Archive for the ‘solesandsomes’ Category

The first SOLE in India was set up in Hyderabad way back towards the end of April in 2008. Among the children who was smitten by the SOLE and all that it could offer was a young girl. It was a concept that was hard for many of the adults to digest and that meant that children didn’t have as much access to it as they wanted and could have easily had.

Still, she tried to be in the SOLE as much as she possibly could, looking quite woebegone when she had to leave. Yet even this limited access made a difference. Within a couple of months, she came up to me and said – “Aunty, you know what I have asked my mother to get me for my birthday? A computer!” and then added – “Earlier, I used to ask for dresses, jewellery, toys; but now all I want is a computer”.

Is this at least as telling as a test score?!

Uh Oh! Simon didn't say!

How else are aspirations changing?


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I am a big fan of the SOLEs and SOMEs. I should be… I see how they work, at very close quarters. That too in some of the most disadvantaged settings. Disadvantaged from every angle. Socio-economic poverty, intellectual poverty, abusive environments at home and at school, illiteracy, minimal resources, and educational settings that don’t really reach the children, specially those that need the help. You name it. I see children who are thrilled because they could finally read ‘one’ word in an ‘alien’ language that let them get into a game. I see them gradually opening up as they realize that they won’t get scolded or hit because they made a ‘mistake’. That turn to me with a wide grin to share their ‘success’.

Supriya Day1 260412??????????????????????

I have also seen the other end of the spectrum in the SOLEs. Children enthusiastically and competently searching for answers to ‘big questions’ and drawing rational, logical conclusions from it. Questions that are far ahead of what is expected of them in their school curriculum.

SIS HK Jan2011

Yet, no… not everyone of them is going to go to Yale like Arun Chavan. [Arun was really fortunate. He not only had the Hole -in-the-Wall, which opened up a whole new world for him, but he also had a very supportive and stimulating home environment that encouraged him to use that opportunity to its fullest and to make sense of all he discovered]. It’s the 3rd goal that Sugata talks about – Developing a rational belief system. It’s something that the emediators [The Granny Cloud] can help with in the SOLEs.

But what of the children who aren’t in Arun’s situation? What about when they have nothing.. or next to nothing? I think the SOLEs and SOMEs have a role to play here as well. Not just with Sugata’s 1st goal – Developing reading comprehension skills, and the 2nd one – Search & retrieval skills, but oddly enough, even with the 3rd one. The emediators [the ‘Grannies & Grandpas’] share a different world view; they hold out possibilities of a different world, provoke them to think of what else might happen. My Shahrukh can testify to that! Perhaps it won’t be as effective as a really good teacher/facilitator in a great school, but I am convinced by all that I have seen that it can make up for a whole lot that the children would not otherwise have had by way of stimulation, enrichment, and encouragement.


In many of the responses, comments that I read these days related to Sugata’s work, I get the sense that people expect it to have a ‘uniform’ effect. That all the children who ever participated in a SOLE / SOME or even SOLE session will somehow, magically fly high. That they will all finish school with flying colours and go on to university and make an impact on the world. Is that feasible? Obviously not…each child will respond in their own unique way, to the extent they are capable of.

So some will go on to do great things and get famous. [I am waiting for Gauri among others, as well.] Some will go on to make a decent life for themselves and their families. Some will ‘not drop out of school’. And some, like my Swapnil, will have been touched and continue to watch from the periphery and dream of a life that can be different.

I think we can make a huge impact at a fraction of the cost if we can get the SOLE – SOME approach [emphasis… APPROACH] in place, irrespective of whether it’s a ‘stand alone’ SOLE, or a session in a supportive school facilitated by an encouraging teacher, a SOME [Granny Cloud] session organized by an NGO or even through homeschooling. We would be able to reach children who would otherwise be deprived of even basic educational facilities, and take to new heights those children who have the basics [and even a little more]. It is for ALL children.

So long as we can help each child achieve his or her potential.. whatever that might be, I’ll be happy. And while it may not be the only answer, we need initiatives like the SOLEs to reach these children in the first place!

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The days following the announcement of the TED 2013 prize to Sugata Mitra’s work on self organized learning environments have been interesting ones. There have been an overwhelming number of comments – some in awe, others critical, yet others unsure of what it all means… Many have already arrived at a conclusion about this work. Funny, that… considering that we are still figuring out so much of it!

The difficulty with folks drawing conclusions about an initiative based on a short presentation or article is that their perception of it often does not extend beyond the key ideas highlighted. Rarely is there a chance to go into all the experiences, the failures and successes, which went into arriving at those ideas. Hence ideas often appear too facile, one dimensional and inadequate to deal with the complexity of the situation.

This is true of the ‘conversation’ currently going on around the Hole in the Wall, the SOLEs [self organized learning environments], and the SOMEs [self organized mediation environments, better known as ‘The Granny Cloud’]. In a world that faces many new challenges, and a media that often seems hysterical and bent on showcasing all that’s terrible, I am more than ok with a focus on potential, on ‘what works’. Specially when it has to do with children’s education and learning. It is the hope for the future….

The way I look at it…. The TED Prize 2013 will provide a launch pad through which rigorous research related to the SOLEs & SOMEs can be undertaken. Hopefully, many other folks around the world will join in to add insight from their own experiences.

There are a few things though, that I’d like to reemphasize at the outset.

‘Literacy’ is indeed a big concern and whether children read through ‘books’ or on the internet might need to be based on what’s available [and at what cost], and in which locations. Technology isn’t a ‘bad’ word, you know!

Sugata talks of 3 key goals of education / learning. 1. Developing reading comprehension skills. 2. Developing search and retrieval skills and 3. Developing a rational belief system. Not all settings are functioning at levels 2 and 3. They cannot. The children in these more disadvantaged/remote settings cannot, at this point, read. They need to be able to read, and to read “discerningly”. There is work underway to see if, and how, reading fluency and comprehension skills can be acquired in self organized learning environments.

Not because teachers are obsolete – they most certainly aren’t! But because teachers and schools are not always available. [And certainly not ‘good’ teachers who will facilitate and encourage learning]. We need many, many such facilitators. Enter ‘The Granny Cloud’! Why should children, anywhere in the world, be deprived of a chance to learn? So ‘beaming in a Gran’ [and by the way, that includes grandpas, uncles aunts and so on] via skype is often the only enabling factor in the children’s lives. No, it doesn’t take care of all a child’s learning needs – but it does add to it tremendously. [And even more so in settings where there is nothing.]

So many of you out there are right.  One size does not fit all. We’d even like to see how the School in the Cloud might function in settings where there are children with special needs. I spend a fair amount of time with really disadvantaged settings and we are using the SOLE approach in those places too. And the results are promising. In any case, the SOLEs are not mean to be a panacea for all the shortfalls of our educational system. But it is an honest effort, with a huge potential, to make a difference to the way children learn, and how they will continue to be able to learn.

Children working at their own pace, in groups, challenging themselves, in collaboration with each other, in encouraging environments, preparing themselves to take on an unknown future… That’s what we hope for.

It’s a long road ahead [and while it’s not the only one], there’s enough data to show it’s worth trying out in a really big way. Won’t you join in? Image

Do visit us on our wiki [far from complete, but at least a bit more information should you want it]


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I’ve been watching a Marathi TV serial fairly regularly these past few months,’Uncha Maza Zoka’ based on the life of Ramabai Ranade…and yesterday while chatting with a cousin who also follows this, we found ourselves giving thanks once again to the likes of Tilak, Agharkar, Ram Mohun Roy,  Phule, Maharshi Karve [Is it coincidence that so many have Pune as their ‘karmabhoomi’?… 🙂 Just kidding!]. It’s due to their efforts and many others like them that Sarojtai and I are independent, educated, ‘in control of our lives’ people. Given that both of us as well as many other women around us do still face quite a few challenges related to our being ‘female’, we shudder to think of what it was not so long ago… and then my thoughts flow to Supriya….

Bright, motivated, curious and eager, Supriya got taken out of the Pune SOLE [Self Organized learning Environment] by her parents since they can’t or won’t send their other 2 children to it. Supriya was amongst the first to join the SOLE in Gosavi vasti. And she had very little to go on. Yes, she went to school but had not used a computer before, and had no English at her disposal. Yet she was determined…She’d fight for her turn at the ‘controls’, she’d watch intently when she couldn’t get her hands on the mouse or keyboard. She’d beg for another worksheet even if she couldn’t answer it.

6 short months later, Supriya knew, really knew 75 and more words! Not just new words, but words in English – pronunciation and meaning as well! She was beginning to discover what else she could do on the computer.  She and her friends had found google maps and located where they lived. They had just begun to use ‘search’ and were amused by the ‘tallest building in the world’ being something that sounded like ‘bhurjee’  :-). In September 2012, she had just discovered wikipedia….

And then social circumstances intervened. Supriya, like countless little girls like her before, and unfortunately countless more still to come, was denied the right to come use the resources at the SOLE. The parents stand? If the other 2 kids can’t go… nor can she…

Is this where her story ends? I hope not…

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Driving back from Sindhudurg [and the newest SOLEs] 10 days ago in torrential rain through the ghats, after a scorching 5 days [It always reminds of how appropriate the term ‘jeev ghena ukada‘ ( life sucking heat’) is!] reminded me of our SOLEs and SOMEs Cloud and why that term is so apt. With or without the word ‘Granny’ attached. I’ll settle for eMediator.

It’s something Sugata and I have talked about – the possibility that the term ‘cloud’ might not have the same connotations elsewhere in the world. But here in India….the clouds bring much-needed rain for the crops as well as respite from the heat. And they are anticipated and waited for eagerly.

And that’s what the ‘CLOUD” is all about too… Bringing new ideas, showing the children different worlds, sprinkling parched minds with various possibilities, encouraging the children to bloom.

Yet, all of us, also have a healthy respect for the rains and the havoc they can wreak when they are relentless. The thunder and lightning is often scary, specially when you on the edge of a cliff and visibility is close to zero! And I understand the concerns of the community in the context of the possibility of children exposed to ideas they cannot control, that could take the children far away, that could leave them conflicted and unsure of  the direction in which they should turn, thrown every which way by this deluge of conflicting thoughts, lifestyles, cultural values and much more.

And I feel grateful, yet again, for the commitment and responsibility with which the eMediators choose to be involved. The effort they take to understand the context and culture these children come from brings the best of the clouds and the rains.

It’s the key to what Sugata is talking about in terms of the goals of the SOLEs. It is what is going to help develop that rational belief system.

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A couple of weeks ago, a journalist from a regional newspaper from Sindhudurg, Maharashtra asked me to write a short article related to the SOLEs to mark Maharashtra Day [shared with May Day]. I was happy to raise the issue of the SOLEs, but with a precondition. That it wouldn’t necessarily be a laudatory article. I am only too aware of the potential of the solesandsomes. I spend enough time with the children, in person and via skype to know how much this means to them… And I am always left with the feeling that we are, somehow… letting the children down. So I tried to strike a balance between the joy of a celebration [deserved or not], and the need for introspection, so that WE, as a community, do what needs to be done. The text [in English as I sent it] of my article [which appeared, with a not terribly accurate translation in Marathi] follows:

Each time a special day comes around [and certainly the 51st anniversary of Maharashtra Day can be considered significant], we seem to be energized and wanting to mark all manner of achievements. At the risk of sounding a discordant note in the midst of all the celebrations, I urge each one of us to reflect and ask ourselves whether these celebrations could be more meaningful. Does it reflect just another day that comes by every year, or has it genuinely taken us forward? Instead of ‘birthdays’ can we celebrate ‘growth days’ our own cultural concept of  “vaadhdivas”? Can we look to the future and renew our efforts rather than being content with what was done but was, possibly, just a flash in the pan? In May 2009, a SOLE [self organized learning environment] was set up in a brand new building with state of the art technology in Shirgaon so that children could access such facilities and be on par with children elsewhere in the world. An achievement that was heralded, and has been mentioned in the media, in India and abroad, every time we want to showcase what is possible. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the concept, ‘self- organized learning environments’ facilitate children learning on their own, even when other educational resources may be at a minimum. We may operate in remote areas, with inadequate schools, libraries, and so on. But access to the internet can level the playing field and open up for these children a world that many of us from earlier generations could only dream of. There is absolutely no doubt about the potential. Given a chance, the children use it to the fullest. Just a few months ago, in the few days of access that children at Shirgaon got to the SOLE, they were in daily contact with children and their teacher in Melbourne, Australia. And they discussed, yes… discussed a range of topics; from music to currencies, religions, food, lifestyles, animals, climate, school life, festivals and much more. What was possibly even more critical is that this discussion took place in an atmosphere of openness, of ‘equality’ not ‘supervision’. There was interaction, there was sharing, there was an explosion of ideas. Can we really ask for much more? But before we get too excited, let us take stock of what is the present situation of the SOLE today? Is it really enough to have such ‘events’ taking place once in a while? I am not going to give you any figures. But let us ask ourselves… How many children are really benefiting from the facility? What if anything is it being used for? Have the hopes been lived out, has the vision been achieved? Have we made good our promise to the children? Perhaps we need to go by frequently and provide the help that is needed from the community to make sure that the promise is fulfilled. More recently, another, much smaller, SOLE [with just 2 computers] has been set up in Talere in an attempt to remedy the shortcomings of the earlier project. Sustainability, and ensuring that children continue to have these facilities to use in the long-term, is the focus of the current efforts. The inaugural function, at which Prof Sugata Mitra [the brain behind approach known as self organized learning environments] and I, were present, was yet again covered by the media. It is still new and we are still figuring out how children might make the most of such a facility. There is a flurry of activity and I am filled with joy each time I visit or connect to the children on skype and they tell me what they have been doing, not only in the SOLE, but also in their lives. Each little success of theirs fills me with hope that perhaps, just perhaps, this time around we will give them what they need and deserve. I am an optimist. When I see the degree of community involvement, when I talk to the parents of these children and hear what they have to say, when I watch the children as they search for, and play all manner of games, I feel hope rise again. Today they are playing games; tomorrow they will explore so much more. Exploring concepts such as global warming, energy alternatives such as solar power, and being exposed to varied occupation options is a just another step. But only if we truly keep this up. Not just on inauguration day, not just on Maharashtra Day, but EVERYDAY!  Then we will truly have cause to celebrate!

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The initiative ‘SOMEs’ [Self Organized Mediation Environments] grew out of the SOLEs [Self Organized learning Environments]. Many of you may already be familiar with Sugata Mitra’s work. We began this particular initiative in May 2009 and faced many challenges along the way. Ask any of the eMediators and they could give you a long list. But what most of them would also share with you are the ‘highs’. The thrill we experience each time we make contact is beyond description… because we go just that bit forward toward reaching our objectives. And what I’d like to share with you is a bit about one of those objectives. The experience we had at today’s SOME at KHELGHAR, Pune that manifests the movement in that direction….

The SOMEs were initiated to facilitate contact between children in remote, disadvantaged settings in rural and urban areas. When we began, we were not sure where it would lead…. Every day brings new surprises! What began as a primarily story telling / story reading activity rapidly expanded to include puzzles, quizzes, sharing pictures, free flowing conversation, and even craft activities. The starting objective was that children would become confident and pick up English fluency and, in the process, be able to make more effective use of the internet for their academic development.

Though the media still refers to it as the ‘granny cloud’; that is a misnomer, catchy though the phrase might be. We have in our group not only grannies, but also grandpas, as well as uncles and aunts and elder ‘siblings’ too. What we are emphasizing in all these relationships is the ‘grandmother’ approach [if you want to call it that, as it operates in India and most parts of the world]. It means that the children get to interact with a person who is encouraging, and appreciative of their efforts, irrespective of whether or not they are entirely familiar with what the child is trying out!

A lot has happened since Sugata came up with the idea. Through this period, we became more and more aware of the potential of the SOMEs to enable children achieve objectives even more important than learning English. And this is the objective of opening up new vistas for them, of helping children all over the world gain new perspectives, enabling them to become acquainted with and better understand different ways of living, recognize and appreciate the meaning of traditions and customs in different set ups. Earlier this month we were able to get going, thanks to the children at the SOLE in Shirgaon, Maharashtra and Edna’s school in Melbourne, Australia, direct interaction between the children themselves. And yet other gains opened up….

Interest in the SOMEs and its possibilities for helping children learn English, specially conversational English has begun to spread and even places that do not have regular SOLEs set up are trying to figure out how they can still have the SOMEs, while figuring out how to get the whole SOLE facility.  One such organization is Palakneeti Khelghar in Pune. They provide meaningful ‘out of school’ recreational and academic experiences to children living in a nearby slum area.

So today, again with an interaction set up between children in Australia and those from Pune, we explored what would happen if children from Melbourne attempted to find out about the experiences of the Khelghar children related to ‘water’. The children had all kinds of questions! And they drew many responses, quite a few even after the session was over! Do remember that the children at Khelghar have never used a computer before. [They have seen one in the centre’s office, but that’s about it]. The thought of seeing children from so far away in their own room was exciting, and intimidating all at once. But they caught on to the idea that they could find out about each other using this medium [which, by the way, meant using text on skype, translations from and into English, from and into Marathi and Hindi]. And I was inundated with queries to send to them even after the session was over.

But what really struck me, yet again, was the vast potential for understanding different perspectives and situations. Here are just a few of the questions and related responses:

Q: Where do you get your water from, is it fresh and clean? Do you ever get sick from the water? Do you get water 24 hours in a day?

A: No [in response to availability of water]

Q: When do you get your water?

A: 2 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the evening

Q:  Do you store water? How? Where do you wash your clothes, Do you use the tap water?

A: yes… in barrels, cans, and tanks in the house and big kitchen utensils

[wash clothes] at home from the stored water

and a little later in the conversation—

Q: Does the government help you in any way?

A: at election time, [some parties] make sure we get water for 2 days at a stretch [Other children added] The Govt puts liquid chlorine in the barrels to purify the water, also potassium permagnate

Q: Do you a have a family?  Is the water enough for your family?

A: Yes it is enough…

I wonder what children with resources would make of this ‘satisfaction’ / ‘contentment’ with what little they have and what other questions might arise in their minds. I do know what questions came up at Khelghar following this conversation… They wanted to know SO much about these children… [what they saw through their webcam certainly looked different from what they are used to, but their questions were not about what these ‘other’ children have… the questions were about the system!   These are just a few of the queries:

  • Do you have tuitions other than school?
  • What do you study in history?
  • Do your parents send a lunch box with you to school?
  • How many days of the year do you have school?
  • Do you have a teacher’s day and a children’s day?
  • Do you get punished if you don’t study?
  • Do you bunk school?
  • If someone finds out that you have bunked, what happens?
  • Do you have a school uniform? Do you have to tie braids?
  • Do you have a centre that you can go to outside of school, like we come to Khelghar?
  • Are you forced to study?
  • Do you like to study? How do you feel about coming to school?

And then there were questions about families, and food, and God, and festivals, housing facilities and much more. But more about that another time….

As I listened to the questions from the children at Khelghar, I realized that through the questions they were sharing a lot of their own experiences and hope they have a chance to talk about these in more depth. It would show them a world that has many possibilities….. and perhaps they will be enabled to do something about it!

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