Paying it forward: using Finnish skills in India

POSTED: December 3, 2019

I originally wrote this as a report for Arcada, on a two week visit to Kerala, south India, in October 2019. Arcada published it in the university blog in November 2019.


In the summer of 2019 Irma Sippola and I started an NGO in Helsinki, which we called Snowcastle Valley, after a virtual world that Aurora, our younger daughter, made with me in the year before she died. We had visited Kerala in South India every winter for twelve years and we had decided that we wanted to use whatever skills we had to benefit the inhabitants of the coastal villages. We founded Snowcastle Valley to act as the vehicle for this work.

India has a population of approximately 1,339,000,000 and 22% live below the poverty line; which means that they earn less than $1.25 per day. The Digital India project, which began in 2015 and aims at putting all government services online has, in some cases, further disadvantaged them. They now need a level of digital literacy to claim allowances and benefits.

Digital literacy has spread in India in a very particular way. Many people have moved from having no digital devices to owning mobile phones, without ever owning a desktop or laptop computer. The use of social media bears this out. Last year 59,642,000 Indians visited Facebook while 160,000,000 used WhatsApp.

The projects

We obtained funding from a private foundation and planned two interlocking three year projects. The first, DOP Creative, will help women in the villages to start and manage their own business. The second, DGD Coding, will promote digital literacy among teenage girls.

We had decided to work with two Indian partners. SISP – the Sebastian Indian Social Project – forms our primary partner. Started by two Belgians in 1996, SISP works with second chance education and offers a number of related services. We also work with Project Defy, a group based in Bangalore who organise nooks: self-managed learning and maker spaces that enable autonomous, self-organised learning in cities and rural villages.

The visit

In October we travelled to Kerala for a two-week exploratory visit. We intended to spend ten days mapping the territory, devising realistic goals for the project and coming to understand potential obstacles. We started by purchasing ten laptops from a store in Trivandrum to see how the young people would manage with them.

In the following days we set about meeting the social workers and teachers at SISP. The teachers warned me that the teenagers had little to no experience of computers and, in many cases, had not even seen one. They explained that their students did not have any understanding of the fundamentals. They knew nothing of word processors or spreadsheets. I therefore went away to prepare a very basic introductory session.

Forty eight hours later I sat in a large classroom with six young women and four young men. I started as I had intended. I had them open the computer, create a document, write something in it, save it, and then store it in a folder that they had created for that purpose. We did this three times, with one of the teachers translating from English to Malayalam and back, as necessary.

The process of translation proved interesting since it involved both a fair amount of interpretation and reworking of what I said to fit in with the teacher’s own pedagogical style. In particular, my explanations got translated into drills in which the teacher shouted “new folder” and the students chanted “new folder” in response, several times in succession. I realised that rote learning had sneaked into the classroom without permission.

After fifty minutes the students had all successfully completed the exercises that I had imagined would take them the whole session. They sat looking at me expectantly. The teacher suggested that we might now start teaching them Word and I decided that we shouldn’t.

If we went down that route we would merely confirm what the staff had told me: that the students did not understand “the basics”. Moreover we would confirm this to the students, who would soon accept that learning to use a computer “properly” involved a lot of complicated skills that they did not have. They would rapidly learn that “computing is not for us”.

I believed that the concept of “the basics, the fundamentals” revealed far more about the teachers’ preconceptions than the state of the students’ learning. It implied that the teachers themselves saw using a computer as a process that involved a lot of complicated skills that needed to develop over years. This later revealed itself as true, when a couple of teachers asked me if I really thought the students would have the capacity to study “computer science”, as though all paths to digitalisation necessarily travelled down the same route.

Faced with ten students looking at me expectantly I decided to improvise. I had installed Windows Home on each of the computers we had bought, and I had also installed Scratch, a visual programming tool developed by doctoral students at MIT, on each laptop. I divided the students into teams of two and told them to open Scratch. I then began to explain it to them.

Using Scratch

Scratch works a little like digital Lego. The code all takes the form of draggable blocks which the user can click together to form programs. This removes all the typing (and the high chance of typing errors) from the process of creating code, leaving only the logical thinking. I began by demonstrating how to make a cartoon cat (the default sprite) move back and forth across the screen.

To do this I acted the part of the cat and explained how it had a very literal mind. I asked a student to tell me to walk across the room, and then stopped after I had taken one step. I made them shout out instructions (in a mix of English and Malayalam) to try to get me across the room and back again. Within a few minutes the room had filled with creative chaos and laughter.

I wrote the successful instructions in a sequence on the blackboard and told them to find those instructions in Scratch and program the cat. I told them to run around and find out what other teams had done, to try to pool the best ideas.

The cat soon moved back and forth on each team’s computer, and we proceeded from there. I ended the session by making a promise that we would complete a proper, working game within ten days.

I continued as I had started. We learned Scratch through a mixture of play-acting, checking each other’s progress, and trial and error. I injected new knowledge into the situation only when everyone had got stuck and ground to a halt. The game developed by students deciding what should happen as they built it. I asked questions such as, “why is the cat running left and right anyway? Is it trying to find something, or is it running away from something?” Once the group had decided what the cat wanted to do, we worked out a way of programming that into the game. That, in turn, raised more questions.


By the time we left Kerala, we had achieved much more than I had believed possible. The students had finished the game. While not necessarily an award winner, it had a point to it (Scratch had to collect fruit while avoiding a deadly rabbit), and it had a difficulty level that proved challenging.

In terms of the longer term aims of the project I had proved to my own satisfaction that the teenagers had a high level of prior ambient learning that meant that they did not need training in “computer science” in order to begin acting creatively with a laptop. Even if they had never used a computer they had all either used, or seen people using, mobile phones. They understood what icons meant. They understood how to open folders. When they needed to, they could generalise and transfer this embedded knowledge from what they had observed to what they wanted to do.

Importantly they proved able to act intelligently without necessarily having the ability to explain why they acted as they did. They all began doing, and then started to theorise (to ask why that worked instead of just noticing that it did) at a later stage, if at all. They understood what they did without necessarily understanding how they understood that.

They all made up in hunger to learn, for what they lacked in prior knowledge. Given the chance to do something, they seized the opportunity. They asked to form a club that would continue to meet when Irma and I had left. From the emails I have exchanged between Helsinki and Kerala since I returned, they have done just that.

We will return at the end of the year to begin developing the project. We will form partnerships with Indian institutions and NGOs, and begin asking how Finnish institutions, including Arcada, might play a part in all of this.


The statistics used in this post were derived from Statista.

Useful Links

Snowcastle Valley
Project Defy