On cloud nine – the ‘granny' network supporting students

It's Technology Week here at Teacher. Today we take a look at the Granny Cloud network that's supporting students in remote locations across the globe.

‘I've learned a great deal about what kids are capable of, about education in India, about their cultures and values and about myself. There is tremendous satisfaction in this work – and fun,' Melbourne educator Edna Sackson reflects.

In addition to being Teaching and Learning Leader at Mount Scopus Memorial College, since 2009 she's been a Cloud Granny – Skyping for an hour a week with students in remote locations to chat about all manner of topics.

The network was set up by Professor Sugata Mitra and builds on the success of his ‘hole in the wall experiments' into how children teach themselves and others. You don't have to be a grandmother to volunteer, all ages are welcome, and there's a mix of both men and women.

Mitra famously took out an ad in a British newspaper appealing for grandmothers, but Sackson became involved after reading about his idea on social media. ‘I think Sugata had spoken at a conference and I was watching the tweets from the conference,' she tells Teacher.

In his research, the academic found that having someone around to play a ‘grandmother role' – chatting and offering simple words of encouragement rather than instruction – helped boost student learning and level the playing field for those from disadvantaged backgrounds with limited or no access to education.

Sackson has connected with students from age six to 16 in remote locations in India and Cambodia. ‘There are also sessions with Greenland, Colombia, Jamaica and so on, but I have not been involved with those because of the time difference.'

Asked to describe what the sessions involve, she points out that it's not curriculum-based and it's not school. ‘I've had conversations around a huge range of topics and concepts – for example, animals, geography of the world, school and learning, art, languages, health, music, even the rights of the child.'

Volunteer grannies book a session and wait online for the students to call, then start a conversation. ‘This can be challenging if they have limited English! You see where the session goes. More often than not you have to ditch your plan, maybe because they didn't understand, or the internet was too slow or they were unresponsive or they asked questions about something else and led you in another direction.'

She says the aims include helping children to develop their confidence and take ownership of their learning, improving their English conversation and literacy skills, and fostering independent learning, social skills and collaboration. ‘Sessions might include any of the following: Engaging the children in conversation; asking questions and inspiring curiosity; exposing them to ideas and concepts; showing them pictures, videos or artefacts that provoke curiosity, encouraging them to find information on the internet; asking big questions for them to explore; responding to their questions and interests; and singing and playing games.'

She's written about her involvement with the project – this is just one of her blog posts about learning in the cloud.

Sackson is also part of the Granny Cloud core team (the other members are two retired teachers and an electronics design engineer), supporting project director Suneeta Kulkarni. ‘We meet every week or two via Skype – India, Australia and the UK – to discuss behind the scenes matters, develop guidelines for grannies, write text for the website, discuss granny applications ... . New applicants send a detailed application and a video and the core team decides whether or not to proceed with them. I'm involved in interviewing applicants and showing them the ropes via Skype too.'

Reflecting on her experience and what's surprised her most about the network, the primary educator highlights the incredible development and change that can come from simple interactions and the rapid rate at which the children are able to improve their confidence, English, independence and computer skills. She adds: ‘Although, as an educator, none of that really surprises me. I have a very strong “image of the child!”.'

Sugata Mitra spoke about his vision for a school in the cloud and his hole-in-the-wall experiments on receiving the $1 million TED Prize in 2013. Watch a video of his presentation below.

To find out more about the Granny Cloud and how to get involved, visit thegrannycloud.org