Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Slumdog e-learning

Don't slam the Slumdog!
In early January I dared to criticise Slumdog Millionaire at a dinner, and got verbally lynched by several guests. These maulings have continued, and if you want to cause a lively argument at dinner or in the pub – slam into Slumdog. At the same time I posted a critical review of the film, interestingly, got some favourable comments about the film’s slum-porn and improbable plot, direct from India (such is the power of blogging).

E-learning inspired the story
It turns out that the inspiration for this film was Sugata Mitra’s fascinating ‘hole in the wall’ experiments. I met Sugata two years ago in Berlin, where I saw his superb presentation on computers placed in poor villages and slums in India.

Like me, Sugata Mitra told the original writer that he didn’t like the title and premise of the film and would have preferred a tale of escaping poverty through education, not the capricious and ridiculous idea of fate and a western quiz show, “that kind of plot would have been more in the spirit of my hole-in-the-wall project”. What Mitra didn't like was the celebrity culture promise of escape through luck and fame.

Mitra simply put these things in walls and let the kids get on with it, and the results are spectacular. They don’t vandalise the computers and quickly learn how to navigate and then learn English, maths and other subjects. It sounds almost surreal, but he has the video evidence to back up his findings. Delhi now has 48 computers in walls and when he asked these poor children what they wanted to do with Skype, they asked for an English grandmother to read them stories. This has now happened. That's a real fairytale and is truly inspiring, as it presents real solutions and ideas, not some sort of Mamma Mia, quiz show, feelgood fantasy.

Lessons learnt?
Technology is a liberating force in learning, especially when it is used outside of the classroom, in real world contexts. Give individuals the means to expand their own horizons and they do, even paying for the privilege. The majority of families and individuals in the developed world have paid relatively large sums from their own pockets to buy computers, internet access, mobiles and games consoles. This has led to a renaissance in communication, writing, exploration and curiosity. In the developed world we have just reached the point where the majority of people on the planet have a mobile phone. Yet education still adopts a siege mentality, keeping this stuff out side of the school, college and university gates. It’s people power that makes the difference and in the end it’s the consumer adoption of technology and content that has changed, and will continue to change, education.


Kim Thomas said...

I saw the film last week, and just read your earlier review of it. You said exactly what I thought: I wouldn't have minded the utterly implausible plot and outlandish coincidences if it had been framed as a kind of fairy-tale. But it was set against a supposedly "realistic" backdrop of modern India, with horrific scenes of blinding, torture and murder.

I'm not quite sure how Sugata Mitra's work inspired the film, as there doesn't seem to be any relation between the two. But I agree that his hole-in-the-wall experiments are inspiring. I heard the project discussed on Thinking Allowed recently, and the results were truly remarkable.

Anonymous said...

A few days back I was traveling in a cab and the driver kept on playing the music from this movie. Danny boyle has killed two birds with a stone. Many thoughts came to me as I saw how popular this movie is becoming across the classes.

With recession plunging to all time low are people deriving solace from the knowledge of unimaginable deprivation shown in the movie?

Today as I was traveling from my parents' to my home I saw the state of the city. All around Delhi there are garbage dumps with city's waste piling high. There was a shed with buffaloes near such a dump. I am sure these cows and buffaloes are milked and just imagine what king of poison is then distributed and where all it goes. If it is sold to dairies that what quantities it contaminates.

Even when people are paying for electricity and water and paying their taxes, there is constant chaos for these basic facilities and this is the state of affairs in the capital of the country.

Observing all this I was asking my brother if the rule of great emperors like Ashoka and Chandragupta Maura so erratic?
Even the Mohanjodaro Harrapa had clean streets, I still remember reading in my History book about how there was regular inspection of the sewage system and the offenders were fined. In a township near Delhi the municipality as usual is corrupt and the sewage treatment plant that was constructed is lying idle as the officials and the food chain below share the pie of nine lakhs they give on contract for cleaning the sewage that flows besides the streets, a calamity waiting to happen as the water pipes are traveling parallel to these sewage canals. It is very frustrating to see all this and have your hands tied as people have become like frogs who don't realize that they are being killed when the water is boiled slowly.

About this hole in wall, well this was a point of ridicule in the place I worked as I think they were the ones who started it and are still stuck singing a chorus on one such initiative.
To me these seem like another sick ways to climb the slippery ladder of fame. An insincere project being trumpeted abroad and discussed over chilled glasses of champagne. Doesn't make much sense Donald, It too little too late and done with an intention to feed coffers of those who make a business of such services, the usual NGO's. I know I am being too skeptical but what I am observing all around me does not allow me to believe other wise.

If one wants to stuff the Swiss banks with such ill-earned money one should not mask it in the sacred name of the service to humanity. One should be honest to say that see this is my profession, I am a pimp and I suck the blood of the most down trodden and then I fill my banks with the grants I beg for in all the international conferences where in the name of corporate social responsibility blackened hearts and consciences are cleansed by throwing away some crumbs to such people who make up erratic causes.

Even if such a project has children fiddling with the machine this kind of learning is nothing much to be celebrated. This is something that happens with tyres, abandoned cars and so many others things that children use for play. All such initiatives should be documented and studied. Inquisitive
nature of children will bring in similar responses across the world.

What I want to say is that there are massive issues to be addressed and an isolated study of learning observed by installing a machine is not something that should have garnered so much attention. It is unsettling how irrelevant things are gaining importance and the things that really matter are left to go from bad to worse.
Slumdog millionaire can have a very damaging effect on the Indian community abroad as in the time of recession all the white collar jobs Indians hold are a threat to the natives of the countries where these immigrants have settled. After watching such a movie, one might either develop hatred towards a person who is enjoying a quality of life, which would be unimaginable to the people portrayed in the movie. On the other hand some may pity Indians for coming from such dirt and squalor. At the end of the day it made a lots of money so, nothing succeeds like success. It's the time of creating and feasting illusions, be it the credit crunch, blood diamonds or slum God millionaire! Thanks for such a provoking post.

Donald Clark said...

Fascinating observations Rina. On deeper analysis this film and the project reek of simplistic attitudes towards serious issues. They seem almost quaintly colonial. Thanks for these reflections.

Shan said...

Hi Donald,

For most people, and Kim Thomas, the first commenter is an example, the greatest problem with Slumdog Millionaire is caused by the fact that it does not pertain to their accepted notions of "theme". Is it a fairy tale? Yes, because it has an implausible rags to riches story. Is it realistic? Yes again, because it has blindings, and dirt, and slums - all of which exist.

The problem people seem to have is with the juxtaposition of the two. Fairy tales are supposed to be just that. How dare Danny Boyle mix realism in that? Well, why not applaud Danny Boyle for not adhering to the conventional notions of film stories and mixing genres up? After all we applauded Kubrik for mixing philosophy with sci-fi!

Next, why are we so hung up on the plausibility of a slum dweller getting rich suddenly. "Ha! That would never happen in real life, " we smirk, conveniently forgetting that many slum dwellers and poor people in many countries have also won jackpots and lotteries and horse races. Statistically rare? Yes. Impossible? No. And if it were that common, would it make a interesting enough story for a melodramatic film? No. Simple.

Some might not like the film for personal, political, sociological etc. reasons, I grant that. But to give reasons like implausibility of plot (Rushdie), poverty-porn (liberals), and demeaning of India's image (various US based Indian bloggers) is really not valid - because the reasons are not objective or cinematic.

As far as NIIT and the Hole-In-The-Wall experiment is concerned, it's been almost 20 years since that happened, and I suspect that the results are greatly exaggerated. Experiential learning will happen of course, but to what end? How has it improved their lives? These are questions that Sugata Mitra needs to answered. Unless he espouses the "learning-for-learning's-sake" theory, of course..

Anonymous said...

Hi Donald - trust you to take on Slumdog Millionaire - you'll be berating Obama next ;o) I haven't seen the film yet, but Rina's comments paint a familiar picture.

It sounds like yet another advance in prosumerism - the discovery that all aspects of life may be 'produced' for consumption. In that, it shares something with Jade Goody, 'Zack and Miri make a porno' and your blog. Each of these is a demonstration that something that was formerly considered private, or not to be considered as entertainment can be produced and consumed. For example - a few years ago you and I might have read a book on a train for pleasure, now I suspect we select our reading material with regard to whether or not it may be blog-worthy (Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob is a great read, by the way). Likewise, I am astounded by the rise of the playboy brand as something which now adorns children's t-shirts; proof that sex and poverty can be consumed as performances. Last but not least, Jade's exploration of just how far prosumerism can be pushed is pioneering: staging even her own 'tragic' death as a performance.

In this context I don't think we should find anything especially surprising or shocking about yet another film that makes people feel better about something awful, but like Rina I worry about the rise of inauthenticity ('creating and feasting illusions') and the alienating effect that this has on us. I don't think this is merely rhetoric, either: Susan Greenfield (in 'Id') remarks that some people were unable to believe that 9-11 really happened - because it was so much like a video game. Likewise, I worry that the real effect of Slumdog might not be on stereotypes of Indians abroad, but on producing poverty as a form of entertainment, rather than concern.

Ian said...

It's a bit unrealistic to blame Danny Boyle for political, economic, and social failures in India. He's just a storyteller with a compelling story to tell, and decided to set it in the bustling slums of Mumbai. One of his previous films, 'Trainspotting', could be interpreted as trashing the lowlife of Edinburgh, but nobody said that this was an unfair representation of this (really very middle-class) city.

Donald Clark said...

Interesting debate. I suppose I don't really buy into the 'it's just a story' line or allowing 'storytellers' to do anything they want. The excuse for the repeated improbabilities, seems to come down to the ideas that stories are just stories and that plots can be anything you want as long as things look good and the audience feels good. I'm not against mindless entertainment - let's call it just that - 'mindless' entertainment.

Neither do I buy the 'mixing two genres' argument. (By the way 'Philosophy' is not a film genre, it's a serious and important subject.) Good directors and storytellers mix genres in a purposeful manner. Pan's Labyrinth mixes a wartime drama with magic realism to great effect - but it was a film with serious import, that really made you think about the subjects explored - Spanish Civil War, psychological fears and so on.

As for 'Trainspotting' - I was never a fan of the either the book or film, for exactly the same reasons. Danny Boyle is all too fond of the 'tall tales' genre in literature, and both of these films come from weak 'tall tale' books, resulting in my opinion, in two shallow films.

Lastly, I've been interested in some of the comments coming in from India - the majority (not all) seem to dislike the film, and their points are not to be taken lightly. I really don't like the 'destiny' theme in the film as this is exactly what may lie at the root of much of slum poverty, ridden as it is with caste and religious prejudices.

Anonymous said...

Don't know if you saw Rushdie laying into Slumdog in Saturday's Guardian (para 12):

Donald Clark said...

Rushdie's piece:
"The problems begin with the work being adapted. Swarup's novel is a corny potboiler, with a plot that defies belief: a boy from the slums somehow manages to get on to the hit Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and answers all his questions correctly because the random accidents of his life have, in a series of outrageous coincidences, given him the information he needs, and are conveniently asked in the order that allows his flashbacks to occur in chronological sequence. This is a patently ridiculous conceit, the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name. It is a plot device faithfully preserved by the film-makers, and lies at the heart of the weirdly renamed Slumdog Millionaire. As a result the film, too, beggars belief."

He even stole my title!

Anonymous said...

Nick's comment brings back a memory. I was carrying my daughter when this happened. Since we had invited people for dinner, I was chopping vegetable with the T.V. switched on. I watched mindlessly the buildings crumbling and planes crashing into the twin towers. For long time I thought that it was a Hollywood movie running. Here life was imitating Hollywood style entertainment and in Slum dog as Nick says 'on producing poverty as a form of entertainment, rather than concern', entertainment is selling a certain kind of life.

I could not pinpoint where the story is damaging, but I think the subtle disturbance we all are sensing is due to the way children are shown stealing and duping people and glamorizing it. This will have hordes of street children leave the hard way to success for petty thefts and easy short cuts. People who can have such deep impacts on the psyche of a vast population should be responsible about the ethical aspect of a story they are telling. Children have a very impressionable mind and when they see such things validated they are quick to follow.It is good to come to this place and speak out the doubts and know that the frustrations and disbelief are common these days. At least we are able to discuss and see what is the truth and what are blatant lies, someday this will help unmask most of the lies. Interesting debate indeed.

Anonymous said...

I have not actually seen Slumdog Millionaire but there has been so much publicity around it that I do know enough to agree with your comments about the film, Donald.

But to pick up on your point about technology, it is not enough, You are of course right that technology is a liberating force in learning. But it is not the technology alone, but the relation of the technology to the learning experience that is critical. The liberation comes from the fact that the technology allows each individual to travel down their own individual learning paths, at their own chosen speed.

This is what Sugata Mitra calls ‘Minimally Invasive Education’. Whilst ostensibly the ‘hole in the wall’ experiments show that young people can learn how to use computers without assistance the implications of this on the whole of learning and young peoples capabilities are much broader.

In the world I occupy, which is to do with digital media and education of young people, a quiet revolution is taking place. This is not actually the revolution typified by those on the ‘gravy train’ that Rina Tripathi in her reply to your post refers to. Rather it is one in which a growing number of like minded people are coming to the realisation that it is young people themselves who should be dominant in the education debate, and who should have greater control over their own learning.

Here in the UK the terms ‘personalisation’ and ‘pupil voice’ are being bandied around and lauded as terms of reference for 21st century learning. In reality only lip service is paid to this partially, in my view, because of a lack of trust in young peoples abilities to find ways of satisfying their own natural curiosities. In order to get that trust evidence is needed.

In this context the value of the ‘hole in the wall’ experiments is that they demonstrate the ability of young people to exercise their natural curiosities and learn for themselves, at their own pace, in their own manner.

But this is just a part of the massive body of evidence that is available and needs to be garnered through simple observation of young people’s behaviours and achievements.

So when Rina Tripathi says of the ‘hole in the wall’ experiments:

‘Even if such a project has children fiddling with the machine this kind of learning is nothing much to be celebrated. This is something that happens with tyres, abandoned cars and so many others things that children use for play. All such initiatives should be documented and studied. Inquisitive nature of children will bring in similar responses across the world.’

she is right.

This is why I am gathering examples of ‘things young people have done’ to demonstrate just what they are capable of.

Donald Clark said...

I'm inclined to agree with you and Rina on the 'hole in the wall' stuff, but it does have a point, as long as its claims are not exaggerated. That point is that adult/teacher interventions are not 'always' a necessary condition for learning. Millions of young people have got to grips with sophisticated technology and interfaces without 'teaching'. It's not the solution for all learning, but it's certainly part of the solution.

Anonymous said...

About the 'gravy train', Mick I was absolutely ignorant of all these hidden agendas and probably that is why I am a misfit as I speck out what I see. I have seen people talking about such things and from there I pick up what importance such work has for them. Sometimes they would discuss of the 'free holidays' a grant provides. I was quiet innocent and trusted and almost worshiped the people who dedicated themselves to such practices but gradually I saw how the system worked.I have seen people getting restless when this project is spoken about in the organization where it was conceived, almost every time the employees would remark, "now they start with their hole in wall lecture" and it is just a lecture every time, no new information, no invitation to see what is all about, no clear information. Had it been a sincere effort at least it would be talked about at the place of its origin. no?

I overheard that these things were mere formalities and I also realised that when there is sincerity and depth in a work you don't need to keep shouting about it. The strength of the dedication acts like a magnet and all know of the purity of intentions, like Mother Teresa. Time is precious and robbing other people of their time for something , which you know in your heart is a hoax, is criminal. Minimally invasive education is happening everywhere, it's not something that is new. Since life existed, in animal kingdom young ones have experimented and learned. A kitten here in my garden sits beneath the Banyan tree and keeps looking at the birds, studying their hopping from branch to branch. His mother has left him to learn on its own, she snarls when he tries to go near. This too is minimally invasive education. I have observed my son surfing the net and creating this site:http://web.tredeostrem.com/

No one taught him flash or anything that he has used to construct this on, as a matter of fact I have always nagged him about time spent in this activity. So what's different in this and the much spoken about 'hole in the wall'? Am sorry Donal for cluttering your blog but I needed answers to the things that torment my mind and soul. Blessings for making us think and shaking off inertia.

.paranoid said...

Good day to you mr.Clark.
Thank you for such interesting information about "computer-in-walls" conception of learning. It impressed me so much. Really amazing i think. But for city like Dehli 48 computer - is very, very little number.
Thank you!

Rina said...

You know, reading the comments again is a surreal feeling, it is like someone else wrote them. Have been under a pile of work and so am checking the blog after a while. So many great posts! Have heard about this hole in the wall project. It is true that some thing is better than nothing but the people who made millions through the commercial computer training centers owe it to the society. Hard earned money of parents goes into sometimes not-so-professional courses and such huge profit margins are established by virtual monopoly and the settings with politicians that projects like hole in the wall a small drop, they should be doing much more than these small projects where they put old computers for children to use.