A world renowned academic who inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire has outlined plans to roll out his $1m ‘Schools in the Cloud’ project in the North East.
Professor Sugata Mitra aims to set up two schools with money from the 2013 TED prize fund, a prestigious grant previously given to rock superstar Bono and former American president Bill Clinton.
Using the internet and volunteer “grannies” to interact with children over online video software Skype, the professor believes he can help children in the region as young as eight answer GCSE level questions.
Unveiling his plans at a press conference at the British Science Festival 2013 in Newcastle yesterday, he said the project will run alongside similar schemes in deprived areas of India.
“I’m going to jump the children six years and inside the Schools in the Cloud they will be working at the level of a 14-year-old,” said the Newcastle University professor, who was born in Calcutta, India.
“Children in groups can read four or five years ahead of their time and if there is four in a group, then someone else will understand it.
“I suspect if you do this on a regular basis each child’s reading age will jump. I’m hoping for a six-year jump in a few months time.”
Special centres at George Stephenson High School in Killingworth, North Tyneside, and Greenfield College at Newton Aycliffe in County Durham, will be set up where children work in groups around a single computer on a question set by a volunteer over Skype.
Pupils’ progress will be contrasted with the experience of youngsters in five other schools in India who have never had access to a computer, and in some cases, will not attend school.
In 1999 Professor Mitra installed a computer in a wall at a New Delhi slum and found that without any formal instruction children learnt how to use the computer, surf online and grasp basic English.
They would then teach other children and his “hole-in-the-wall” project inspired Vikras Swarup, the author of the book Q&A which became movie Slumdog Millionaire, on how youngsters have an innate sense of education.
Describing his first slum experiments, he said: “I was looking at this through the eyes of a physicist. I didn’t know what education theory was at that point.
“With the hole-in-the-wall you see flocking and flocking is a self-organising system. Long term, it could lead to a physics of learning. Perhaps we don’t need a teacher as much as we thought we did.”
He described the phenomenon as self-organised learning and later evolved the Granny Cloud model in 2009 in conjunction with schools in Gateshead.
The system involved volunteers - some actual grannies, others retired teachers, grandfathers and uncles - speaking to children over Skype who gave them encouragement to learn.
Professor Mitra said there was a need to pull the English education system into the 21st century, with schools still geared towards producing people with skills akin to a Victorian clerk.
He said: “People say I’m anti-teacher which is absolutely not true, I’ve been a teacher all my life but the strategy used today is over 100-years-old and it was at a time when we needed to mass produce a certain kind of person - people with good hand-writing and spelling, basically clerks. It was very efficient but what is that doing today?”
With the help of his $1m fund from the organisers of TED, an annual technology conference in the USA, he will set up the region’s two learning labs as well as three in West Bengal, India, one in New Delhi and one in Pune, whose pupils are the children of sex workers.
He said: “A tiny village in a mangrove swamp is the most remote of our Schools in the Cloud. Children can come and learn what they want and teachers are available on Skype if they need help.
“This is all about building where you cannot and getting teachers into areas where they cannot, or will not, go.”