“Do you smell that?”
“The chapattis? You can smell them cooking.”
I looked up. I’m in India, but my head is somewhere else. Dipti and I take these walks around Gokhalenagar almost every evening. Usually it is a refreshing reminder I am currently living far from home as my senses are attacked by the unfamiliarity of the Pune streets. Lately, however, my mind has been other places: stuck in a line of code in my computer, transfixed on the next six months, or buried deep in an idea from a book I’m reading. I let language carry me like a pounding river, grasping here and there on a branch, but never fully making any attempt to swim to ground, wailing and failing, completely oblivious as to what the result of the conversation will be. I’ve found myself more silent and, as a consequence, less present.
As much as I’ve been abroad, I’ve never been too concerned with “missing out” or doing travel “the wrong way.” I try to commit to one rule – say “yes” – and don’t mind much else. I’ve done trips where I didn’t have Facebook for six months, I’ve done trips where I am committed to keeping up a blog, I’ve had limited resources for communication, and I’ve been constantly connected to home. Either way, I’ve stayed true to the ‘yes’ motto and had great and immersive experiences with the philosophy. It can be hard though, when your job is working with computers and writing all day, to remember that you are in a place because of the humans in that place, not the computers. Thus, I do worry that the next time I look up from my Rails script, I’ll be on a plane headed back to Seattle. My host family does a good job of countering this, mostly because of Dipti, the kindest and most gently social person I’ve ever met, pushes me to take these walks and engages with me on so many different levels. So my goal these last five weeks is to notice the chapattis cooking in the evening, reach out to people, and yet keep engaging in the hard work I’m doing for Pratham. Balance: Y U so hard?
Ok, enjoy some real thoughts now. I’ve titled this blog “2:1” as that is a common way here to say “half” or “splitting.” Today, you get two blogs in the place of one. The first blog is on my work right now and some of my thoughts on education. The second is about poverty. There is another blog that will be put up in conjunction with this one about Gandhi. But, please before you read this, read Hrishikesh’s blog.
The Hole in the Wall
Welcome to week six of Logan’s Pune adventure! This week is brought to you by the fact I got to the office this morning and not a single person I work with has yet to arrive at 10 AM, so I have some time to write this post.
I wanted to talk a little bit more about what I am doing with Pratham, ASER, and education in India. I will disclaim this upfront with the fact that I do not study education in college, know that it is a colossal subject, and thus will try to stay away from overarching and absolute statements. Sound fair?
I want to talk about the hole in the wall. In 1999, there was this scientist named Sugata Mitra. Dr. Mitra was a technologist, engineer, and deeply interested in how children learn. He was fascinated by the power of the computer and wondered if it children could use the device to learn unsupervised. Dr. Mitra set out a series of experiments to test his ideas. In the experiments, his team carved a “hole in the wall” which separated the premises of his college from the adjoining slum in Kalkaji, Delhi. You can watch a TedTalk with Dr. Mitra here. He claims that children can teach themselves almost anything just using a small piece of technology, an internet connection to open up the world, and their own motivation. He has experimented with the “hole in the wall” all over India in almost any climate and setting you can think of. Dr. Mitra found that language was not as large of a barrier as researchers had assumed. Often the first thing the children did, was browse to find the English alphabet so they could read other websites. The children would then teach their friends.
They found that 6-13 year olds could self-instruct in almost any environment. Dr. Mitra emphasizes that this ability to self-teach is not correlated with anything – gender, intelligence, age, grade, anything. The only major condition of the experiment, across all demographics, was that the self-learning should be done in groups. Researchers found that the children were able to learn so effectively only because of the groups. The experiment was done with one computer, and in each village or community, there were always tens if not hundreds of children crowding around one computer. This works out to each child only having minutes per day to access the internet and learn. However, the researchers still found the children could master tasks even with the short amount of time at the keyboard. How? Those groups. The children learn as much by watching as by doing. Conclusion: primary education can happen on its own.
So, this paper was published in 1999, and yet, we can look as far as ASER 2014 to say that the primary education problem in India has not been fixed. Children can learn with educational technology yes, but a lot of education policy which shapes who gets resources and curriculum is what is happening on the other side of that wall. This is what fascinates me about education. The children side of the problem is relatively fixed. We can see that even in the most dire situations with the most minimal amount of technology and resources such as time, children have a drive to learn and can accomplish amazing things with that drive. So what do we see if we look through the wall the other way? Here was Dr. Mitra’s prescription back in 1999:
An educational technology and pedagogy that is digital, automatic, fault-tolerant, minimally invasive, connected, and self-organized.
Look familiar? It’s incredibly similar to many education and technology initiatives today, including Pratham’s technology and education platform. Children are innovative and resourceful because they have no inhibitions about the “right” or “wrong” way to learn. Our government and education system is much more inclined toward pedagogy. Furthermore, parents are wired the same way! For many in the older generations, technology is the symptom of a self-obsessed and attention-deficient society. The non-linear nature of learning on the internet spells distraction for them, or at least this is what the ASER data is telling us. I think the question moving forward is two part: access to cheap and functional technologies in rural areas and a cultural shift towards accepting technology as a powerful tool for self-learning. The team I work with at Pratham is tackling the first part of that, especially the “functional” idea by making sure that the content of these materials is not only educational, but fun and that it is accessible to all by translating it into local languages and cultures. ASER works on the second part, by tracking the data to prove that the government needs to make a large investment in cheap technology for those in remote and rural areas. They are especially pushing for cheap tablets such as Aakash, which they want the government to subsidize.
Suffering and Privilege
Every day I get to work through a combination of walking, busing and rickshaw-ing. However, some days when I’m feeling adventurous and stir-crazy, I skip the busing part and walk the extra 3 km for a total of … oh only 4.3 kilometers (just GMaps’d it). It seems a lot longer. Ok, so about 3 miles to work. Today, because I was feeling particularly antsy, I did it both ways, meaning I walked at least 8.6 kilometers. On these walks, I don’t have my phone or laptop or any piece of technology, which is refreshing as my job here entails me being immersed with tech.
These walks are good for me because they remind me where I am and why I am here. But sometimes this reminder can be extremely uncomfortable. I work in an office and live in a wonderful home, and generally find myself comfortable, eating well, and living very similarly to how I live in the US. But I’m not in the US. I’m in a country of 1.4 billion people, 32.7% of whom live below the international extreme poverty line of $1.25 per day. Of course, India is a study in contrasts, but that does not take away from the numbers of the poor, and the fact that urban poverty is only growing with population in the country. While contrasts mean heterogeneity and diversity, the word is also synonymous with something much darker: inequality. Due in large part to migration to urban centers, the Gini coefficient, which measures the rich-poor gap in Maharashtra has only grown in the last ten years (INDS Income, Poverty, and Inequality Report).
I don’t need to reference statistics to prove this point to myself however, because I can see it every day. It’s poverty that moves you, it makes you extremely uncomfortable, it cannot be ignored. Whenever I witness poverty like this, it makes me reflect a lot on what it means to be human, what it means to see suffering. I sometimes think about how much I could do with my life savings, just give it all away to someone who needs it much more than I do. Is it helping? Is it just throwing money into an inescapable ditch? Povety like this makes you want to do something and do it now. “Why isn’t anyone helping this woman?” I think, as I too walk quickly past her, ignoring her pleas entirely.
I can’t stop thinking about this blog post I read almost a year and a half ago. It’s from GiveDirectly, a non-profit allowing donors to give cash directly to the extreme poor. In many ways GiveDirectly answers my problem about “doing something now.” The organization understands that often what the poor need is not good and services but just cash. The blog that comes to mind is one entitled “Does the GiveDirectly team believe in giving cash to the homeless?” in which the GiveDirectly team members were asked whether they gave cash to the homeless in New York and surprisingly, a lot of the team answered a resounding “no.” I mean maybe not surprising for the average person, but isn’t this their mission? That the poor know better and that we should be more empathetic and sympathetic to that? That we cannot just witness suffering and move on? The reasons were that there wasn’t a lot of measurement and evaluation on if it would work or how they would spend the money and that giving money to poor people overseas is “more cost effective.”
It made me angry when I first read the blog. How could they give straight up cash to a person thousands of miles away, but when looking at a poor person in their own context, treat them with absolutely no trust. One member of their staff writes:
I don’t feel confident giving directly to the poor in the US without more evidence akin to what we have in most of the developing world, given the huge differences in culture and poverty.
Giving money to those in extreme poverty overseas is an experiment! Why not make it an experiment here. It makes me realize that the point of organizations like GD isn’t really to alleviate suffering, often it’s the draw of large datasets and that giving cash is a catchy and new age idea. It also points to a lot of implicit biases about the poor. Poor in developing countries are children to be helpful, cannot be responsible for doing bad, whereas poor in the US are lazy because the US is a developed nation with more opportunity. Poverty in developing countries happened to the poor. I think it made me so mad because I’m really furious at myself and, to a larger extent, international development. It is the business of ailing suffering, so where is our compassion?
I do worry that concentration on measurement and evaluation, results, data, and technology may be just an exercise in carving out minuscule problems for ourselves so we can just solve something, anything, related to the suffering we see around us. Maybe, if I can just do one thing, make someone smile, offer a child the mirage of dreaming about a better future, “save” one person from dying of a preventable disease, it will make me feel better about benefiting so much from a fundamentally unequal society. I guess this is returning to the ideas from last week, criticizing the Gates Foundation for treating poverty like some sort of unintentional consequence of living in the world. It’s not. It’s made and allowed to exist by us. And our language surrounding poverty absconds the responsibility of the privileged to recognize their part.