things. I still fail to see the educational value here.

        c) When my school sent iPads home with 2nd graders, they had the ability to track what those devices were being used for. Many were used only for games and entertainment (non-educational). Some were used to search for porn (2nd graders do not know how to do this on their own, but they have older siblings and, like Mitra’s studies show, the kids end up “peer-teaching” each other.) Motivational? Sure. But like I said: MOTIVATION is not the same as EDUCATION. (I’m sure those 2nd graders “learned” a thing or two… but not the types of things we want them to know!)

        d) When I allow my students to “explore anything” with the devices, the results I get are: going online to find video games, songs, or videos; occasionally they will opt for something more productive like using an art or music program. That’s about it.

        Now, with RULES and RESTRICTIONS — or, better yet, GUIDANCE and TEACHING to provide prompts, problems, or goals for the students — the results are very different. There can still be a lot of inquiry and student-choice involved, which maintains high levels of motivation… but while TEACHING kids the skills they need to acquire and use knowledge to solve problems or produce authentic products (ebooks, videos, develop apps, etc.)

        I’m sorry, but study after study (including, ironically, Sugata Mitra’s) show that’s not going to happen (or only going to happen very rarely, with a select few driven or precocious individuals) in a SOLE.

        I know what I am saying may sound very pessimistic, but I am actually quite optimistic about educational technology — you will not find a bigger proponent than myself (edtech is why I left my profession as a software engineer and got my teaching credential), but I am also pragmatic; it’s much more fun and exciting to believe in an easy fix to the problem of education — to believe that computers offer some sort of magic panacea. But, like I tell my students: “I’m sorry to inform you, but the easiest solution is not always the best one…”

        I suggest people actually do research before drawing conclusions or opinions (or having cheerleading / pep rally sessions) about Mitra and his “groundbreaking” work…

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  • Ove Christensen commented on Dec 22 2013

    Very inspirational,
    Lots of experimentation going on internationally. Global Classrooms all over the world are beginning to see the benefits of open and connected classrooms. In Scandinavia we’re experimenting with classes that consists of students from more classrooms (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) working as one class.
    I very much believe open, globally connected classrooms will be – part of – the future.
    Thanks for your post

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  • commented on Dec 18 2013

    Reblogged this on coralposts.

  • paula stanzi commented on Dec 17 2013

    This is Fantastic and will change education forever.

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  • commented on Dec 17 2013

    Reblogged this on Manus Levante`s blog.

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  • commented on Dec 17 2013

    Nice post,

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  • commented on Dec 17 2013

    Reblogged this on What Lies Beneath The Rock and commented:
    “..Managed by 12 year old’s..” talk about empowering the coming generations! This is where technology is taking the world to.

  • commented on Dec 16 2013

    Yay!!!!

  • commented on Dec 16 2013

    Reblogged this on My Voyage Through Time and commented:
    Awesome!!!!
    ~~~Felicia

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  • commented on Dec 16 2013

    Reblogged this on Kira J Baker-Doyle, Ph.D. and commented:
    A fascinating evolution in schooling (I say evolution because this is clearly standing on the shoulders of some of established movements such as Reggio and constructivist, and open classroom models). The integration of connected technologies is fascinating, but my favorite line is ” The Killingworth School in the Cloud is run by a committee of 12-year-old students” Yes!

  • commented on Dec 16 2013

    Reblogged this on victormiguelvelasquez.

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