“Hardly 2 percent of the people who come out of engineering colleges in Kerala are engineers,” remarks Abid Aboobacker. As the event head of Makers Party Kochi, which recently concluded to a roaring response at the Cochin University of Science and Technology, Abid ought to know this fact. In an article in The Companion, ‘Unconference of the Makers’, Safwan Erooth had introduced the readers to the world of the ‘unconference’ and the ‘maker party’, a teaching-learning technique hitherto unheard-of in Kerala and many parts of the country. Hosting an event of such comparatively huge proportions, especially when undertaken by students, was not an easy task, Abid admits, but the efforts have paid off. Excerpts from the interview with Zayan Asif:
ZA: The stated objective of the Maker Party is the ‘promotion of web literacy’. Can you elaborate the concept a bit?
AA: Web literacy is a campaign. Originally, it began as a movement for online privacy. You can only defend online privacy if you know how the web works. You had to move from being users to makers. The campaign was mainly promoted along those lines, and when it began to reach a lot of people, and create a lot of influence, it started to grow. It reached a level where it promoted any available kind of technical expertise.
Last year alone, around 750 large and small events were held. Anyone can hold a maker party. The one that ended in Kochi was the largest one so far. Around 4,000 people attended. The main idea is that anybody who knows anything can teach it to others. Anyone can learn. We had a ‘shed’ concept. Each shed would offer a course, on anything ranging from HTML to online journalism, hardware hacking and robotics. These were hands-on workshops where you learned as you did it.
Being connected empowers people. Sometimes, you might be learning something as simple as web searching. To some people, this might seem small, but to many others, it makes a lot of difference. They are able to access, and get clues to information and that is empowering.
A lot of NGOs work in the field of literacy. In Kerala, a Waynad-based NGO called ‘Anannya’ started an online business of adivasi artefacts, which they collected from the natives. In a single year, they have managed to achieve a turnover of Rs. 20 lakh. They could accomplish it because they were familiar with a technology called the Web.
The basic concept is that technology empowers people. Information should be free. Companies like Google acquire smaller ventures and then hide their information. Some people do not see why information leakage should be such a problem. But the fact is that, it’s a person’s private space. Recently, when a few emails were found to have leaked, it raised a lot of protests. But people have been campaigning against it even before these issues.
ZA: How did the work on Maker Party begin? Where was it initiated?
AA: This year’s campaign was kicked off at the White House by [Barack] Obama. ‘Webmaker’, which is a continuous programme, had held an event called Maker party a couple of months ago. Afterwards, they decided to widen its reach. Basically, Webmaker and Maker party is the same thing, except that the latter is a campaign while the other is a continuous programme.
Webmaker basically uses peer-to-peer learning methods, like video conferences. People collaborate on an idea, and educate each other.
ZA: What kind of response did the Maker Party Kochi receive?
AA: Initially, it was difficult for our volunteers to get people to understand what the programme was really about. Because we really do not have a culture of collaborative learning. Many people understood these to be workshops, which is the only method they knew.
We had tried to promote the programme well. Mozilla has its own community, which is a group of active and 200-odd non-active volunteers. These volunteers reached out to different colleges, and published the promotion notices. We also made good use of the online media, especially Facebook.
The response was really good. Within the first two days, we had about 1000 registrations. Our promotion campaign ran only for 10 days. Even then, we could attract around 3,000 registered participants and around a 1000 who turned up without registrations. At least 56 different areas of expertise were covered. People who came as participants would offer to teach a course. Everything from robotics to paper craft and 3D printing was on the offer.
It was never a systematically planned conference. We provided seating arrangements and invited a few teachers beforehand- beyond that, we did not stress on the kind of topics that could be taught or planned schedules for the programme. Anyone could teach anything they wanted, come and go as they pleased, even sing out loud if they felt like. It was more like an ‘unconference,’ and MKP was one of the more popular unconferences in Kerala, where the idea is quite unheard of.
ZA: What is the course ahead for Maker Party? Do you plan to hold it again, turn it into a periodic event maybe?
AA: Even though Maker Party Kochi has ended, we have been receiving requests for similar programmes from many colleges, and several events did take place. Even before Kochi, more than 40 smaller events, where 200-300 people attended, had happened. Maker Party Kochi was actually a culmination of these events. Similar events would continue to happen.
You are completely free to start any learning initiative as a Maker Party event. You don’t need any authentication letter from Mozilla. We documented the methods we had tried in Kochi, and maybe someone else can make use of these later. It continues.
For instance, our media have made out hackers to be trespassers. But in reality, hacking is the process of manipulating an existing item and converting it into something much more useful. You can hack anything.
There are colleges in Kerala where they have as much as than Rs. 50 lakh earmarked for tech fests. At least Rs. 5-6 crore is spent every year in the state on tech fests but the outcome is practically zero. You have DJ nights, music, but they hardly produce any technical advancement. Hardly 2% of the people who come out of engineering colleges in Kerala are engineers. This is an age of start-ups. But the problem with that is that you do not create any stuff. Everyone wants to be a CEO, not an engineer. To create stuff, to understand the purpose of things, to think about reverse engineering- these does not happen. This reality is the biggest reason why Maker Party was born. It was not an easy task, especially when it had been undertaken by students, to host an event where 4,000 people attended. But we were ready to make the effort.
Another concept is ‘maker culture’. In other countries, they have co-working spaces, things like ‘maker clubs’ and hacker groups. We are hardly able to promote these ideas. For instance, our media have made out hackers to be trespassers. But in reality, hacking is the process of manipulating an existing item and converting it into something much more useful. You can hack anything. We really wanted to create a ‘maker culture’ of that kind.
Our efforts have paid off. Maker clubs are coming up in schools and colleges where tools are provided so that people can create and share. The maker culture is trending now, and I think part of the credit goes to the maker party.