'Slumdog' eLearning Guru Plans Cloud Schools in India & UK

The man behind the computer-learning scheme that inspired the Slumdog Millionaire movie has a new scheme for India and the north-east of England

A bold experiment in education by remote access is underway in India and the north-east of England. The programme is the brainchild of Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, the man who in part inspired the popular novel Q+A and film Slumdog Millionaire, and will lead to teacher-less interactive touchscreen learning systems in both countries. The system, says Mitra, will let children learn English at their own pace, and will accelerate their education and careers.

Mitra won a TED award for his Schools in the Cloud plans this year, and has already begun work on his dream of taking the scheme global.

“My wish is to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together,” was his winning million-dollar pitch. “Help me build the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online.”

The schools operate without a teacher but will be supervised by an adult and will rely on a Skype connection to experts to share knowledge. Mitra said that these volunteers, who are called Grannies, come from all over the world, including the UK and the US.

The aim is to introduce children to technology and English reading and improve their levels of comprehension.  That, said Mitra, “is the key to learning everything else that you need to learn from the internet.”

Mitra’s plans include building five cloud school systems in India and two in the UK. He said that he and the team behind the two places in the UK are currently building the facilities at George Stephenson High School in Killingworth and Greenfield School in Newton Aycliffe. They will be centred on an interactive learning screen set up in a public area. Mitra said that the cloud schools could be put in place anywhere in India but added that, since this is a research project, they might be limited to areas where it was not too far for students or too expensive to travel.  

During the three-year pilot he expects to spend some time at each hub, acting as an observer. For now, he plans to place his cloud schools in a range of areas, from the more middle-class towns to urban slums in India, and in the two UK schools.

Mitra has fascinating experience in e-learning. An earlier project of his, called the Hole in the Wall experiment, saw the Professor’s team embedding internet-connected devices literally into the walls of buildings in deprived areas. He watched as children learned how to use the computer and then showed others how.

The experiment saw Mitra make one computer available before rolling out connected computers to other places. It was part of the inspiration for the story behind the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire and it was an immediate success.

“I wanted to expose children to computers in public spaces,” he says. “It was experimental work and I wanted to see how children could teach themselves to use the internet.”

The Hole in the Wall experiment lasted from 1999 until 2004. During that period it expanded from just one open PC to computers in 22 locations. Mitra said that the children that were using the English-language computers had picked up enough English to interact with the PCs and were pushing for better equipment and more exposure.

Now, almost a decade-and-a-half on from the first Hole in the Wall PC, he said that there are still places where children are not given the elbow room to use a computer and instead have to deal with a system that assumes that they are hunched over keyboards, doing things they would prefer to keep from their parents.

In the Schools in the Cloud project, where children will have Skype access to English-language experts, the experience is expected to be just as successful at the Hole in the Wall project. Five or six children is the ideal number to gather around a screen, according to the Professor, and he said that it is important that they be in safe areas.

“I am talking about unsupervised access between friends and peers. People have misconceptions. I am talking about children on big screens on streets. And when people do that, they will only be doing good things.”


David Neal has been writing about technology since the Millennium Bug. He’s survived Alta Vista and the I Love You virus, and now works from his home in Kent.