Originally posted on Skype’s Social Good Blog

How do children learn in places so remote there is no formal access to teachers or schools? How do children with learning disabilities prosper?  How do children with a passion to learn more than is expected in class, stay inspired and engaged?  Do children learn more working in groups or working alone?  These kinds of questions have been asked by researchers and educators for decades.  Hypotheses are tested every day throughout the world, and thanks to innovation, philanthropy, and technology, great progress is being made.  Children are learning in ways they never could before.

Another tool has now entered the sphere of innovation around learning that begins to address many of the questions above.  It won’t arrive in a box or in a student’s backpack.  And it won’t cost a thing.  This new offering comes in a cloud – the School in The Cloud.  This is the work of Professor Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England.  The School in the Cloud is a free web platform where groups of young children join volunteer educators via a Skype video call to find the answers to “big questions”, using the internet and their own collective brainpower.  The educators, “Skype Grannies” as they are referred to by the children, are there to encourage curiosity and give support, but not to teach.  The children teach themselves.  Sugata calls it self-organized learning.

SOLE opening in England with Skype Granny

SOLE opening in England with Skype Granny

Sugata started testing this approach in India nearly 14 years ago and with Newcastle University has continued researching its effectiveness around the world.  His work has shown learning happens and literacy improves for children in a variety of demographics, setting a path toward a better future.  This is why in 2013 Sugata Mitra won the TED Prize to build seven research labs to further his research.  Microsoft and the Skype Social Good team are partnering with Made by Many, the product design company behind Skype in the Classroom, to build the web platform that will connect Skype Grannies and children. Building off the early research at Newcastle University, together they are helping to turn Sugata’s vision into a movement.

A School in the Cloud can be set up anywhere.  In a community center, library, classroom, or a home where families or neighbourhood children gather.  All it takes is a computer, a camera, and a connection to the internet.  It is designed to complement other learning in schools or offer learning where there are no schools.  The only investment is one of time. Time spent by volunteer Skype Grannies, the facilitators who help set up School in the Cloud sessions, and the enthusiastic students searching for answers to questions that quickly grow by number and complexity. Skype Grannies are currently available to support Sugata’s labs, but we are hoping to soon expand this so that Skype Grannies can support educators anywhere in the future. If you’re interested in becoming a Skype Granny you can find out more and register your interest here.

Last week at the 30th annual TED conference in Vancouver, TED Curator Chris Anderson updated the TED community on School in the Cloud progress, announcing the launch of the web platform and releasing the trailer for the Sundance funded documentary being made about the project.  And at the Skype Conversation Space at TED, Sugata discussed the future of learning.

Every day we hear from thousands of teachers in over 200 countries and territories how Skype is being used to inspire and deepen learning in their classrooms.  Whether it’s interacting with guest speakers, collaborating with other schools around the world, or taking virtual field trips, teachers tell us the impact on student engagement is significant. Skype Grannies are now part of the growing community of educators using Skype to create meaningful moments for children.  The only difference is, they won’t be in a classroom.

Knowing the importance of alternative learning formats through our years of investment in Skype in the classroom, we immediately answered the call from Sugata and TED to innovate and help build the web platform for the School in the Cloud.  Our support is part of the Microsoft YouthSpark commitment to empower 300 million young people with opportunities for education, employment, and entrepreneurship.  We are proud to be working with Sugata and hopeful that our partnership with the School in the Cloud will give children a new way of accessing learning that will make those opportunities a reality.

I encourage innovative teachers who already understand the value of using Skype in your classroom to visit the School in the Cloud, sign up as a facilitator, and try this approach with your students.  Educators everywhere are welcome to be part of this global research project to understand how children learn together in new ways.  And while you allow the Skype Grannies to take over for a bit, you’ll have a moment to schedule your next Skype in the classroom session.