It’s 8 am in a South Delhi neighbourhood. And ‘Granny from Australia’ is on Skype. A group of 15 girls saunter into the small room tucked inside the library of the Government Girls’ School, Kalkaji, now designated as ‘School in the Cloud’ room. They are beaming at the sight of “granny” on the huge LCD screen attached to the wall. Soon, an animated conversation kicks off.
“Ma’m, what is your name?” asks Priyanshi Bhatt, a Class VIII student. She is from Section A, which is English medium, while sections B to F are Hindi medium. But she speaks haltingly.
“My name is Fiona,” says the granny.
Filona? Flora? Filora? — the children ask aloud.
“It’s F-I-O-N-A,” she says.
The conversation veers to another topic.
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“So what do you like to read? Storybooks? What kind of stories?” asks Fiona. At this point, the granny suddenly disappears from the screen. She is “offline”.
“Where has she gone? Did we do anything to the system,” Nikita asks Priyanshi. While they fumble with the keyboard and the mouse, Fiona reappears.
The Kalkaji government school is India’s first institution to implement ‘School in the Cloud’ or project Granny Cloud, a learning lab where children interact with grannies or e-mediators like Fiona and explore and learn from each other by tapping into online resources.
The concept is an extension of Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” project launched 15 years ago.
The Kalkaji facility has three computers, which can accommodate 15 children at a time.
“It is like a playground offered to children in the cyberspace,” says Mitra, adding that the next ones are coming up in Gocharan, Korakati and Chandrakona, all in West Bengal, and Phaltan in Maharashtra.
Currently, students of classes VI, VII and VIII take turns to attend the sessions twice a week. The entire set-up is free of cost for the school and students, and Mitra is using his TED 2013 prize money to give shape to his idea.
Ritu Dangwal, an associate of Mitra, says, “By now, we know that children can find answers on their own if they have access to the computer and Internet. But the moot point is to raise the right questions, and that is the role Granny Cloud plays. She is not a teacher, but a grandmother-like figure who initiates a conversation and raises curiosity.”
And Fiona does exactly that. “We are at such a distance from each other, still able to talk. Isn’t it lovely? You can see me, now look at my dog,” she says, pulling her little puppy in her lap to show it to the girls. “Wow ma’m, he is very sweet,” remarks Nikita. “My dog is a native Australian breed,” says Fiona. After a few more minutes of seemingly random conversation, Fiona says goodbye and goes offline with a beep. Now, it’s the turn of these girls to find answers to the questions that came to their minds during the conversation.
“So let’s see Australia kitni door hai,” says Komal.
On another computer, a group of five is trying to find dog breeds native to Melbourne, on Nikita’s suggestion, who still looks smitten by “Ma’m’s tommy”.
The third group is trying find on Google Maps about how to get to Melbourne.
Soon, the bell rings. Reluctantly, the children get up to leave the room and stand in the queue for their mid-day meal.