Grannies in the clouds can’t replace teachers on the ground

Janet Downs's picture
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“Grannies”, recruited from retired professionals, and beamed into self-organised learning environments (Soles) via Skype, can replace teachers on the ground, says TES. It’s hoped that seven “cloud schools” – five in remote or slum areas of India and two in schools in the north of England – will be up and running by December. They are the brainchild of Professor Sugata Mitra who was behind the famous “Hole in the Wall” experiment in India which allowed children to have unmediated access to computers set up in outside walls. Professor Mitra found children worked together and quickly taught themselves to use the internet.

But not everyone was bowled over by the experiment. Professor Mark Warschauer found children spent most of their time playing games or using paint programmes. He also discovered that parents and the community regarded the "minimally invasive education" as “minimally effective education.” Assistant Professor Payal Arora confirmed that while children, mainly boys, flocked to the workstations they were using them mainly as game machines.

That’s not to deny the potential of such an approach. Collaborating to solve problems contributes to understanding and deep learning. But collaborative learning needs support. After a visit to two Hole in the Wall sites in Almora and Hawalbagh where computers were no longer working, Arora noted:

“…we are attracted to the promise that children can learn and do learn with no or little supervision using computers in environments free from the chronic barriers to achieving schooling in disadvantaged areas. But in the case of Almora and Hawalbagh, what we see is the idea of free learning going into free fall.”

Arora concluded that for experiments in digital education to work there must be involvement with schools but this ran the risk, particularly in countries like India, of being diluted by teachers who “would instruct, reprimand, correct, direct and tame the spirit of the child”. She also pointed out that the term “minimally invasive education” was likely to antagonise teachers since the expression implies that teachers are always “invasive”.

And that brings us back to the grannies. The role of the grannies would be to encourage and praise the children, suggest topics for research but not teach. Although TES wrote that grannies would be retired professionals, Professor Mitra said he could run cloud schools with “a well-meaning adult who doesn’t have to know anything, whose job is to ensure health and safety.”

But “a well-meaning adult” beamed in through the ether is not enough. If collaboration is to work it needs supervision and guidance otherwise it could degenerate into competition and discrimination among the children and superficial learning of the “cut-and-paste” kind. A properly-trained teacher will guide and question but also know when to stand back and when to intervene.

Experience alone is not enough, it must be articulated. And a granny is the clouds, primed only to praise, is no substitute for a teacher with feet firmly on the earth.

 

TES editorial is here.

 
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