Tech for Learning: Learning Pathways

This is the first post in a series about moving the conversation around technology in education from Administration to use for Learning.

My first idea for a specific learning technology is around the idea of creating learning pathways.

I’ve always liked the idea of mapmaking as a way to generate understanding, whether it’s the journey you’re on, mapping where you’ve been or attempting to work out where you need to go. I’ve used this in workshops quite a bit and I find it’s an incredibly useful way of making sense of the world or the context in which you find yourself. Making a map allows you to place yourself in a broader context, which helps you understands and become more self aware. It allows you situate yourself and helps define areas to improve, or gaps in skills and knowledge, and importantly to identify what is unknown and unexplored.

A map gives you a sense of direction of where you are and where you could go.

For me this is is a key concept in the process of learning, it’s about developing a sense of self in order to conduct and pursue learning on our own terms. It’s how we become self directed learners and make learning an integral part of who we are and what we do.

The Pathways Tool is not about making maps retrospectively though, it’s about being able to plot our a map during the process, as it happens. It’s a place to record the way you’ve gone about understanding a topic. By recording distinct actions, decisions and activities along the way you can start to connect points and map out that journey. And this is, I guess, where technology can really come to play, but also now open content, content that’s web based, as well, is that what it allows you to do is create a collage of that learning journey.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this would be to walk through the process.

A Learning Journey

To start off in a traditional course I might read a module or topic text that’s provided to me by my teacher. As I go through it I might highlight a few key points in that document. I might make a comment or two, ask myself some questions and start to think about where I go to next.

From there I might use those highlighted key points to structure some web searches. From those searches I can click through a bunch of links and find other resources. There might be podcast, a video, a few articles online and some research papers. As I go through this process I’m mapping my consumption of these different ideas. I’m taking notes throughout the process, I’m creating context for myself.

The Pathfinder allows you to create marker points along your learning journey, they’re contextual and personal. Your annotations and commentary contribute to fleshing out your map. They act like coordinates and provide a starting point, simple data points that you can reference later. At this point it’s just data, we’ll transform it later. These data points could be constructed as simple xAPI statements – Actor, Verb, Object– which can be contextualised with metadata (when, where, what, why). You can start to think about how granular you may need to be be, but it would allow you to record that you watched certain amount of this video, or read these sections of this document, or spent this much time reading that document.

Now the point of most journeys isn’t to map them, but to build an artefact that is assessed. But if you think about the idea mapping the journey and the pathway travelled on top of your assessment task, not only are you producing an artefact, but you’re also supplying the supportive proof. The assessment task might be to produce an essay, what a learning pathway can do is not just help with the development of that essay plan and the content that goes in there, it also maps the thinking and the process behind how the students got there. When we think about how much time and effort we’re spending on plagiarism tools, and a hyper-surveillance process to stamping it out, a pathway tool would allow you to clearly show, demonstrate and declare this is the journey that I’ve been on it provides a much richer proof that benefits not just the student but the institution as well.

Mapping out these journeys also becomes a powerful tool when they can be saved, aggregated and shared over time. 

Learning is a a lifelong journey and it’s something that you want to come back to repeatedly, certain topics that need revisiting, then a pathway allows you to come back not to a list of resources but the process as well. You can take a journey forward, or in a different direction and start to thread journeys together.

If you wanted to help other people to learn you could simply share your journey, highlighting waypoints, key areas, resources and activities. It’s so hard to teach someone without spending a vast amount of time thinking about it, a learning pathway could provide a far less onerous and informal way of sharing how and what you learnt.

The ability to aggregate these pathways too, say being able to see the pathways of a whole class, then a teacher can start to visualise and understand how their students are actually learning, and importantly where they are learning. A teacher may find that the whole class went to a particular online resource to understand this topic, and they did so without instruction or communicating it. A pathway may also uncover new resources that explain a topic differently and surface interesting information and information that students are keen to consume. Another potential us is to find out if students are heading in the wrong direction. These journeys are not just about the final destination, their power is in mapping out the process to get there. What pathways did they choose? What decisions did they make along the way? A teacher can use these pathways to understand their students and how they have gone about things, and intervene if a course correction is required. It’s a way that we can understand the process rather than relying on the abstracted artefact and provide more support for learning, rather than just punishment of plagiarism.

The reality is that learning is a black box at the moment. We’re really not sure when and how things work, we’re dealing with multiple layers of abstraction. We simply don’t know what the journey is or what decisions do students make, yet we see fit to judge and punish them on those abstractions. A Learning Pathway system is about breaking that black box open, not to provide greater opportunities for surveillance, but for student to take control of learning and become more proactive with it. Its a learner centric system that could benefit institutions, but it doesn’t have to. Learners as individuals could use this and share it with one another. It’s a tool that while individually focussed could be a way to simplify social learning practices, sharing your maps with other learners and discovering new things.


If you’re interesting in developing something like the Learning Pathways – lets talk. Get in touch in the comments, on twitter or via email

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From Ed Tech to Learning

I’ve been working in educational technology for the last 12 years and during that time I’ve come to the disappointing realisation that the mission of most Ed Tech is focussed only on facilitating administration of education. On top of that, the products that aren’t addressing administration needs are essentially concerned with the distribution of content. And lastly those that seek to to allow interaction are vastly underpowered, featureless and second-rate. In a golden age of digital technology, where access and the ability to develop solutions is more available than any other time, it’s a sad state of affairs.

To me there’s a clear disconnect between the technologies that are available and what’s possible in terms of learning. This intersection is something that I’m not just interested in, but passionate about. It’s thinking about technology for learning, not for the administration of it. It’s about shifting the terms away from the institution and towards the learner, and for them to be able to utilise technology for their personal process of learning.

It’s really time we start moving beyond the consumption of content and focus in on the process of learning – of how we develop an understanding and making sense of a topic. It’s in this space that we’re really missing any specific technologies and tools, and it’s an area that’s not particularly well supported at the moment.

Ed Tech is stuck on the administrative aspects of universities and schools and helping them facilitate learning by creating spaces, delivering content, assigning students, receiving and returning assignments. But the actual learning? Well that’s left completely up to the student. There isn’t a defined set of tools for the student to engage with to help them learn, and quite often they’re just left navigating a dump of content – a whole series of PDF files, web based documents, videos, books and resources. And that’s it, at that point the vast majority of Ed Tech stops. There seems to be an assumption from that point on learning happens, we’re not quite sure how, but given the lack of learning tools then I’d say it’s something akin to osmosis. That by simply being in contact with content that we learn. There’s no further support of learning itself, it’s now up to the students to develop their own processes for not only consuming the information, but making sense of it. We rarely teach the skills required to take notes, organise information, sort through data, develop our ideas, and there are even less technology that enables or support learners do those tasks. Even though it’s at that point that the actual learning is taking place!

Yes we have assessment tasks, and yes good assessment helps to process content into something more tangible and coherent, but even then we’re stuck with outdated and modelled forms and methods. For most LMS’s the prowess of their assessment capabilities is in their quizzing tool. Seriously, quizzes? At the same time we can always rely on good old essays. Except for the fact that you can’t, not with essay mills and plagiarism (or more commonly non-adherence to academic publishing standards) running rife. Instead of rethinking their existence we now spend millions of dollars on surveillance systems and punitive tools like Turnitin. Assessment could be the saviour, but what great assessment tools are out there? What assessment tech have you seen beyond replication of existing systems and methods?

There is a gap in the tools that we have today, and like I’ve said before, it’s these gaps that create a really interesting space

If we want to innovate then we have to concentrate on the problems – the gaps, the cracks, the spaces in between – because that’s where the exciting change can occur. That’s where you find eager and keen participants, problems that really need to be addressed and where investment options are available. It’s also where you’ll find the opportunity and problems that demand creativity and engagement. It’s where good work comes from.
– A final word on MOOCs & EdTech for 2013 – Tim Klapdor

It’s those gaps and spaces which are the areas that I’m still really excited by. When it comes to most “Ed Tech”, the commercial juggernaut that software in education has become, that I feel incredibly jaded. I’ve been doing this too long that I don’t just know that it’s constantly reinventing the same old methods and practices just with a different back or front end, I’ve seen it happen. More than once. Ed Tech is stuck and is spinning its wheels.

But, if we start thinking about and conceptualising technology as a tool for learning – how do I utilise this technology in order to learn? Then we’re going into new spaces.

Over the next couple of weeks my plan is to plant some seeds – to acknowledge that there is tech out there that does fit this model (huge fan of DoOO, annotations tools and wiki spaces), although often it’s just coopted and hacked to do it – but to also share some of my ideas about this space.

What could we do if we focussed on developed technology for learning?

Blockchain in Education

I was asked to do a bit of analysis of Blockchain technology for my job at CSU and investigate what the potential is at this point in time as a learning technology. I’ve been digging into Blockchain for quite a while now, the technology intrigued me when it first appeared and so too did the culture and ideology behind it. I’m a bit skeptical to be honest about the tech itself and after living through the first wave of hype fuelled inflation and crash, my skepticism seems worthwhile. I added some alternative ways of achieving similar things to what blockchain offers at the end of the document, which I personally wish would get perhaps more attention than Blockchain. This is the original draft – I decided to use this version as it’s more authentically my voice, rather than the version that was edited and circulated around the university.


Blockchain has a lot of hype around it – consider it on the upward side of Gartner’s Hype Cycle1.

researchmethodology-illustration-hype-cycle

For all intents and purposes, it remains all hype. There is yet to be a useful example of blockchain deployment in any sector. Many may point to Bitcoin as a success but in reality, it hardly paints a positive picture. Its wild ride began with it being the currency of choice for illegal markets, it’s been extremely susceptible to manipulation and then there was the massive inflation which was followed by crashes that has left many bankrupt. None of this paint Bitcoin in a positive light and it lacks the fundamental stability of a proven technology. You also have to also remember the piles of copy-cat crypto-currencies that were spawned and failed so fast they made Ponzi schemes jealous.

Blockchain is still a theoretical technology that more often than not, replicates existing technology. It can be incredibly disruptive technology, but not because it is radically different or new, but because it tends to change who the masters are, not by empowering the end users.

Do You Need Blockchain?

Useful flowchart from the [National Institute of Standards and Technology](https://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/ir/2018/NIST.IR.8202.pdf)

Summary

Watch & See – As of today there are very few applications of blockchain that would be ultimately useful in a learning and teaching context. Most that are available and on the horizon, seek to perform functions that are already part of the EdTech suite of tools currently deployed on most campuses. Doing something that is already handled by the LMS with blockchain doesn’t make it an improvement or a better product. There may well be developments in the technology that provide differentiated and improved functionality within the learning and teaching space – we’re just a way-off seeing those at this point in time.

Key concepts behind the Blockchain

  1. Distributed – rather than a single piece of infrastructure, the blockchain requires multiple network points to operate. So rather than a single database living on a server (which could be replicated, backed up, secured and disaster recoverable), a distributed system has a shared system of infrastructure to support it. This theoretically makes it more robust, but modern cloud infrastructure allows traditional databases to have similar functionality.
  2. Cryptography – The distributed infrastructure creates an overhead by requiring data to be synced and shared across multiple instances. To get around this issues, the blockchain uses cryptography to encode the data into a block of transactions that are linked together as a chain. This cryptography allows data to be secure but requires a tremendous amount of processing power when compared to writing a record in a database.
    BlockchainEnergy
  3. Immutable – This set of records, often referred to as a ledger, increases in size because it’s immutable. Data can’t be deleted or purged from the set, because they are cryptographically linked. If a name was stored, which may change due to marriage for example, there is no way to retrieve and change the record, the system doesn’t allow it. A traditional database has read, write and update functions available, with these limited by roles and administration. The blockchain replaces these traditional roles with technology. The blockchain and the software that write to it are the arbiters of data and maintaining the records. This opens up data to being “hacked” and changed without any authority or oversight of the central data.
  4. Trust – A central idea behind blockchain technology is that of trust. Many of its proponents suggest that the cryptographic component of the technology reduces the need for trust in institutions, and we can instead have trust in the code. This allows the point of control from institutions and established businesses to those who develop the code. Instead of replacing the need for trust, it replaces who it is you must trust.

Applications of Blockchain

There are plenty of articles available on the possible application of blockchain technology in education 2 3 4 5. The main applications listed include:

  • Transcripts – Providing access via the blockchain to student transcript for verification, proof of learning and performance.
  • Credentials – Support the recording of other credentials and attainments of study – such as badges, graduate learning outcomes.
  • Student Portfolios – Providing a body of work that a student completed.
  • Identity – Providing verification process for an individuals identity and their attainments and records as a student.
  • Research Recording – Record and verify publication records and research records.
  • Finances – Manage funding and spending using a currency. Could be useful for internal transactions and reduce shuffling money around actual bank accounts.
  • Fund Raising – Use an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) to help fund raise for a specific cause. Holders of the coins could be similar to shareholders or crowd-funding programs, unlocking ownership or rewards through their investment. This application could be useful for funding research, new initiatives or gauging support and acquiring stakeholders.

Review of Blockchain

Lack of Proven Applications – There are very few proven applications utilising blockchain technology at this point in time. While the technology is still relatively new there just aren’t any scaled success stories that have wide adoption.

Lack of Differentiation – There are very few applications that utilise blockchain that couldn’t be achieved through other means. There is no “killer app” in terms of a sustained, stable and successful application of blockchain.

Distributed vs Centralised – As an institution CSU needs to ensure that a distributed model suits our operations. At this point in time a centralised model would be far more scaleable and cost effective. Distributed technology still requires infrastructure and infrastructure costs and there needs to be a clear purpose for the institution to seek a distributed model e.g. collaboration with other universities, education providers or government initiatives.

Privacy – There are issues with key concepts of blockchain that present risks in terms of student and staff privacy. The idea of immutable data means that a permanent record is now available in perpetuity and the right to be forgotten and the idea of youthful indiscretions will be lost.

Legal Changes – The immutable data also presents significant challenges if there are changes in the Law. Given recent data breaches it is not unimaginable that there will be a significant review of laws around privacy and data. There are currently questions around blockchains compatibility to existing international laws like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Part of a Stack – It’s important to note that blockchain often only describes one layer of a specific application or service. An application usually has a “stack” of different layers that perform specific function – database, credentialing, user interface, etc. So an app may work in a completely traditional centralised way for the vast majority of its functionality, but publish its final data as an export function to a blockchain. This ledger can then be used to query or verify against, so support a different part of a service. So the blockchain is only used to store specific data for one specific function. Many companies have overemphasised their reliance and important of the blockchain to play to the hype and get

Questions for Blockchain

Immutable Data – This concept requires a rethink of what data is being stored and what is it being used for.
– How do you keep data up to date?
– How is this useful beyond transaction records?
– Do we want to keep transactions records?
– How does this benefit our staff and students?
– Will legacy files just become a drain on resources?
– How do you address a “take down notice” e.g. Privacy Notice, Copyright, Content Issue?
– What data should be immutable?
– Immutable data also has an effect on changes to technology. As technology evolves it tends to get smarter and perform better. Will blockchain data be able to do that?

Privacy and Security – The distributed nature of the ledger means it is more open and vulnerable.
– How can you ensure privacy and security while maintaining an accessible system?
– How can you prevent nefarious access and use of the data?
– How do you ensure anonymity?
– What links between data are required?
– What happens when data is required to be taken down?

Power and Resourcing – The simple fact is that creating cryptographic record requires far more energy than a traditional database. The Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index provides some simple explanations as well as some of the issues and current usage of the technology.
– How does this fit with CSU’s Green image?
– Do we need to compete this measurement in future procurement processes?
– How does this energy drain effect users of the system?

Alternatives to the Blockchain

While the hype seems focussed on blockchain based technologies, it is important to note that similar functions, performance and applications could be developed using alternative approaches:

  1. Federation – There has been a massive growth in the number of federated applications. These applications utilise an agreed upon standards of operation in a collective fashion which allows multiple instances of applications to be run, including internally, and connected with others. These systems provide data and identity portability as well as networking and collaborative features.
    > e.g. Mastadon is a popular Twitter alternative. CSU could run it’s own instance of Mastadon for staff and students, who can connect to the local network, but also to other instances. Moodle.Net is a product current being developed along this model and aims to create a “new open social media platform for educators, initially focused on the collaborative curation of collections of open resources”.
  2. Common Standards – Many of the benefits alluded to by blockchain in terms of data could be achieved through more rigorous adoption of common standards and protocols. These collective approaches require effort and negotiation to occur, which often slows down the process, but some of the most useful components of the internet have come through this approach.
    > e.g. The W3C group overseas web standards which are developed collectively and then rolled out via web browsers. These standards provide more interoperable tools to develop upon and more robust support than proprietary ones.
  3. Cooperative Approaches – Some of the appeal of blockchain is that it can disrupt control of existing systems and protocols. For many the main appeal of Bitcoin was not the technology, but the fact that it wrested control over currency transactions from the Banks. When it comes to developing new standards and tools these could be done in a cooperative way instead of a competitive one.
    > e.g. One of the applications of blockchain for Higher Education is the validation of an individuals certification. Rather than rely on unproven blockchain technology the university sector could all work together to produce this tool that the market is seeking. The existing institutions would remain in control of their data and could charge a fee for service to maintain it.
  4. Self Sovereign Technologies – A further evolution of the federated concept is for Self Sovereign Technologies, ones that are not led or owned by institutions – but at the individual level. These systems could allow students to aggregate their data into a platform that they control and provide access to institutions rather than vice-versa.
    > e.g. A self sovereign learning application would allow the student to upload their assessment task into their own app, and then forward that on to the intuitional LMS. The marks would be carried out at the institutional system and then relayed back to the student. With this kind of system the student always retains a copy of their work, as well as the materials provided by the institution and any interactions they may have.

Appendix

Some interesting things that others have said about Blockchain.

Is blockchain a false idol? – ANZ Report

The truth is blockchain is not the solution for every project that needs a database. A 2018 study out of China showed despite the plethora of blockchain-related projects entering the market, 92 per cent failed – and did so in an average of just over a year.

DTA dunks on blockchain hype saying for every use there is a better alternative

Quotes from Federal Government’s Digital Transformation Agency

“Blockchain is an interesting technology that would well worth being observed but without standardisation and a lot of work to come — for every use of blockchain you would consider today, there is a better technology — alternate databases, secure connections, standardised API engagement,” Digital Transformation Agency chief digital officer Peter Alexander told Senate Estimates on Tuesday.

”Blockchain: Interesting technology but early on in its development, it’s kind of at the top of a hype cycle.”

What does the indelible nature of blockchain mean for students learning? Is their content always available?

Issues for GDPR for blockchain applications:

India Diary: The Last Leg

The Final Leg: Bangalore

The final leg of our bootcamp was Bangalore or it’s official name – Bengaluru. To kick it off we had another early start, a long bus ride and then flight to Bangalore. We touched down in a city with much cleaner air – blue skies! – and plenty of green. Known for its gardens, Bangalore is quite an oasis compared to Mumbai. It’s definitely cleaner and greener, and it might have something to do with the army of workers deployed around the cities gardens and streets, sweeping, pruning, mowing and keeping the city spic and span.

We had quite a lazy day in comparison to the last week, the flight being the only thing on the itinerary for the day! So in the after we joined a tour of the some of the cities sites. We had a stroll through the botanic gardens which was a nice treat after a week in the concrete jungle of Mumbai. It was so nice to breath considerably fresher air and see so much greenery alongside a blue sky.

After the gardens we went to Dodda Basavana Gudi, the Big Bull Temple. Inside the temple is a great a large granite monolith that has been carved into the likeness of the bull. It was nice to have a guide talk about the significance of the place and it was here I got my obligatory ‘dot’ from India.

After the tour I was completely wrecked. I’m not a morning person and the frequency of early starts and long days led to me crashing out in the hotel that night. I woke up after a solid 9 hour sleep of pure delightful blackness. I woke up early too so decided to roll over and have another snooze and managed to get another whole sleep cycle in and still woke up before my alarm. Rested I was ready for the day!


And what a day it turned out to be. We headed to the stunning Leela Palace. I think a number of us were slightly disappointed that it wasn’t a real palace, but it was amazing luxury hotel. It was a beautiful setting to receive one of the highlights of the trip – a talk from Krishnan Ganesh. Krishnan had a really engaging talk and he went into depth about a lot of his experiences. As a successful entrepreneur the group as a whole really engaged with his story and I imagined everyone took something away from his talk. Krishnan went through and unpacked why his previous company TutorVista was acquired by US and UK listed education leader Pearson for $213million. He also went into depth about one of his latest ventures Bluestone, an online Jewellery store that uses procedural AI to generate designs. It was a really fascinating talk and one of my personal highlights. I loved how Krishnan was able to go beyond problems and value and to really focus in what what you’re selling, it was like peeling back the curtain and being shown how it all works.

After the talk we had an amazing lunch in the outdoor area overlooking the pool and the gardens inside the palace. It was perfect weather to be out and the whole group really enjoyed the food and the location.

We then packed onto the bus and headed to the Nasscom Warehouse, home of the 10,000 Startups Movement. This was the startup hub for what Bangalore is famous for – tech! We jumped almost straight into learning from a number of the startups housed within the Warehouse including:
– city lighting solutions to improve safety
– healthcare screenings for rural populations
– AI powered personal shopper
– video interaction platform
– device powered cricket coach
– and a smart project management tool.
It was great to see so many great ideas in one place!

It was great to end our bootcamp on such a high and surrounded by so many great ideas and thinkers. Bangalore was such a welcoming place and a lot of connections were formed really quickly. The same goes for the group as a whole. It’s challenging spending so much time together but I really enjoyed my time with the other 33 entrepreneurs. They were such a diverse and supportive group that it was fantastic to all be together and I think we learned just as much from each other as we did on the trip – the travel really helped facilitate that connection.

I want to thank the efforts of Sheryl from Zone Startups – she did a hell of a job herding 33 Australians through the whole schedule. Sydney School of Entrepreneurship put together a great itinerary and provided great structure and logistic support. And Matt, Rohit and Lisa from NSW Department of Industry did a fantastic support opening up 33 peoples eyes to the opportunities in India. It was an amazing trip!

Thanks for letting me be a part of it.

Follow ups

So that’s the day-to-day diary stuff done. Better late than never! What I want to write next are a couple of posts – one outlining my take home learnings and another on some of the casual observations I had of India. In the mean time you can explore some of the photos I took on the trip over on Flickr and feel free to @ me on Twitter.

India Diary: A Trip to Pune

Another early start on the busses as we made our way to Pune. It was interesting watching the sun rise and the city stir as we drove south east. We drove past some of the industrial parts of the city but as we left Mumbai behind the city thinned out.

In Pune our first stop was the Bhau Institute of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Leadership. The institute is linked to one of the oldest engineering schools in India but its mission extends into the community – with 2/3 of the startups being external to the school. We were introduced to the institute by its CEOVijay Talele who demonstrated a real passion for the institute and the work being done. The building has a unique design, being circular and with centre focused on a tree, the mix of organic shapes and the brutalist concrete was a really nice contrast. We were introduced to a number of startups currently working within the institute. It was really great to hear what the teams were working on. I was impressed with a number of the technical projects, some really innovative technology emerging, I thought Flytbase and ShunyaOS looked particularly interesting.

We then headed to the Venture Centre where we were introduced to the program there by Manisha Premnath. I don’t have much experience or knowledge of health startups so it was great to listen to a couple of them share their experiences with the group. The Q&A style format worked really well and it was great to hear directly from the startups themselves. Sachin from Module Innovations was a really great speaker and I personally got a lot out of his discussions.

After a quick tour we were back on the bus and on our way back to Mumbai for our last night there. I had a great time in Mumbai and after the weekend had just started to get a feel for the city (or part of it we were in!). Rather early tomorrow however we were packing up and heading to Bangalore for the last leg of the trip.

India Diary – The Weekend

The weekend finally dawned and I think most of the group were pretty appreciative of the break. Some were recovering from ailments, picked up and self inflicted, but we were all looking forward to some free time. I was really keen to walk – after so many hours spent on busses and planes my legs needed to move.

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So in the morning I dressed and headed out – not with any real mission, just to get out and see the local area. I went down to the Colaba market and had a bit of a wander. I didn’t go too deep into the market – I was happy to keep moving and enjoy the noise and colour from the edges. I then walked down to the area near to Zone Startups because the night before I’d been told that the Black Horse (Kala Ghoda) Arts Festival was on this weekend.

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On the way down I got hustled by vendors and had a few encounters with people begging. As the 6’1 red head guy you tend to stand out in the crowd in India. I’m always confused by these encounters – trying politely to decline the engagement – but it’s a fairly constant thing being the nearest westerner. I find it difficult to say no to people in need, and I struggle with this kind of interaction. I did give money away during the trip, but usually at night on the way home to people setting up camp on the streets, those with kids really broke my heart.

india-2019-32

But I also got approached by a few people for selfies – the 6’1 red head guy is a bit of a novelty here. I also had a nice chat to a guy who randomly came up and asked where I was from. His take on Mumbai and the experience of the city was quite interesting. He referred to it as “not the real India” which is something a few people had mentioned. It was interesting to hear, because I felt that way a little too. Mumbai was certainly easier to navigate and adjust to than I expected. It wasn’t anything I’d done, my preparation for this trip was more along the lines of “bring it on and I’ll cope with it”, it was the city itself. While it is chaotic and loud and polluted it wasn’t beyond a point I couldn’t cope with. The hotel room was a great oasis of calm and quiet and comfort that I was always able to retreat and recuperate.

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The festival was still setting up when I got there – I like the timeline for India – sluggish starts and later nights, it’s a match to my body clock. I had a quick wander around and then met up with Todd. We ducked into the side streets and found somewhere for coffee before deciding to go and check out the museum. I’m so glad we checked it out (the Modern Art Gallery was where we really wanted to go but it was closed) as it was full of amazing art and craftsmanship. The intricacies of the sculptures and carvings were amazing, so beautiful and ornate. I loved seeing the many armed and many headed statues up close too. I’m not sure how they do it but the seem so natural and fluid, there’s a motion captured in these works despite their strange concoction of limbs. We bumped into Matthew at the museum and experienced that strange feeling of running into someone you know in a city of 20 million people.

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In the evening we headed out to the Wine Rack, a place Todd had seen and made famous by a documentary that followed its establishment. The bar was in the Phoenix High Street – a very Western style mall. Surrounded by brands that I was completely familiar with was quite strange. It’s easy to forget just how global retail has become and that the world is populated by these big global entities now, bringing their cookie-cutter approach to retail. It was such a contrast from the Colaba markets in the morning, but at the same time I noticed that so much of what’s sold in the markets aren’t hand crafted or artisan produced, their all mass produced objects – plastic injection moulded products made in China. That too is now a global phenomenon.

We had a couple of glasses of wine – which was a nice change from the Kingfisher beer we’d been consuming – and after a while we headed to a hotly recommended restaurant – Bombay Canteen. The food here was amazing, a fusion of Indian and Western cuisine, trends and flavours. While the traditional food we’d been eating was fantastic (I can’t eat enough curry!) this meal took it to another level. What I noticed most was the depth and complexity of flavours. While I ordered a gin and tonic I inherited a turmeric cocktail (which someone who was over curry didn’t want), which was also amazing.

The next day I headed back to the Black Horse festival with the express desire to get some gifts to take home. The stalls they’d been setting up the day before were in full swing, and myself, James, Jake and Peter wandered through. I managed to find some really nice shawls and fabric – and the beautiful thing about the stalls were that they were all run by non-profits from the different states in India. So I knew I was buying authentic gifts and feel positive about my purchase.

After that we went for a wander to explore other areas of the festival. On the walk we came across the biggest cricket venue any of us have, and probably will, ever see. I cannot really describe the scene adequately but there were roughly 100 cricket games going on simultaneously in this space in the middle of Mumbai. It was a sight to behold!

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The four of us then decided that we should go and check out one of the temples before the slum tour we had booked in the afternoon. We piled into a taxi and headed off. Now Indian taxis are quite small – so our little group was quite a tight fit into these – and unfortunately I think Peter got the worst of it.

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We arrived at the temple and managed to navigate our way through the stairs and stalls to the main area. We were in time to see a ceremony in action and got to experience the sights and sounds of it all. We were completely oblivious to the nature and purpose of the ceremony, we simply stood to the side and took it all in.

In the afternoon we had booked in for a tour of the slums. I was a little bit hesitant about this and I was really worried about it being ‘poverty porn’ for westerners. While we’d seen some of the slums around Mumbai, there was one literally around the corner from our hotel, none of us had really gone in and seen it up close. We knew that poverty existed but hadn’t had to really come face to face with it except the brief interactions on the street.

We met our guides at across the train tracks from Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire then you would have seen Dharavi as it was the backdrop for the movie. They gave us a briefing about some of the courtesies required for visiting the slums, no photos in certain areas, to ensure we kept up with the group and to take their directions seriously. We broke up into two seperate groups to keep the numbers down and headed over the tracks on the pedestrian bridge. The slum didn’t take long to reach us, as our guide was giving us a briefing a heavily intoxicated guy decided that right in front of us was the best place to curl up and have a nap. From the bridge itself you got a view of the buildings that look like they’ve been stitched together from discarded debris, but you also how vibrant the place was. This isn’t an abandoned, hollow – this is a place with one of the highest density populations in the world. It’s thronging with people and sound and colour. As we went down into the slum itself it loomed over head. The buildings are far more permanent and substantial than I expected, most made out of bricks and concrete, but because this is a populated space, no room has been surrendered to cars or transport. The streets are narrow and thread through the slum like a maze. After seeing some of the industries, recycling in particular, we made a dash through one of the residential areas. The street was as wide as my shoulders and live wires hung overhead. I ducked and stooped the whole way, glimpsing into peoples houses and living spaces. Shoes left out side, televisions blaring, cooking pots being washed – all around us life was being lived.

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We broke back into daylight and were greeted by a throng of children. We were as much an attraction to them as they were to us. They played and messed around with the group – posing for photos, running around, inviting us to join in their games. It was a lot of fun hanging out with those kids – it put a lot of things into perspective. That this wasn’t a place devoid of joy or happiness, it was simply a place that people inhabited and went along doing things similar to us. Yes the conditions were completely foreign, but at the same time you got a sense of the community that inhabits these places. That it was a microcosm of life.

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We trekked on through the streets and the markets. We visited a school and another throng of kids surrounded us and begged for our attention. We kept moving through this space, bouncing between smiles and laughter and the reality of life in a city like this. There is no proper infrastructure – the power, water and sanitation is all ad-hoc. The houses are so close together and cramped that I wonder how this place survives something like the annual monsoon. This place must get flooded and be incredibly hard to navigate.

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I loved my time in the slums. It wasn’t the poverty porn I was expecting, it was something quite different for me. It was deeply engaging on an emotional level, and place don’t usually have that affect on me. Sure a building might be beautiful or awe inspiring, but it’s rare that a space will actively engage your emotions in the same way as the slums. In the couple of hours we were there I went through the complete spectrum of emotions and I thought a lot about home and the lives we lead. I thought a lot about our privilege and how we often experience life based purely on where our parents chose to have sex! It’s hard to say that the slum tour was ‘good’, or that it was the ‘best’ thing to do – but it was, just not in terms of how we usually use those words. It was good because it made feel bad, feel wasteful and unappreciative. It was the best because it showed me how much I have waiting at home for me, that my struggles are trivial compared to this, that I need to be more grateful for what I have. It’s hard to say something that made you feel bad, that made you doubt yourself and made you question why you feel you have a right to complain as being ‘good’ but it was.

If you’re in Mumbai so the slum tour – it will change you.

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PS – I want to mention our awesome tour was led by the team at Slum Gods. They were incredibly knowledgeable and respectful and really added to the experience.

Venture Debt and the Mobile Future

Today we headed to the financial district of Mumbai. It was quite different to the Mumbai that we’d seen so far, full of new crisp glass and concrete buildings, high-rises and green spaces. It looked like… every other western cities financial district. It did have a few uniquely Indian qualities – the circling and soaring birds of prey being one that I’ve been trying to get used to on this trip. No mater where we have been in India the quantity of bird life has been truly amazing.

We headed to Innoven, a venture debt company based out of Mumbai and serving India and the broader Asia Pacific region. Our group of 33 startups was split into two and the group I was in headed out to the large balcony. It had a fantastic view over the district and it was nice to get a bit of time outside. While Mumbai’s smog seems omnipresent, it doesn’t seem as bad on some days. We started off with the Innoven team discussing venture debt, something I had honestly never heard of. Venture debt is essentially a loan with a fixed interest rate, but they target startups who banks won’t usually touch. There are a few caveats about needing co-funding and other investment, but this form of capital raising is actually more founder friendly as you don’t need to further dilute equity in company.

After we were introduced to the Innoven team our group introduced ourselves and our startups. We haven’t had much of a chance to pitch or discuss our own ventures here, so it was a good opportunity to practice. I’ve been picking up a few phrases in my bus, plane and airport discussions with the other participants so I thought it was a good opportunity to test them out. I really liked the phrase “Farm to Fork” because essentially what Chickon is trying to do is provide data to feed into the supply chain and better manage that journey. It was also a good chance to hear the other ventures again and some of the follow up questions they received.

It was a great meeting and I think we could have spent much more time there given the opportunity, but we had another engagement that afternoon, so it was back on the bus to head to the Jio campus.

If you live outside of India you’ll probably have never heard of Jio, but if you’re in India you won’t be able to get away from them! We’d been hearing about this mythical and legendary company since we landed in India, why? Because they single handedly revolutionised telecommunications in India. The Jio story starts with bring a reliable 4G network to India, not just the technology to do that, more importantly, the price. On Jio you can get 1.5gig/day for less than $3 a month. What Jio has done is connect India, and in a way that has bypassed a lot of legacy infrastructure and hardware. Their mobile first approach means not only are people connected, but they’re connected on devices that are powerful and that they can afford. With that great connection comes a raft of other benefits – families connect, mobile payments are possible, mass distribution of content is possible, opportunities are open regardless of location or status. People around India can consume (and are with a with a voracious appetite) video and rich media, they aren’t limited to a second rate experience.

We arrived at the Jio campus and led through the impressive visitors centre and given a tour of some of their main products and developments. It was great to see some of the devices and features of the Jio network in one place. One of their key products is the Jio Phone. A smart-phone wrapped in a feature-phone body it’s a $30 powerhouse. Yes it is just $30AUD! I love mobile devices, especially the quirky ones, and this definitely falls into that box. It might look outdated it’s actually a balanced bit of tech, walking the fine line between features and price that many companies have forgotten about (yes you Apple). It’s got everything a savvy mobile user would need but at a price point that works for everyone, especially those on a low income. For India this devices is a real breakthrough – it marries an affordable handset with an affordable data plan to make computing and connectivity viable and affordable for the masses here in India.

And it’s led to adoption and growth numbers that are hardly believable:

Yes 100 MILLION customers in just 170 days!

The team at Jio stayed back a long time to present to us – which was really appreciated. If it was in Australia there may have been a riot if staff were asked to stay back on a Friday afternoon, but our hosts really pulled out all the stops. We were introduced to a number of the programs Jio supports and runs in addition to their telecommunications arm, and they really are creating an entire ecosystem for their users. Google, Apple, Amazon are really going to struggle in this environment. From an outsiders perspective there were a few questions raised about data governance and privacy, and it doesn’t seem that India’s legal system has caught up with this technological change. After the lessons from Facebook and the other aggregators of data, there are already a few warning signs about what may come in the future. But what Jio has achieved in such a short time is impressive and shouldn’t be down played.

After a bus ride back to our hotel a few of us headed to a local restaurant, Koyla. Set in a massive rooftop garden that seems to span the whole block, it was a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city below. The food was amazing and so was the conversation – it was a great way to finish the day.

Social Enterprises and Business in India

Back in Mumbai and Zone Startups today. We got to spend the morning with some really interesting social enterprise startups.

The first sessions of the day was Naveen Krishna from SMV Wheels. SMV Wheels provides a deferred payment model for rickshaws in India which means that drivers can move from a leasing to an ownership model. While they pioneered the finance model they’ve also helped move the technology available from people power to electric rickshaws. This is a huge reduction on the physical strain on the driver and opens up the opportunity for non-traditional drivers to enter the market – in this case women. The stories of the women being able to enter the workforce in order to earn money and support their families was really powerful.

Naveen’s session really showed how the startup methodology could be applied to social programs, allowing them to test out new ways of working and if successful being able to scale them up and out to other locations.

In the next session Mary Ellen Matsui introduced ATMA, a completely different accelerator aimed at providing strategic solutions to help education NGOs scale. This was a really interesting session and again a novel approach using the startup methodology. The program isn’t a pitch ready accelerator, rather than aim to develop long term relationships, providing ongoing consulting, goal setting and a project based program aimed at delivering key outcomes to the NGO itself. Mary Ellen’s passion for her work was abundant, and it showed through the enthusiasm she spoke about those that had been through the program. One of the newest components of the program was to open up some of the resources to create the ATMA Network. The platform provides a range of resources to NGOs but also provides a way for providers to network, collaborate and work together.

After another amazing lunch provided by The Pantry, seriously if you’re after good food and coffee in Mumbai check them out, we had a couple of brief sessions with Matt from Business NSW and Susie from SSE. These were really helpful sessions about how the government can assist startups at home and in India and how we can leverage social media to help grow our startups.

We then had sessions with Aashish Gangrade from Tata Industries and Amit Mishra from Eight. Both speakers provided interesting perspectives on the Indian marketplace and provided real insight into how India works differently and how we need to change our perceptions of India itself. It’s such a diverse country that there isn’t just one India, India itself is a microcosm of different societies, traditions, languages and incomes. It’s a complex world and as an outsider one of the best options is to partner up, to take on local talent and partners to help guide you through the complexities. I also took out of the talks that Indian’s often focus only on their market – fair play its a massive one – but it limits a lot of the innovations so they rarely go global. Perhaps that’s something that Australians can bring to the table, we’re somewhat renowned for our ability to punch well above our weight on a global stage regardless of the industry or domain.

In the evening we headed to Thackers for a Gujarati thali feast. I really enjoyed this way of eating – small servings of a range of dishes and bountiful supplies of rice and a variety of breads. It means you never miss out or get menu jealousy! It was a great way to end the day and catchup with some of the other Aussie startups. We have such an amazing and diverse group of people on this trip!

Mumbai Incubators

Today we toured a couple of locations in Mumbai. Our bus took us first to RIIDL a technology business incubator. Located on the Somaiya Vidyavihar University campus, the centre was started as an offshoot of the engineering school. We were introduced to the centre by founder Gaurang Shetty who discussed how the centre evolved out of a desire by students to do more impactful and meaningful projects.

I could really appreciate Gaurang’s effort to create this kind of change, and I think it’s one of the most impressive things about RIIDL. Creating an environment where more real world and authentic tasks are the focus changes the engagement that students feel with their studies. We were introduced to a couple of projects including Square Off, a robotic chess board which definitely has a bit of a wow factor when you see the pieces float across the board.

Visiting from MIT was Suryateja Sharma and he discussed his work on bringing biotech equipment to the masses. One of his recent successes was working to reduce a $3000 diagnostic tool to make it available for $10. It was incredible to hear his passion and ethos to bring this technology to the masses.

After the speakers and demonstrations were done we explored a few of the student projects underway. As we exited the the building there was a bit of a throng in the courtyard below. One of the benefits of a university campus are those impromptu social happenings, and a tug-of-war competition had begun. We watched a couple of rounds and then somehow the Bootcamp Team ended up having a couple of rounds. It was a bit of fun and the crowd were good sports.

After having lunch in the student cafeteria we hopped on the bus and headed to SINE – the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at IIT Bombay. We were introduced to the program there and also a number of the startups in residence. The spread was quite interesting from waste management through to an electric wheelchair built for India’s rural road system. One of the programs that had been started at SINE that I thought had real importance was an advice service. Quite often I’m startup world there’s a lack of actionable advice. Plenty of people will give you there opinion but there’s rarely anything you can do with that. What you need is some clarity over what to do in order to address problems or shortcomings. Something worthwhile adopting in the Australian context.

I was really impressed by what we’d seen at both locations but also to hear about the efforts by governments and institutions to engage with innovation and entrepreneurship. With such a young population India seems to be keen on developing new opportunities rather than relying on their existing industries.

Bootcamp Begins

The bootcamp begins. It started with a bang, an early morning alarm buzzed, but I was already fully awake. Instead snoozing I tapped STOP – and was ready to face the day.

We took a quick bus ride to Zone Innovations. First of all we were introduced to Rohit Manchanda who really helped to provide some of the key information about into. Rohit also introduced us to a number of key innovations, including PayTM. There are number of interesting government initiative including Digital India, Make in India, startup India, and the smart cities initiatives that are aimed at transforming India and its economy. If it succeeds, India will be truly transformed.

Adjay Ramasubramaniam is our host from Zone Startups here in Mumbai and he gave us excellent overview of the startup culture and practices that are emerging here in India. He also dived into some of the key numbers around India growth especially in mobile, commerce and the population as a whole. A lot of this information is to ensure that we take India seriously, it is a massive economy and it’s tipped to be the 3rd biggest by 2030. There are so many stories about India and Indians in those numbers, but the big take away was that the undertaking to lift people out of poverty is really underway. The fact that with Jio you can now get 1gig of data a day for less that $3 a month is transformative. Transformative because it provides access that has so often been denied to huge swathes of the population because of their location, background and caste.

Saumil Shah had a unique presentation – his slides were all newspaper clippings. Saumil really started to break the notion of India as a single entity down. It is not a single race, religion or class each of these can be broken down and fused together. To really understand India you have to be more specific. You can target 1% of the Indian population and still have a massively profitable business that serves millions of customers. At the same time if you want to work with the larger population be prepared to scale beyond your wildest imaginations.

Our final speaker was Sreeraman Thiagarajan. A young tech savvy entrepreneur Sreeraman structured his presentation around the idea of Indian vs Bharat. Indian being the stereotype of India and Bharat being the local (and more realistic) version of India. Some of the stats that Sreeraman shared were truly mind boggling – like the fact that 8.5 million people use the train system here EVERY DAY! Can you imagine the logistics of keeping that system running? What this dichotomy illustrated that there was much more to India that the stereotypes, and more often the stereotype concealed a much more nuanced and complex truth.

From this session I learnt that Tirupati, not the Taj Mahal, is most visited place in India and by a huge amount. That while technology like PayTM has transformed the way people make purchases, what they buy hasn’t. Because of the variety of languages within the county voice and vernacular are crucial elements of the culture. It’s why video is a huge area of growth in India, because it allows the people to utilise their language and to share that with the large internal diaspora. And that one of the driving forces in India is VFM – value for money. In terms of motivation to spend – it’s a completely value driven system. This is one of the reasons that so many ‘colonial’ technologies (cheap tech aimed at addressing the mass market under a perception of saving these poor people) fails in India all the time. Why have the worlds cheapest car when you can have a fully specced motorbike for the same price?

In the afternoon the group broke up into personal mentoring sessions. It was our opportunity to pitch our startups and get some local insight and opinion on what we are proposing and the potential for it in India. I haven’t had to pitch Chickon much so I haven’t developed the clear language around it that a bit of practice forces you to do, but I got some really good advice. Focussing on that Value For Money is incredibly important for the Indian market, saving time and effort isn’t one of their priorities. Why? In such a populous country labour isn’t an issue, it’s cheap and it’s plentiful so there is no drive to be more efficient or scale back the human role. So while Apple has an App for the That, India has a Man for That.