Grandma knows best: experiments in distributed education

February 24th, 2011 by

microtask_education_india.jpgLast year, in a terrible blow to national pride, Finland dropped from first to third place in a global survey of child literacy.

The study ranked Finnish students below those in Shanghai and South Korea.

Many people blame excessive technology for the educational downturn. Finnish kids of today are internet addicts – plugged in, switched on, zoned out.

But not everyone agrees that children and computers should be kept apart. Educational expert Professor Sugata Mitra has spent the last decade researching how computers can help to educate some of the world’s poorest children.

In a (very entertaining) TED talk, Professor Mitra discusses his experiments in “self-learning”. His first scheme was setting up “hole in the wall” computers in villages in rural India. Machines were installed on the streets, raised about a meter off the ground. Groups of kids spent hours figuring out how the computers worked – often managing to teach themselves English in the process.

Word on the street
Not content with his progress, the professor came up with another idea: the Grandmother Effect. The theory is that grandmas are good at encouraging kids. They praise them and say things like: “Now that is clever dear, I’d never have been able to analyze the molecular structure of DNA all by myself!” Supervising village children, Indian grandmothers got some impressive results: test scores almost doubled in two months (perhaps Finnish schools should try recruiting Korean grandmas to bring literacy back up).

And the next step? The “Granny Cloud”. While working at Newcastle University, Professor Mitra recruited over 200 UK grandmothers as volunteers. Broadcasting via webcam each “grandmother” spends at least an hour a week encouraging classes of Indian school children. Some of the Indian locations are so remote that the Granny Cloud is the only access kids have to education.

Grey Power
It’s a cute story, but there’s also a serious point here. Europe has an aging population: millions of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s with time and expertise to spare. As we blogged last year, this demographic has huge, untapped crowdsourcing potential. Hopefully, voluntary schemes like Prof. Mitra’s will be trendsetters – demonstrating the possibilities of distributed work to the older generation (also, shouldn’t there be a grandfather cloud too? Old men could teach kids how to chop wood and rebuild car engines with a single spanner).

A few English grandmothers clearly won’t solve the education crisis in the developing world. Massive investment is needed, along with stable governments, school buildings and, of course, food and clean water. There are also big, ambitious technology projects, like the one child per laptop scheme. But even so, the Granny Cloud shows that with a broadband connection and a committed crowd you can make a difference, right now, to the lives of children almost anywhere in the world.