Notes from the India HCI 2015 Conference

IIT Guwahati is one of the most beautiful college campuses in India. That is a well known fact by all now. I have had the good fortune of having studied here. I am truly grateful for it. So when the next edition of the IndiaHCI conference, India’s premier conference on Human Computer Interaction was scheduled at this beautiful campus, it was certain that I had to attend. The campus at this time of the year is really beautiful.

The theme of the conference was ‘Design for Bridging’, and it was wonderful to hear different speakers present their views. It is a wonderful theme to understand the different India’s that co-exist today.  

So what does it mean to Design for Bridging? And who or what are we bridging? I was invited by Xerox Research (India) to present my work on Design for Social Impact and how we at the Happy Horizons Trust have been looking at improving the quality of education. It is a very small attempt at Bridging the gap that exists in the country in the domain of education. In my talk addressing the theme of the conference, I highlighted the different challenges we face on the ground when working with the government schools. Two main takeaways from my talk were the emphasis on a systemic approach to problem solving when we are dealing with wicked problems like education and the secondly the notion of truly understanding all the stakeholders in the system and designing for the secondary users as well. We often tend to ignore the secondary users, because we do not consider them valuable. Especially in the notion of designing for resource constraint environments that we work in, it becomes imperative to talk about these two at length. Another notion I emphasised on is the need for us to go on the ground and truly spend time in a more ethnographic manner to understand the realities better. 

I was also a part of a panel discussion on the state of Design and design processes across companies in India, chaired by Atul Manohar, Director of UX at Informatica. I shared my insights from my years of working and consulting with entrepreneurs, teaching at Exec MBA programs comprising mostly of Product Managers and Product owners. Amongst the points I highlighted included the challenges faced by designers in dealing with Business owners and vice versa. I posed a simple question, as to how many in the room could confidently give an answer to the question, What is Design? This is important for many in the industry still need to get an understanding on the true value of Design. So to me this is yet another bridge we need to design for.  

On being asked, what has changed in the industry in the past 10 years, when it comes to the role of Design, I mentioned that we have gone to a larger acceptance of Design now. We have gone from ‘No Design’ to ‘Know Design’. The next few years would be spent in ‘Embracing Design’ and as a result make a collaborative effort towards innovation and creating wonderful products that solve a need towards bridging the gaps.

Pick up any area of social welfare. Be it education or healthcare or agriculture or sustainability, there is an immense need for us to contribute towards bridging the gap. 

In this regard I thought the selection of keynotes delivered by the invited speakers were wonderful. The opening keynote by Professor Shendeng Zhao from National University of Singapore, was a great one to start the conference. The talk focused on the different research work being done by his lab. The lab’s emphasis on understanding what part of the Human Computer Interaction can be automated, what can be done by the computer and what still needs the human intervention was truly inspiring. Dr Phillippe from Toulouse in his entertaining talk spoke about the need for the HCI community to build more reliable systems. In my opinion, this holds immense value as we start to look towards building solutions for an audience who perhaps are not very tech savvy yet. One of the most inspiring talks I attended in this meet was the one by Dr Sanjay Tripathi, who presented an eye opening account of the healthcare facility in India and how much we are lagging behind when it comes to providing quality healthcare to the masses in India. Technology has to be of help here.

Pramod Khambete’s (teaches at IDC IIT Bombay) talk on understanding Design Patters in Service design was wonderful too. The conference also had a few presentations on Gestural interactions and the work done by the TAUCHI lab in Tampere University, Finland was interesting too. The best full paper award went to a paper by a team from IDC IIT Bombay, which shared results and findings from a research on the text entry for Indian Languages in Virtual Keyboards. Discussions with Mr Manish Gupta (Vice President at Xerox Corporation and Director Xerox India) was truly insightful and something I would cherish for a long time.

During the stay at IIT Guwahati this time, I clicked three wonderful photographs of the campus. (I like to think so, going by the number of likes it received on social media). I never get tired of clicking images on the campus. Only that this time I was doing it all with my mobile phone (which I have been doing so for the past 3 years now)

The first morning of the conference we woke up to the campus engulfed in a beautiful fog. One was that of a cormorant drying itself on the water pipe. Just when I was about to click the image, it flew. To me this was a constant reminder of the opportunities that go away if we do not act upon it. 

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The second day while on the way to the conference venue, I clicked this shot of a juxtaposition of the barren trees with leaves laden trees forming a canopy over the pathway. To me the barren branches of the trees, reminded me of the different pathways that people take after graduating. Some get lost in the mess of convoluting pathways, and some still manage to keep sight of the goal that they want to achieve.

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The third that that of a migratory bird taking flight, against the backdrop of the boys hostels at IIT Guwahati. To me the campus is a place where many dreams take flight.  

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I come back from this conference with a lot of insights on the developments on the Technology front and hope to work more with it in my work on Design for Social Impact.  

Notes from InspirED 2014

Over the last weekend, on chilly Winter mornings at the St Stephen’s College in Delhi, I had the chance to attend the inspirED 2014, the education conference organised by  Teach for India . This was my first time attending this conference was very curious to find about the happenings in the field of education. There were individual presentations, educators talking about their initiatives, talks about the work at TFI, the performances by students, the panel discussions etc.

The opening keynote was given by Arvind Kejriwal, who spoke on the need to improve the quality of government schools and that the government has the money, but needs individuals who can take up this challenge.

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The goal should be that over the next 5 years, we should all come together to build quality in the government schools, so that even the officials are proud of sending their kids to these schools. Key points emphasised by him.

  • Teachers should only Teach and not be involved in other administrative and government and clerical duties.
  • Teachers should not be put on contract, and should be paid well.
  • The notion of Guru Samman needs to be emphasised upon.
  • The school infrastructures need to be improved.
  • There should be autonomy in the functioning of the school and not be at the disposal of the visiting education officers.
  • The principals should be the boss of the schools and the parents should have a say in the functioning of the school
  • Empowering the local community is important
  • Indians are born entrepreneurs, so one needs to make our youth to be Job givers rather than Job seekers. Promote entrepreneurship early in the education.
  • Education Systems should be designed to be built as Incubation Centres of ideas.

There was also a panel discussion that debated the initiatives being taken towards improving the quality of education. This was chaired by Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today, that had the leaders from three major parties in Delhi, Nalin Kohli (BJP), Manish Tewari (Congress), Yogendra Yadav (AAP). Here is the link to the panel discussion on The Education Vision 2030 (What will improve primary education in India?). Though the discourse here went political at times, it nevertheless made for an interesting session.

An important thing I have often spoken about in the past is that Teachers have to be trained as Leaders. Tiffany Chang from the Dignitas Project (Kenya) facilitated an excellent session on Transforming Schools through Leadership. The Dignitas Project in Kenya works with urban communities and schools in urban slums in the Mathare Valley in Kenya (60,000 kids). So far they have trained 475 teachers with their leadership program with an outreach to around 17000 students. Some projects are community projects (like working to clean schools, create better learning environments) and some projects that focus on the individual and their needs (like shoes, dress etc) Their motto is simple. Dignity through Education – one community at a time. Create Small change that can have a Huge Impact. The work is really commendable and can definitely be applied to the work around different contexts in India too. The work with existing schools for a few years, and then move out by handing it over to other NGOs who want to continue their work. They do not build the schools, but work with what is available. During their period of involvement with a school, they work towards improving the conditions and creating effective leadership. The schools thus become fertile ground for other organisations to work. She spoke at length on her 3 week long transformation module that takes the teachers from being teachers to leaders. Here are some key takeaways from her session:

  • The key components of the transformation program are recruiting, training and coaching.
  • School and Community mapping is an important factor to find out the community they want to work on and the teachers they want to work with.
  • Have proper assessments for students (English/ Maths) before deciding on working with them.
  • Reflect the data back to the community through town hall meetings and focus group discussions and through it introduce the programs and vision of the organisation.
  • Build upon the existing assets in the community based schools.
  • Respond to school leaders’ needs, priorities and their aspirations.
  • Shift and create a culture of high expectations for both the NGOs and schools.
  • At the Dignitas Project, the 3 weeks of training comprise of the following :
    • Week 1 –Leadership
      • Modules of leadership, Emotional Intelligence, Ethical Leadership, Power and Influence, Entrepreneurship, Team building for problem solving
    • Week 2 – Strengthening Schools
      • Improving Practice, Effective family engagement, Supporting students with special needs, Guidance/counselling, Developmental Psychology, ensuring Psychological safety in schools, understanding own education biography
    • Week 3 – Improving Teaching and Learning
      • Gender responsive pedagogy, purposeful planning, lesson plan execution, Aligning Assessment Activities, Effective Teaching practices, Building a Reflective Practice
    • Coaching is an essential part of the growth of the individual into a leader and will result in reflective practitioners.
    • Through Coaching one has to look to transformation through three different levels : Behaviours, Beliefs and the Being.
    • When it comes to coaching there is often 5 gaps that one needs to consider. They are the will gap, skill gap, capacity gap, knowledge gap, and above all the emotional intelligence gap.
    • Objectives of Coaching should include the following
      • Holding the space and listening well, shrink the change, recognise growth and success, develop autonomous leaders.
    • Have a robust mechanism to Measure your impact.
    • Plan successful exits from the schools

Tiffany is also working closely with the Indian School Leadership Institute (ISLI) and one hopes that their program becomes something that can truly transform teachers to be leaders.

Another session that I attended was the panel discussion on Inclusive Education. This was a very important discussion in the context of the the rule in the Right to Education that requires all private schools to have some seats for children of the economically backward classes of the society. One major point discussed in this session was that Academic inclusion is a mean to Social Inclusion. The role of the teacher in a class where there are children from different strata of the society therefore becomes critical. Not just to overlook the academic advancements of the child, but also other psychological issues that the child goes through. Things like extra classes, private tuitions that form an integral part of the private school education are often not accessible to the children who come from the not to financially strong backgrounds. This creates the social disparity within the classrooms. School need to avoid being Academic Crazy and emphasise on marks as the only criteria for testing student intelligence. At the very basic, the students need to be happy. Schools should foster the environment that will ensure that tstudents are happy. Only then can proper learning happen. Schools that are doing Social Inclusion based education well need to be highlighted and stories be told. An interesting point that Sister Crysl made was that in her school, there is a norm that the Private Tuitions are for the Mentally challenged students and that a teacher giving private tuition is a slap on the school not being able to give proper education within the classrooms.

The community needs to be educated on what education is. Moreover the criteria for Social Inclusion will differ from State to state, as with the diversity, cultural backgrounds and the state’s GDP.

The session by Pankaj Jain of Gyanshala.org, that re-looks and rethinks the role and responsibility of the teachers was interesting. He also mentioned that the state of education (infrastructure, government programs) in India as compared to many other countries is actually better. A basic premise that the design of the curriculum to be delivered in the classrooms should not be left to the teachers, but a separate team does it. The teacher should teach and focus on the delivery, impart knowledge and hold interactions with the children . There is a need to differentiate the learning from the teaching. Knowing the context is important. What makes the model of work at Gyanshala really interesting is that takes people from the community who are high school pass to get trained to teach students upto grade 3. A lot of the things mentioned by Pankaj validated the work being by my team at the Happy Horizons Trust in Bihar too.

  • A good support system should have effective human interactions
  • Someone having the grade 10 pass certificate are good to teach grade 3 syllabus. Gyanshala uses this considerably.
  • Holding only the teacher accountable is not the right thing to do. The parents also need to get involved.
  • Teachers as a support system needs to be built and is a need of the hour.

The session by Sid Talwar of the Lightbox Venture Capital firm, was interesting to attend to. The key to their investments being that they invest in education companies that use technology for their work. A few points focused by him are:

  • Technology should not be a replacement for the teacher. It should encourage and assist them.
  • Free Ideas and tools that can be used in an interesting manner for improving education in schools include the usage if WiFi, Tablets (promoting the idea of Bring your Own Device), WhatsApp (though its group feature to make announcements and share information), Infographics (to represent content in a more pleasing manner, SMS, Twitter, Facebook.
  • Insist students and teachers to write up blogs and share information that are often expression of opinions.
  • Data should be more objective.
  • Constructive and Actionable feedback should be given to all stakeholders within the system (parents, teachers, students)
  • Teacher empowerment programs should be taken up at a larger scale.

Amongst the other interesting initiatives the I came across was the Ashoka Changemaker Schools Network. The idea is to connect schools that are empathy driven and show a dedicated effort towards bringing a change to the education system in the way it delivers the education and impacts the society.

The panel discussion on RTE amendments was nice too, but I missed out on most of it due to an urgent work that came up.  20141220_164423

My takeaways from the conference
At the end I was happy to have attended the conference, but I expected more. It was wonderful to meet up passionate people and some friends.  One of the things with many conferences these days is that there are many sessions running in parallel and you are bound to miss out on some great sessions and end up attending some not-so great ones. I do have some clear takeaways from it.

  • There is a lot of work to be done and we are barely getting started.
  • Teacher training is important and needs to be fixed.
  • Collaboration has to happen amongst different people and organisations working in the field.
  • The work in Bihar that the Happy Horizons Trust is doing, needs to have a better execution when it comes to the training of the champions.
  • Technology is a great tool to scale the outreach and impact of your work, but building a strong local ground is important.
  • Children and students require Support Systems. This can come on the form of well trained and passionate teachers.
  • Parents need to play an important role in the education of the child too.

Summary posts from CHI 2011

As mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I am looking for posts that summarize the discussions and the hot trends and topics at the CHI conference this year.

I came across two posts that summarize what was being discussed at CHI 2011, in Vancouver this year.

One is by my professor at Indiana; Erik Stolterman.

CHI 2011, the field, development, grand challenge, and the need for more books

Excerpts from this post:
CHI is changing. It is not easy to really understand what the changes are when you are at the conference, but compared with just a few years ago it is easier to see that there is a difference.  The conference is broader, more diverse. I had the chance to go to several sessions and it is exciting to see that not only is the diversity growing but I also found the quality in general to be better than usual.
One clear change to me is a new interest in theory. I was very pleased to see a design theory session filling two large rooms, and so did the more theoretical design methods session. I hope that this is a sign that the field is getting more eager  to find ways to synthesize findings and results from all the studies, experiments, and designs projects.

The second is from a friend at college, Diya.

CHI 2011, the Social Media and musings

Excerpts from her post:
Not surprisingly, social media and the underlying theme of interconnectedness formed the crux of CHI this year. Mining social data and trying to get an insight into user behavioral patterns marked the core of several sessions, presenting some very interesting insights on user behavior on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Location Sharing applications and Social Question Answering sites. One of the questions that emerged time and again is the tradeoff between the “social” aspects and the “content” based aspects of social media. Do people view, read and contribute because they find the content of a post interesting or because it pertains to their social circle? The most interesting impact was found to be on question answering forums where answers posted by “popular” users are rated high irrespective of the quality of content.

Waiting to hear from more people on their impressions of this year’s CHI and then perhaps make an analysis of what direction the field is heading in.

Here comes the CHI 2011

The premier conference on Human Computer Interaction, Interaction Design, User Experience Design, Usability is here again and this time it is being organized in Vancouver Canada. More on the conference can be read on the conference’s site : http://www.chi2011.org/

I am sure the whole world,just like me is looking forward to the conference. We are all eager to hear what’s the things defining the conferences.

From the #chi2011 tag that I have been following on Twitter, I feel that there is going to be an overdose of touch screen interactions, papers on the portable web an cross platform User Experience Design.

My flat-mate at Indiana, Gopinath who is now a doctoral student at Indiana presented his research on Feminist HCI. I look forward to reading his papers too, apart from the Bardzells and Buxtons.

Too bad that I cannot attend the conference since I am here in India. It’s a dream that one day we have this premier conference in India and I be a part of the team that organizes it here! That would be awesome.