Keynote: Moving beyond the Plentitude: An Indian Fable (ED-MEDIA 2008)

Today’s keynote was presented by Geetha Narayanan (below), Founder and Director, Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology, India.

In today’s world the technology “push” is based on progress, newness, upgrades and the increasing of markets. Geetha asked us to reconsider technology and learning, that these should serve the needs of the human condition, prospect and spirit.

Geetha Narayanan, Founder and Director, Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology, India, giving her keynote address at ED-MEDIA 2008

She offered very interesting views on school reform. Most forms of contemporary schooling are based on fast knowledge and measurement. This is not enough. There needs to be pedagogy focussed on the slow — the deepening of the learning experience to incorporate mindfulness and a development of self. Further, schooling must nurture learning and not only focus on increasing employability. Contemporary forms of schooling do not sit comfortably with the affordances of new media — affordances such as play and experimentation.

What is slowness? In her view, it is more than just a reaction to technology, mobility and speed. It is a value that works at the level of culture and linguistics. Just as the slow food movement values tradition and culinary expertise, the slow school movement values opinion and wholeness. Slowness reconnects the psyche and the mind, it brings a moral dimension back into the process of learning. Geetha further contends that the small school movement is here to stay.

One focus of the Srishti school is on the urban poor children in India, getting girls away from housework and back to informal learning centres, getting boys who gamble off the streets. The play approach of Vygotsky, Piaget and Papert is successfully applied to homeless children. Instead of gambling, the boys grow food and trade, they put up images taken with camera phones on Ning (below) and are open to “bartering” those with anyone else. The activities are creative, positive and de-monetised.

Geetha does not believe in ICT in education. She does believe that new media art is one way of practicing critical pedagogy, something that is crucial to education. Education for the world’s urban poor should target three deficits: nature, food, and play and imagination. One approach is to have small community centres that focus on local knowledge, new science, new ideals and new media, and participatory projects with the kids.

She works with MIT’s Media Lab — in particular Prof Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group. Using much of the software and hardware from MIT, she runs digital summer camps, supported by volunteers, where the kids create animations with Scratch, engage in transmedia storytelling using camera phones, laptops and physical objects, and other creative activities. Short movies are created and shared, along with the digital images, on the social networking site Ning. The approach is to allow the children to play, explore and experiment. The children loved it; they were engaged, motivated and more confident.

There are many similarities between the urban poor in India and those in South Africa, where literacy and numeracy is shockingly low. One response has been a call for a renewed instructionist effort, getting the kids “back to basics” through didactic teaching. Geetha’s approach is interesting because the focus is on learning theories of play (Vygotsky), constructivism (Piaget) and constructionism (Papert).

I asked Geetha about the “basics” — she said that the kids wrote when they scripted their stories, or when they were introduced to Ning, when they had to interact with others. It was first necessary to allow the kids to play, to imagine, in order to engender a curiosity about the world and a positive view towards learning.

And then there’s the question of scaling up. The approach will be to create a replicable model: Many small efforts springing up around the world, with corporate sponsorship for the hardware. She has been approached by the Mexican government to set up there.

The podcast of the keynote is available.

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