Location: Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore.
Where might we be going?
Why, to Kuala Lumpur for a 3-day Digital Marketing workshop, of course! Setting off with 87 product design students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Code for Asia collaborated with Tech Society and Xu Bo to pioneer the school’s first workshop abroad.
Happy, cheery faces of organisers. Probably unaware of unforeseen challenges ahead.
A speedy coach took us from Singapore to Parkroyal, located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, in just under 5 hours, and we hit the ground running. Luggages were lugged, quick showers were showered, power naps were nabbed, wifi hotspots were spotted then immediately utilised. A generous international breakfast buffet later – lady economies of scale smiles upon us for bringing a large crowd into the hotel – we were literally within minutes of beginning our first session.
Early crew leaves early to set up equipments.
The first day promised to be a challenging affair – we aimed to introduce the students to Digital Marketing. But what is Digital Marketing, really? From our own experience and research, we know the term digital to potentially be extremely ~vague~ for it encompasses so many things. And so how do you being to condense something that is so expansive?
Pedagogically, we opted instead to share basic, transferrable factoids of Digital Marketing: those of strategic content utilisation, compelling storytelling in content creation, and simple economic terms. We filled our examples with examples, both good and bad, with the hope that the bad may serve as lessons and the good as inspirations.
From bus, to breakfast, to ballroom.
Combating fatigue (very intensively) through physical games.
The students are young, passionate, and demographically the biggest consumers of digital marketing and social media. Beyond the workshop, beyond the gentle nudging of our workshop, we were certain that they could take charge of their own learning. We offered many interesting case studies of current and past examples of digital marketing, and pointed out how malleable, dynamic, and powerful it can be. It also does not take a pragmatist to note that digital marketing can come at almost no cost at all, with low barriers to entry – on social media platforms, we are all already marketers of our own lives! We ended day 1 on a simple and straightforward thought: effective digital marketing awaits us on our doorsteps.
We made it to the end of Day 1!
Aside from food for the mind, we hoped to provide students with food for the body too! It is through the generous catering from The Westin – we held our workshop there on day 1 – that our meals may be taken care of.
And what great job The Westin did!
Tasty, tasty food for the body.
Well fed, and most definitely also well seated.
The pioneer project is off to a promising start! And so everyone celebrated it in the best way they know how: by crashing into bed for well-deserved rest.
Stay tuned for updates from day 2!
While I was sharing our Guizhou project idea in Suzhou to a conference room of developers, working professionals, students and entrepreneurs, our awesome team members finished a marathon training for Michigan and NTU students at the Nanyang Technopreneurship Centre.
How I ended up speaking in Suzhou had to do with cost of living. Upon arriving in Shanghai from Guiyang, Gray and I decided that Shanghai was too expensive and we needed to collect ourselves together in Suzhou first. So off we went. And Suzhou rewarded us tremendously.
A Guizhou Story and Asset-Based Community Development from Code for Asia Society on Vimeo. (Please pretend that you did not notice the missing words.)
I texted Jin Jian at 8.30pm the night before (June 4) about how I’m more than happy to share about our Guizhou plans if they were still looking for speakers, he said to send slides over so I grabbed dinner, sent slides over at 1.30am and found myself addressing a conference room full of people at the XianJiaotong-Liverpool Conference Center on the 5th of June (and had dinner taken care of :D). What I love most of all about the entire experience was the friendliness and openness of the organisers and the attendees. Really awesome.
Then on 6 June, our team in Singapore spent the night in Nanyang Technopreneurship Center teaching Michigan and NTU students to prototype their ideas.
It was part of an overnight (and so they had beanbags) entrepreneurship camp so the would-be entrepreneurs were exposed to an overview of programming languages, making a website in Wordpress and rapidly prototyping using MIT App Inventor… All in 6 hours!
That same weekend, we “brought” kids, parents and seniors out to code using Scratch at the Jurong Regional Library. The participants learnt to make virtual pets on Scratch. So people across the generations are trying out “coding”… What other excuse do you (still) have?
Thank you all for spending your time with us to build cool stuff together.
Everyone can and should code!
It’s that time of the year to hit the road and see what people have been up to again!
Incidentally, this trip was also my first time in KL city centre despite having transited in its airport many times and I was instantly won over by Malaysian warmth. It’s that feeling where you know that you’ve always had this idyllic neighbour, but really all you remember about them are konfrontasi and 1MDB… So the friendliness and go-getting spirit of the people has provided further evidence for a pet theory of mine: the greater the degree of state involvement (or efficiency), the lesser the “role” of the citizen. i.e. in a nanny state people are more prone to complaining and waiting on authorities to solve problems for them than roll up their sleeves and do the work themselves.
Definitely not pointing any fingers here.
Starting Up is Like Falling in Love
Rajesh from the Asian School of Business had a metaphor for entrepreneurship that I think is very worth considering: It is a lot like falling in love. You have no idea what the outcome would be but you take the risk anyway. You plunge in without a care nor concern for what you would or would not walk away with. It is a leap of faith into the unknown. It is rather like sailing across the ocean at night and you can see only as far as your eyes could show you from wherever you are, at that point in time. Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s earlier hopes for Facebook and what he has evolved into. Let’s also consider the Ramp Theory of Learning. I am very fond of the idea that we should hire on the basis of trajectory rather than current state. No one is an overnight success, ever. You go out of your comfort zone little by little, you stretch yourself a little everyday, and as your boundary of maximal capacity expands outward day by day, you complete the turn from zero to hero.
Of course, most of us are lost in the trough of misery, sorrow, sadness, ultimate sh*t from the things that life throws at you. Hence entrepreneurship is a leap of faith. You just trudge on into the unknown, without a care nor concern for what you would or would not walk away with. Profit is of course a very strong incentive, but with early-entrepreneurship we are often talking about potential profit which is almost as good as wishful thinking so passion is absolutely necessary to complete the equation, I think. The insistent willingness to suffer for something – such is the proper definition of passion, and not a stroll by the beach sipping cocktails in the sun.
The best things in life are free. The best things in life do not come easy.
The Community Outreach team in MaGIC was very kind to show me around despite a university group that they had to entertain at the same time and then there was just 1 of me who ended up meeting close to 10 of their people?
The sprawling building aside, my favourite moment was actually just passing by a group of young people who were sitting around a desk, to our left was the co-working space and where they were sitting, there were pots of plants in the background and random mushrooms on the table itself. And they struck up a conversation. We talked about achieving complete self-sufficiency in MaGIC now that they can grow their own crops, and that perhaps the next step would be animal husbandry — to add on to their start-up work and for some reason, I just found this whole idea really, really awesome. I suspect that it’s the communality of it.
I may have heard about general Malaysian happiness and ran into the chill Malaysian overseas, but to see them where they are and how upbeat they are about it all – that does make me wonder about the things we lose along the way in our striving for ever greater efficiency.
So Southeast Asia is a 200 billion dollar digital opportunity… But seeing my Malaysian driver take out a dumb phone was the surest evidence to me that this digital gold would take some hardcore digging. Such hardcore digging would require would-be diggers to go deep into the natural habitats of the consumers that they would love to have and I wonder how many are prepared to actually really do that.
I shared a little about the work we are looking to do in Sparrow Village, Guizhou in December and met Quiz from the local Google Developers Group who brought us dinner at this place where locals eat at and the food is way better than what was had at Chunxi Road previously.
Eat like the locals do wherever you go appears to be a good rule of thumb to follow generally.
I feel very fortunate to have met with Quiz and connected with Yasic and Jian Jin — people who are changing my impressions of Chinese developers — and is hugely anticipating the Chinese Free Code Camp (which I am helping to translate too :p).
I am very stubborn about China though it has broken my heart time and again because you just don’t ignore one quarter of the world’s population. Imagine if the education system of one quarter of the world’s population is built around problem-solving! Just imagine that for a second.
A confluence of factors brought us to Guizhou. The initial inspiration was really this Guizhou kid I had run into in Chaozhou last summer. I cannot quite shake off that sense of loss? Regret? Even a little rage perhaps – at the knowledge of how her life circumstances has already circumscribed her possible options and opportunities after our little chat and that’s why we asked around for the right village to begin work in. Many steps and details have been left out of this process but my simple idea is that humanity is about to witness an age of unemployment of never before seen proportions and our best way out is to acquire the new literacy of code and collaborate with machines – and I want to do it in communities that are at the shortest end of the stick when it comes to tapping these opportunities. The community has to buy-in of course – and that is why Gray was sent to scout out around Guizhou previously, and this was going to be our second trip into said village.
Village Life Updates
I have heard about how bad this Chinese New Year was because migrants were getting laid off, but to hear it from Shengchao, to hear about how half of the village youths who were supposed to go work in coastal cities could not find jobs because the smaller factories had closed down and the bigger ones had automated really put things into perspective. The villagers rise with the sun, and rest when it sets, so we are talking constant labour that puts our daily grind to shame.
For construction in the village, the villagers carried bricks from where the truck dropped them off and walked to and fro, to and fro…
When the cab driver we hired asked for 200 yuan to send us to Sparrow Village (the last public bus had already departed by 3pm) for a 39.2km journey, we bargained it down to 180 yuan. Once we started on the journey, I realised we scored ourselves a real bargain.
We had to “climb” over 3 mountains to get to Sparrow Village. On our way, we spotted people who were building up the road by working from the edge of the road, laying bricks down one by one with their bare hands, with no safety support whatsoever…
See that tiny footpath? The village is located behind those trees.
The Economics of Village Life
The thing about having an occupation as a farmer is that you may make enough for self-sustenance but beyond that, you are hard pressed for currency.
So when the country opened up its economy in the 70s and allowed people to move out of their hukou places, the village saw its first wave of migrant labour from the likes of Shengchao’s uncle. Shengchao himself learnt to cook when he was 10, worked in Dongguan for 7-8 years and another 1 at Ningbo. Apparently his family is perhaps the most well-to-do in the entire village, complete with a toilet and hot water.
Villagers eat what they grow and with whatever surplus that they have, they try to sell. I find the pork to be especially tasty – in general I have found meat of animals that grew up eating household food rather than industry feed to be so much tastier. The youth group has been trying to engage with e-commerce but sending out 2 packets of tea costs 50 yuan (usually it’s 8-12 yuan and the parcel man picks up stuff from where you are at)…
The teacher is paid 1300-1500 yuan per month, and village head 2700-2900 yuan-ish. All of which translates to not a whole lot of money.
The village traces its origins back to war and retreat. Their ancestors had settled here for the defensibility and abundance of water and natural resources. In the modern world, such defensibility by virtue of being hard to reach would turn out to be a drag on the village economy.
The Village Cultural Life
Because all youths went out to work at some point, they have lost touch with traditional Miao songs and dance. There are about 5 girls who can do embroidery but it is very haphazard because there is no real reason to do so.
Achievement Unlocked: Photo-Op with a Living “田福叔-like” Official
So my mission was to pose for a photo with the village chief and party secretary basically. At professor Donaldson’s recommendation, we wanted to be absolutely sure that the villagers are open to what we want to do. After all, we are talking about converting an empty room into space for play and computers for the kids, amongst others. Indeed they have a spare room right next to the classroom that is just as big as the classroom and is currently used as a storeroom.
But then they are going to have a village election this coming July so the guards are gonna change. But then knowing the general stability of Chinese villagers and having witnessed the influenced wielded by Shengchao’s family, I am not too worried about dramatic changes in this 300 years old village, if any.
Most importantly, the kids! My selfish reason for caring a great deal about work in these communities is because I see myself in these kids, I think. Except that I have been so lucky. They have new, roaring red school shirts and it was very interesting to see them in a cheery frame compared to the previous photos I’ve seen of them from Gray.
This is what I have seen prior to making the trip myself:
Now they look like this:
(Or perhaps she just takes really bad photos)…
We happened to be in time for Children’s Day and I was not entirely planning for it but I ended up giving a mini-lesson on where Singapore is and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”…
Correction: Guizhou is in the SOUTHWEST of China and not CENTRE.
When the class started, the teacher spent a good deal of time combing the girls’ hair because their grandparents are too busy with farm work for that.
So Gray gave her a little helping hand.
Also the class was made up of kids aged 3-6 so it was obvious that the younger kids could not exactly speak Mandarin yet, but the gang of eldest little boys were very outspoken, daring the teachers to race them, etc.
For our brief lesson and games on the basketball court, they wrote us letters before we go and it was then that I realised that many of them are unable to even write out their own Chinese names correctly!
I will be really looking forward to seeing these kids again. Which means we can’t do any double-blind procedures in the name of research objectivity anymore… But it would be good to track key metrics to make sure that we are making a measurable impact on these villagers’ lives. My two cents is that the most meaningful way to make a difference in someone’s life is to help them secure gainful employment. Rather than charity, rather than grants, put them in good jobs. So we shall see about this. The growth of big data clusters in Guizhou is a very interesting development to keep an eye out for.
I hope that they will not grow up only to be faced with a very limited set of life paths to follow, that they will not be saddled with debt only to complete a degree that is next to worthless in the job market, that they will not be edged out of competition simply because their families could not afford monthly F&B expenses to maintain relationships, …
Last but not least, did I mention that the sun rising over Sparrow Village is simply majestic? I actually walked away for a while because it seemed like the cloud will be covering the sun for a long time. Moments later, the sun had risen above the clouds. I feel like I learnt something in that instant. I learnt something about doing a little every time to make incremental advancements vs. keeping still.
And there’ll be more to follow from the road!
When we first started engaging Wang, a history teacher in Wen Hua Secondary School in Yunan (posted there as a Teaching Fellow from Teach for China) to do some Maker experiments (however you call it, actually), it was very open-ended. Deliberately so, because we think it’s important to be patient enough to let ideas grow out of people’s minds rather than prescribe Key Performance Indicators from the outset.
In between, it came as a shock that lessons are taught by reading from textbooks, and that the most critical tasks expected of students are underlining and highlighting — yet one cannot begin to fault the people who participate in the grind, because the status quo is the inevitable result of standardised exams taken to their logical extremes.
The obstacles are many:
To translate (very loosely) from the above,
- It is most easy to read from the text and lecture for a teacher. To make a student the basis and the centre of the lesson requires far more attention and energy, and this is something that a lot of teachers (especially the jaded ones) are unwilling to invest in.
- The second difficulty is in making concrete domain knowledge and technology. How do you make history smart? To me, ancient history is a series of stories recorded by dead men, it is but “dead” characters in books; these are events of far-reaching significance and individual knowledge points, how can technology be integrated into this subject?
- Real gaps in terms of age, knowledge, perspective, background persists between myself and the students. I know who I was as a 13, 14 year old but I find it hard to understand these 13, 14 year olds.
Then Ernie sent Wang a link and posed the following questions:
What are some of the pros and cons of the way that history is taught in China? What are the aims (and for whom) of delivering lessons with such knowledge points as basis? Has it been effective? Why are these “knowledge” considered “knowledge”, and not something else? What does the retention or silence of history lessons on certain matters tell us?
To which Wang responded eloquently,
that it is perhaps the inevitable result of a system that selects talent on the basis of standardised exams, that this is the history that the powers that be want us to know of.
Slightly more than a month later, Wang did a little activity to have students guess historical events. 1 would try to guess the keywords involved, while the rest use their vocabulary of historical knowledge and language to prompt. Of the 56 student groups in 7 classes, the best result was 9 right guesses obtained in 3 minutes and the worst was 1 group abstained.
Technology and making in our conventional understanding of such terms are not yet “fully” utilised, but don’t you just love how there is always a Chinese twist on things? We can’t wait to see what happens next.
Ernie was very happy to present prizes to the winners of AWWA Family Service Centre’s EXCEL 360 programme empowering youths through an entrepreneurship course. We wish the students the best on their entrepreneurial journeys and hope to continue working with them to “tech” things a step further! 😀