Granny army helps India's school children via the cloud

Jackie Barrow explains how she teaches children thousands of miles away

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No-one does love and encouragement better than a granny. Now that love is being spread across continents, as UK-based grandmothers extend their embrace to school children thousands of miles away in India.

Jackie Barrow isn't a granny yet but as a retired teacher she felt she might qualify for an advert in The Guardian newspaper calling for volunteers to help teach children in India.

She did and today, three years on, she is reading "Not Now Bernard" via Skype to a small group of children in the Indian city of Pune.

They love it and are engaged in the experience as she holds up an Easter egg to show them how children in the UK celebrated the recent holiday.

Advice and praise

The Granny Cloud project is the brainchild of Prof Sugata Mitra, best-known for his hole-in-the-wall computer scheme which put basic PCs into some of the poorest parts of India.

The work is being supported by the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.

An elderly lady with a tray of biscuits Made with love - the special ingredient is encouragement

Prof Mitra installed the first such computer on the wall of his south Delhi office, opposite a slum. He was amazed to see that the children, initially curious about the machine, soon became self-taught experts.

Within days the children were able to browse the internet, cut and paste copy, drag and drop items and create folders.

The children liked to draw, discovering how to use the Microsoft Paint programme to create paintings.

Then they moved on to downloading games and playing them. By the second month they had discovered MP3 music files and were downloading songs.

Prof Mitra noticed they did best when an adult was present offering advice and encouragement over their shoulders.

There was, he reasoned, no-one so encouraging as a granny and so the idea was born.

The official name of the project is Sole (self organised learning environments) but it is more commonly known as the granny cloud.

The grannies, or e-mediators as they are officially known, are not teachers and the sessions they conduct with the children in India are not lessons.

Instead they read stories to the children and talk about things relevant to them and to the UK. The point, said Prof Mitra, was that they provided encouragement and praise and became a "virtual granny" to the children.

Problems

Jackie lives in a rural area 15 miles (24km) outside Manchester - a world away from Pune.

"We chat about my garden. In the spring I show them pictures of the lambs in the fields by the house and in the winter, pictures of the snow. If I go to London I take a picture of myself there. They love it," she said.

Jackie Barrow using Skype to read a story The story Jackie read - about a boy and a monster - has a universal message

The e-mediators encourage each other, staying in touch via a Facebook page and a wiki, on which they offer tips for what went well and what did not work.

There were now around 300 "grannies" involved in the scheme and it was growing all the time, Prof Mitra told the BBC.

But it has not been without its problems.

"After three years it still feels as if we are at a pilot stage. There are so many things that still need to be worked out," he said.

He is very upfront about the challenges the project has faced.

"This type of e-mediation is intended for the not-so-good schools but they don't want it. The teachers don't have great interest, there is not enough electricity, there are hundreds of reasons why it doesn't work," he said.

Using Skype to connect the grannies with the children may be cheap but it isn't always reliable.

The connection often goes down, as it did on the day Jackie was teaching.

"One out of 10 sessions have a problem so it is not unusable and the children have no expectations. They are happy to revert to messaging," said Prof Mitra.

Initially he put his grannies to work with schools in Hydrerabad where cultural differences between the backgrounds of the UK volunteers and the children they were connecting to soon became very obvious.

"The schools were predominately Muslim and, with hindsight, that may not have been the best choice," said Prof Mitra.

Jackie agreed that religion can be a sensitive topic and does her best now to avoid any religious references.

She added that, at first, there was a more general lack of enthusiasm for the scheme. "There were lots of problems. No-one from the school seemed prepared to facilitate the sessions. In one town there was just one guy on a bicycle going from one centre to another opening up," she said.

"The teachers are often not qualified, not competent with IT, can't speak English and maybe felt threatened by this kind of intervention," she added.

Preoccupied parents

Now she conducts her sessions at an after-school club, dubbed Khelgar, where there are lots of encouraging staff.

Children at Khelgar in Pune The children enjoy the sessions and their English is improving

Working with them is Suneeta Kulkarni, who has the incredibly challenging job of co-ordinating the scheme across the whole of India.

For her the rewards are obvious.

"I have seen big differences in the children. They have learnt lots of words and when Jackie holds something up they now attempt to read the words," she said.

What do the children make of a story such as Not Now Bernard, a quintessentially British book about a boy whose protestations to his parents about a monster in the garden fall on deaf ears with tragic consequences.

"Parents across the world are preoccupied, it is a universal message," said Ms Kulkarni.

Retirement cloud

The scheme has now been extended to four schools in Columbia, South America where, said Prof Mitra, it was doing very well.

It is also being used in schools much closer to home.

In Gateshead where literacy levels are lower than the national average, schools such as St Aidan's Church of England primary school are embracing the idea of the granny cloud and intend to use e-mediators to engage children at the very early stages of reading.

"The teachers love it as they can go off and have a cup of tea and the children are very excited about a granny appearing on the screen," said Prof Mitra.

The professor is hopeful that the project can be taken on by a big organisation and made to work at a global scale.

"In terms of potential we have just scratched the surface," he said.

He also sees huge potential for extending the role of the e-mediators into a "retirement cloud".

"We have a silent workforce, retired engineers, doctors, plumbers - all with great expertise to share," he said.

"I hope that at some stage the government picks it up. Retired people can input their information in a 21st retirement club on the cloud for everyone to tap into."

It could, he said, be an important cultural leap in the way we view our ageing population.

"Instead of saying 'what can we do for them?', we will be asking 'what can they do for us?'"

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