Monday, February 23, 2009

The "Hole in the Wall" Experiment: Bridging the Digital Divide

What most people don't know about the 8 time Oscar winning movie Slumdog Millionaire is that it was inspired by a nearly 10 year old experiment dubbed the "Hole in the Wall." Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat, several years ago heard about this experiment and was so inspired that he wrote Q and A, the novel that later became the film.

So what was this "hole in the wall"? It was a study into how children of the slums could manage to teach themselves, with absolutely no instruction, how to use the web and eventually learn from it. After the brilliant Sugata Mitra installed a computer screen with a simple roll wheel mouse and click button facing the slums near his office, he observed that children all of the sudden started to figure out the rules of the device. Soon they were accessing websites, learning English, and using the computer to play games and read the news. While it sounds too good to be true, especially considering the fact that most of these children lacked any formal education or basic literacy, Mitra verified the results across dozens of different slums over the last 10 years. For a quick background on the project see Frontline's short piece (8 minutes) on the the results here.

While most would have just written off the discovery as little more than a curiosity, the polymath Mitra began to study the self organizing behavior of the children to understand how exactly they could manage to teach themselves. The result was a fascinating analysis of how several tiers of learning would result based on the child's proximity to the computer screen, where those in each tier would learn through differing ratios of participating vs. watching - depending on how far away from the screen they were (see minute 17 of the video above for a more precise description of how Mitra thinks this works).

By Mitra's analysis, about 300 children can learn basic computer literacy from 1 computer in just 6 months. His conclusion is a bold one, that children have the capacity to learn on their own and where necessary (because of a lack of teaching resources) tools such as the computer should be used to replace the broken educational system. Combine this assumption with Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child campaign and a potentially explosive combination could soon hit the developing world. I expect we should be begin to see the first success stories of self taught students in the coming few years if in fact Mitra and Negroponte's view, that all you need to do is give a child a computer, is correct.

For more information see the the Hole in the Wall Website here.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

What El Sistema Can Teach Us About Education

Jose Antionio Abreu was recognized this year at TED 2009 for his role as the founder of the hugely successful music education program El Sistema in Venezuela. Begun in 1975, there are now over 102 youth and 55 children's orchestras educating a total of more than 100,000 children. Most are from impoverished backgrounds, and Abreu's program has managed to create several internationally renowned musicians including the conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the bassist Edicson Ruiz.

While the program has obvious cultural and artistic benefits I was particularly interested in what Abreu said (see speech below) about music education's effect on the communities it reaches in Venezuela. By no longer allowing art to be the "monopoly of elites" El Sistema has allowed music to "become a social right" that anyone regardless of socioeconomic background could cultivate. As a result of children's being enrolled in the program they cultivate a sense of punctuality, constancy and pride. This pride, Abreu says, resonates throughout the impoverished families and communities where these children live. And it makes sense, by bringing this enormous feeling of pride and art into the home, and having the child practice alongside their mother or father, injects a sense of purpose and direction in these children's lives.

Contrast this to what we see so often today as the other side of the coin, where children and their parents are disjointed from the basic realization that with hard work can come reward. For many people this basic truth, that consistent work breeds skills, talent and education, has been lost in a web of excuses about the role of society, the "man," or the system. No longer is it believed that effort equals performance, and this is where I believe music can make the most difference. The underlying tenet of learning an instrument is that diligence, consistency and practice pay off can work wonders for any community where music education exists. Luckily Abreu and his program are getting the recognition they deserve and we should expect to see similar initiatives in many countries around the world in the coming years. Hopefully that will include the U.S. as well.

If you want to find out more see the links below or you can watch a socumentary done on El Sistema in 2004 called Tocar y Luchar and more recently there have been features in programs such as 60 minutes.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Barry Schwartz's paradox of choice

In his book, Barry Schwartz talks about some of the reasons why modern Western societies suffer from ever increasing trends of depression and unhappiness. While the "grass is always greener" view of human nature is something we have all thought about and hold to be self evident, Schwartz takes this discussion a step further and makes his conclusions personal with simple examples of everyday situations that contribute to unhappiness in our lives.

In a speech he gave in 2005, Schwartz describes how even the simple act of buying salad dressing - of which his local grocery store has over 75 options - can become a source of stress or negativity if the wrong choice is made. It is this excess of options, this extreme freedom of choice in our lives, that creates a pressure to choose correctly and ultimately leads to an acute awareness of when we fail to make the right choice. By understanding all too clearly the opportunity costs of our decisions (which in large part is propagated by the marketer's goal to "inform" us the consumers - if interested in this topic read Buyology by Martin Lindstrom) we become critical of ourselves when the wrong choice is made.

Not only applicable to the trivial things such as choices in food or clothing in our lives, the paradox of choice extends to our decisions regarding career and social setting. From the ever present dissatisfaction that many have with their current jobs to wondering if you have chosen the right partner, it is our awareness of the alternatives that has corrupted our ability to be happy. In essence happiness is settling on something. Basically nothing more than an appreciation - based on ignoring everything else - of what we have over what we could have. Maybe this is why divorce is so prevalent in the United States today, because married people know that at the flick of a switch they can be single testing all of the options that are available to them.

The issue is one worth thinking about and meditating on because by all current measures our options our only going to continue to increase. Whether it happen to you while on a vacation or while sitting at your new job, it would be smart to stop yourself from ruminating over all of the other things you could have done. Although there is a fine line between optimizing your choices versus obsessing about your failures maybe just maybe you would be happier if you stayed put.
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