Category Archives: Non-formal education

Sim Sim Hamara: Sesame Street, Education, and Local Determinism in Pakistan

By Fatima Tuz Zahra

Non-formal education for children can come in a variety of forms now. The only limitation seems to be monetary: that is can parents – more so society in general – afford to give children these lessons outside the classroom? In this context, television continues to be the cheapest and most enduring form of non-formal education for children. This article will highlight the case of Sim Sim Hamara, the Pakistani version of the classic U.S. show Sesame Street, which began airing in Pakistan on December 2011, using a piece  in Time.

Source: Sesame Street in Pakistan, BBC.

A Classroom of Learning and Tolerance and No Schools in Sight

According to “Pakistan’s Sesame Street: Can Urdu Elmo Aid a Blighted Nation”, Sim Sim Hamara is directly connected to USAid and thus is a part of U.S. strategy to foster religious tolerance and fight against the commonly held conception of rampant Islamic extremism in Pakistan. However, the politics of the project pales in comparison to its exigency, which is that almost 60% of Pakistan’s school-age children cannot read, and nearly three decades of neglect have left the country’s educational system in a “parlous state”. As Faizaan Peerzada, a master puppeteer and one of the directors of the series makes clear: “People might have thought it was some kind of brainwashing project. But at the end of the day, all we are doing is teaching a child to count”

Using the Sesame Street model, Sim Sim Hamara utilizes “short skits, song segments, and celebrity appearances” to educate on matters of real world literacy, such as counting and basic reading.  Additionally the character of the heavily made up Muppet aunty who runs the dhaba – includes lessons on “manners, healthy eating, and safety.” The article also points out that what makes Sim Sim Hamara especially interesting is that it also argues for religious and communal tolerance by using “subtle creativity”, and women’s education through a 6-year old female Muppet, who is captain of the cricket team and is passionate about science and reading.

Hegemony vs. local determinism

The Sim Sim Hamara project is funded by USAid and therefore its objectives do reflect the U.S.’s stated goals for development in the region: increasing female education and decreasing Islamic extremism. Numerous articles have pointed out that the reason the U.S. is funding this program is probably to boost its own credibility in the country, which currently is quite low, and for the program to work as a sort of social-engineering tool that is a direct manifestation of soft-power or propaganda.

However, contrary to the charges of hegemony and machinations, the local staff working on the show report that their U.S. backers have been rather hands-off on the project. Rather than work under Sesame Street Workshop, the Sim Sim Hamara team has collaborated with the parent company to develop the content and lessons for the show. Sim Sim Hamara is based on careful research by local scholars, national seminars, as well as four provincial workshops that were organized to gather educational advisors from various fields and stakeholders in Pakistan’s education scenario.

Sim Sim Hamara is also notable because of its commitment to the multilingual reality of Pakistan. Over the four years of its operations, which have been funded by USAid, it will broadcast 78 episodes in Urdu, and 13 in Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushtun, and Balochi.

Ultimately, as Perzada makes clear in an interview on The Guardian, the goal of the show is to “…to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning, and inspire the parents of the child to think that the child must be educated.” Taken at face value the goals are clear: to foster the capabilities and capacities of the children and – a point often avoided in the politics of children’s education – to teach the parents as well that education is an important tool for children.

In conclusion, Sim Sim Hamara seems to be a project that can genuinely affect the children of Pakistan. As evidenced by notable studies such as Georgetown University’s Early Learning Project, the Sesame Street model and show have had a lot of success in educating and forming children in the U.S. and around the world. In the region there are local varieties of the show in India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan; the first two have been operating with great success for over six years and have become independent programs, which no longer rely on donor funding. With luck Sim Sim Hamara will have the same success, and Rani and the gang will become Pakistan’s piyaara dostos for years to come.


Pakistan’s Sesame Street: Can an Urdu Elmo Aid a Blighted Nation? in Time Global Spin on Feb 20, 2012:

U.S. Bankrolls Pakistani Sesame Street Hoping It will “Increase Tolerance” in Fox News on Oct. 31, 2011:

Sesame Street for Pakistan, studying the effect of cocaine on birds’ sex lives, and Stonehenge for Pagan Air Force Cadets: Billions of federal dollars ‘wasted’ as U.S. debt explodes in Daily Mail on Dec. 23, 2011:

US Spends $20M on Pakistan Version of ‘Sesame Street’ to Help Fight Terrorism in The Christian Post on Nov. 1, 2011:

Sesame Street International: Pakistani Edition Of Iconic Kids’ Show Launched in the Huffington Post on Nov. 1, 2011:

Sim Sim Hamara: Sesame Street Comes to Pakistan in The Express Tribune Blog on Nov. 29, 2011:

Exclusive: A win-win with Sim Sim in on Dec. 11, 2011:

Pakistani Sesame Street Preaches Tolerance in on Oct. 31, 2011:

Educational TV serial for children from Dec 10 in on Dec. 2, 2011:

Sesame Workshop: Around the world:

Sesame Street goes to Pakistan in South Asia Investor Review on April 9, 2011:

Sesame Street comes to Pakistan in the Guardian on April 7, 2011:

Georgetown Early Learning Project:


ICTs and Prisons: Reflections on Technology and Injustice

By: Anna Greenstone

                      I initially found one, a little bit dated article for this topic—ICTs Training for Prisoners, but it interested me quite a lot and so I started searching for more recent and related media.  Unfortunately these were not easy to find… and my Internet perusing began to lose its focus.  As I looked through the most recent slew of TedTalks, I watched one given by lawyer Bryan Stevenson–an incredibly moving speech about the unjust prison system in the US.  And as I thought through his words, I began to recognize meaningful connections between his ideas and a blog entry about education for prisoners.

Briefly let me mention to pieces of media reviewing these initiatives in both East and West Africa before thinking more broadly about how they fit within the Stevenson video.   In a recent article by Chrispinious Wekesa, we learn about a promising initiative at Langata West Prison in Kenya, where inmates can now get a diploma in IT through Zetech College.  The slightly older piece from Ghana News Agency reports that the Ghanean Deputy Minister of Communications toured computer centers in several of the nation’s prisons.  He encouraged prisoners to learn ICTs, to help themselves successfully re-enter society.

In addition to shifting government policies, an important stakeholder in these changes seems to be African Prison Project who provide advocacy, legal, and other services to improve the lives of prisoners.

Lack of Media on ICTs for Prisoner Education in Africa

The topic of ICTs in prison education was not very well covered in the media.   As a novice media researcher I can only speculate to the reasons.  Perhaps the limited number of articles indicates there are only scattered projects of this kind; it is a limited initiative.  Perhaps the media continues to ignore more positive news and focus on more sensational items from the region: Somali pirates, famine or celebrity donors.  Although there is limited media coverage, I was happy to find it– to find some attention on positive news.  Its good that in developing countries that certainly struggle to provide basic public services,  efforts are being made toward prison reform.
Confronting Difficult Questions

Providing prisoners with not only basic education, but access to technology and skills that will help them better re-integrate into society, i.e. find employment, go back to school etc.  It is an important step in considering human rights and rehabilitation within the prison system and broader society.   But I also would like to consider points that Bryan Stevenson makes in his TedTalk.    As an attorney and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson’s main concern in this talk is helping his audience genuinely consider the implications of the US penal system on society, and its inherit unjust foundation and practices.

He does this through telling personal narratives and providing statistics and realities of the nation’s system that speak to its complete lack of humanity.   There are a couple of instances however, when he challenges our constant focus on other things, our look away from this painful injustice.  He specifically mentions technology and innovation.   Being that he is speaking to the Ted community which (rightly) celebrates innovation, he also challenges this community to look inward.   He asks that we confront the fact that Americans don’t like being uncomfortable, don’t like talking or more importantly dealing with racism, poverty or ways that we ignore injustice.  He notes that during or after the civil rights era, the US never went through a truth and reconciliation process, like South Africa for example, attempted.  Therefore, he challenges the value of creativity, innovation, and technology when we simultaneously ignore the suffering that many experience around us.

I think his insights are incredibly important in development work and would argue that the former colonizing and colonized countries never went through any sort of truth and reconciliation process either.  What’s more, neo-colonial practices perpetuated by the global north in some ways maintain global injustice.    It is too easy to get carried away with the fact that a new project or organization is helping the poor with ICTs, monitoring effectiveness with state of the art methods, or even using the latest technology in prison classrooms in African countries.  And those are good goals to strive for in public or non-profit educational work.  But Stevenson challenges—how can we be present to the injustice that grows or maintains a prison system, poverty, or racism?  What do we turn a blind eye to everyday?  I urge us to consider these questions always, particularly when we get carried away with innovation, technology, or development work and forget the real ‘why’ behind it.

Sources:  “Kenya: Prisoners Get Diplomas from Zetech College” AllAfrica  2/15/2012  “Prisoners asked to use time in prison to learn ICT” Ghana News Agency 8/2011  Link to Bryan Stevenson TedTalk  Equal Justice Initiative   Africa Prison Project

‘Hole in a Wall’: Important Facts of a Fascinating New World

By Maria Aguirre

Are you a technology fan? Are you fascinated with the rapid spread of communication around the world with social networks like Twitter? Well, have you ever wondered whether these technologies can be used to learn and generate knowledge in poor and rural areas around the world? In rural places where teachers might not want to go –because it is too far away from amenities or can be too dangerous- do you think technology can play a leading role? If user-friendly computers are located in these areas, will children be able to benifit? Could that stimulate their curiosity or capacity to learn? If this topic is of interest to you, I invite you to continue reading this post. You might get surprised by some results from India!


Where it All Started

New recently installed HiWEL Learning Stations in Bangui, the capital of Republic of Central Africa. September 2011. Source:

India: a developing country, an emerging economy that every day becomes more and more attractive from the global economic lens. With a population over one billion inhabitants, India is positioned as the second most populous nation in the world*. With unprecedented socio-economic progress, especially in the area of telecommunications, India has developed practical ways to reach those in deeper need. In this case ICTs has worked as a tool to reach most under-resourced populations and to get positive outcomes from providing these services. Among ICTs characteristics, perhaps the most important one –portability- makes them imperative tools in a society with the highest rates of illiteracy**.

What Was the Idea?

In 1999, Dr. Sugata Mitra, a computer scientist at NIIT (a global education company) decided to make a social experiment in a rural area outside of New Delhi, India. He provided a limited number of computers with free, high speed internet in the streets of a slum area.  The computers were placed in holes and inside the walls, making them reachable for public users. Known as the Hole in the Wall experiment, children showed initial interest.   Although no one was physically there to monitor or supervise, they were being videotaped for further analysis. These children, without prior knowledge, not only developed skills to manage computers, but also acquired basic skills in mathematics and English. In the next six years the same experiment was replicated in different rural locations in India.  As it expanded, issues like gender equity were taken into account for example by creating special kiosks for girls.

What Did They Find?

Dr. Mitra, based on these series of experiments, concludes that children can and actually did learn independently  by forming self-organizing learning systems to teach themselves (e.g., how to use a computer).  This learning happened regardless of their preceding socioeconomic backgrounds or languages. Results show that children are able to educate themselves and this fact becomes of crucial importance in the context of many villages that are not able to provide either teachers or computers–. This project is part of the concept of Minimally Invasive Education systems. This term describes the learning processes of children in unsupervised settings, without any direct intervention from adults and with appropriate levels of motivation. This method promotes the process of exploration, discovery and collaboration with peers.  It also stimulates the natural curiosity children exude. Children carried the knowledge they learned at school where they most likely did not have opportunities to use a computer. As they interacted with the computer, in short as 3 minutes they were able to identify what they could do with the mouse. With games –some educative and some other recreational- and the regular browsing service, children started a process of learning and relating with English –the language provided by the system- and improved their abilities in math and sciences.

Kids using a HiWEL kiosk in India. "They don't call a cursor a cursor, they call it a sui, which is Hindi for needle. And they don't call the hourglass symbol the hourglass because they've never seen an hourglass before. They call it the damru, which is Shiva's drum, and it does look a bit like that." Dr. Sugata Mitra. Source:

Yet, the project did not procreate knowledge by itself; involved children could at least read. The fascinating thing of the method was how they were able to, under the right conditions, teach themselves from a tool that they previously did not know how to master (to see the research results please go to Hole in the Wall research findings at Thus, new knowledge can be generated in a natural and non-formal process, enhancing collaborative relationships among the group. Even though children learn individually, at the very beginning of the learning process –where little is known about computers, and where they have to develop strategies to star using it properly- there is usually one child that takes the leadership and guides the rest of them. As this leadership develops, the group of children cultivates collaborative relationships in pro of learning.

Main results

This initiative that began with a couple of computer stations is now known as HiWEL –Hole in the Wall Education Limited- with nearly 300 learning stations, reaching about 300,000 children in India and some African countries. Among the main outcomes of the project are:

a)      students becoming computer-literate through self-learning

b)       learning enough English to send e-mails, chatting or navigating through the web

c)       improving their math and science skills

d)      being more prepared for upcoming standardized tests.

As this initiative gains recognition there are several important questions to ask.  Can technology replace teachers in this or any other context? If teachers are irreplaceable, what is the possibility of hiring long distance teachers that can connect with students on the computers? While it is not likely that technology can comprehensively replace interaction between teachers and students, there is evidence that this model contributes to student initiative and learning.    Therefore, these alternative methods are really innovative enhance student learning.



* Taken from ‘In 2025, India to Pass China in Population, U.S. Estimates’, The New York Times on December, 2009.

** ‘India still home to largest illiterate population: UNESCO’, The Hindu on January 2010.



ICT in Eduation, Unesco Bangkok

Searching for India’s Hole in the Wall; EduTech, A World Bank Blog on ICT use in Education.

Teach-yourself computing for kids, BBC News on May 2005.

Can computers take the place of teachers?, CNN on September 2010.

Free computer-access project inspired ‘Slumdog’, CNN on February 2009.



Online Education Updates: the Possibilities for Non-Formal Education for Marginalized Groups

By Naoko Asano Enomoto

The article of New York Times on March 4 questions the validity of alternative certifications issued from digital learning opportunities.  In recent years, the number of online learning site courses which offer certifications are increasing. David Wiley, a professor and expert of new online courses of Brigham Young University, predicts that in the near future, alternative forms of certification will also come to the center arena in addition to the traditional diploma. What supports Wiley’s assumption is the recent trend that many people who only obtain online credentials still get a well-paid position in an established companies, such as Google. .  There are attempts to utilize online certification to better specifying the skills the person  has learned. The global foundations such as Mozilla and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation are now working on the system of educational “badges”, which clarify what exact skills the certificate holder has learned.  Microsoft’s skill qualification for their products is an established example of the badge system.

Some educators doubt the possibility of online certification as an alternative respectful certification unless the issue of cheating is solved. Based on their current experience of online learners who use double accounts to get a perfect score in a few minutes.  For example, Stanford University is aware that if their online courses offer credentials, the issue should be seriously taken into consideration.  In order to cope with the issue of the honor code, the possibility of protected test centers has been considered.

Bridging formal education to non-formal education

The discussion over alternative certifications through digital learning raised in the article is particularly intriguing, when I consider it within the scope of ICTs and Non-formal education (NFE) in developing countries. In developing regions, where NFE is often the sole opportunity to learn, finding ways to bridge the NFE opportunities into formal education systems is crucial to create access for underprivileged students to enter secondary or vocational education programs.. For instance, the established Bangladeshi NGO, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) offers four-year Non Formal Primary Education (NFPE) for out of school children.  Students can obtain the certificate that has the same value to primary education as in the formal schooling system.  According to BRAC, many of the graduates of NFPE are going on to secondary education. In this context, if the issue of cheating is taken into account, the idea of alternative certification through online courses has strong potential for the marginalized students.  If programs like BRAC’s NFPE provide online courses, it may reach a broader range of learners who lack access to formal education not only because of geographical issues but also because of gender, social classes, and cultural issues.  Again, it also allows a path to secondary/higher education or other training opportunities.


YouTube for Education (Screen Shot from

Open Education

Besides the issue of certification, here I will focus on the aspects of the  “openness” of digital learning. Nowadays, if you have a digital device, which is connected to the Internet, you can easily enjoy plenty of digital learning opportunities. For instance, The KhanAcademy offers free online education, with special focus on high-quality Math and Science education.  Although English is still the main medium of instruction of the Khan Academy’s programs, there are ways to utilize those programs in formal and non-formal education in developing countries.  In some of these countries,  where English is the instructional language for Math and Science, Khan Academies programs can be used to support dropouts in returning school, for example.  The Khan Academy is now working on captions in number of languages.

Also, YouTube for Schools, Teachers and Education covers a wide range of content from primary education to tertiary and lifelong learning (The videos of the Khan Academies are also found there). With ALISON, there are a wide range of free online trainings. Interestingly, ALISON has diploma-level courses for free, which covers English Language and Literature, Business and Legal Studies, Psycology, Mathmatics and so on.  In this regard, online learning can support non-formal education in developing regions by expanding the reach of learning with a variety of learning content.

ALISON (Screen Shot from

However, when it comes to online learning, as a means of non-formal education for wide range of learners in developing regions, we realize that challenges remain. We should be fully aware of culture and languages when creating digital educational content.  As our class readings Adely (2009) and Arends-Kuenning & Amin (2001) illustrate, education in different settings can result in different effects or impacts on people. Speaking of languages, there are attempts to get rid of common linguistic obstacles. For instance, many of the lectures on have captions in multiple languages with the help of volunteer translators across the globe. For example, Ken Robinson’s “Schools kill creativity” offers caption in 54 languages.

In the end, it is certain that there are challenges to utilizing online tools in non-formal education for the marginalized groups.   Not only must we consider the content issue but also the availability of electricity, Internet connection and its speed. Yet, as the article of New York Times suggested, both the rapid progress in online education (for-profit and non-profit) and initiatives for alternative certification make me believe that online learning may go beyond the traditional dichotomy of “formal” and “non-formal” education systems in the near future.



“Beyond the College Degree, Online Educational Badges” By TAMAR LEWIN on March 4, 2012, New York Times.
Adely, F. J. (2009). Educating Women for Development: the Arab Human Development Report 2005 and the Problem With Women’s Choices1. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 41(01), 105. doi:10.1017/S0020743808090144Arends-kuenning, M., & Amin, S. (2001). Women’s Capabilities and the Right to Education in Bangladesh. International Journal of Politics, 15(1).

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