Teaching numeracy in the South Pacific
Last time we spoke with expatriate Scot John Herd, he was living and working in the tiny Pacific island of Vanuatu. Since then, he’s moved on, spent some time in East Timor, and is now living in Nelson, New Zealand.
His current project is to convert a 30-minute radio show about numeracy into an animated film.
Unusually, the show, Bae Gel Blong Mi Hem i Mas Skul! (My Daughter Must Go To School!) is performed in Bislama, the local language - most shows are in English - and was written by staff at the Wan Smolbag Theater where John used to work.
The story focuses on an illiterate and innumerate single mother who gets a relation to sell her food at the local market. She isn’t aware that he’s cheating her - she’s simply happy that she doesn’t have to go to the market. Her teenage daughter, meanwhile, gets thrown out of school because they can’t pay the fees. The woman can’t understand why they’re broke, when she knows they have money. When the daughter realizes what’s going on, she shows her mum how important it is to understand money. They start making a decent living, and the daughter gets to go back to school.
“It may sound like a pretty silly story to people living in the developed world,” explains John, “but it has real meaning to people out here in the Pacific. It’s not just about learning to count. It’s about why education is important. It’s about women learning to think for themselves. It’s about being business savvy. All these things we take for granted, but they’re cultural values which have to be taught. Young people in Vanuatu are really learning the value of being educated, and stories like this are an important part of that. The fact that it’s in the language they speak makes a real difference too.”
"Young people especially relate to video. They like watching animation."
John plans to distribute the movie via DVD. Online distribution isn’t really an option for him. There’s not enough bandwidth, and in many places, they don’t even have reliable power. However, most people in these island nations have DVD players, and young people in particular love to watch DVDs. His hope is that Wan Smolbag will take on the task of distribution. “They know more about how to get things out to people than anyone else,” he says. “If that works, maybe we can also put it out in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and other places where they speak Bislama.”
So far, John’s about half-way through the project. He’s a keen modder, and admits to getting distracted making specific content models that he needs, even if they’re only on screen for a short time. For example, he modelled the market in Port Vila, using a combination of custom content and the assets from the Indian pack. He also found that preparing the audio from the radio show took longer than expected. It took him three days to cut up the audio for the first scenes into individual snippets; once he’d mastered the technique, though, the second scene took just a couple of hours.
He’s hoping to get the film finished in a couple of months, depending on other work commitments. “I’ve only managed to complete three movies in four years,” he grins. (I Bin Gat Wan Taem, For a' that and Round the Corner) “I’ve got over forty things posted on the Web site, but they’re nearly all just demos, me showing off what I’ve been playing with.”
John’s mostly treating this as a proof of concept. The original radio production was sponsored by donors from Japan, and John hopes he can get them interested in converting more of their radio shows to video if this one’s successful. “Young people especially relate to video,” he says. “They like watching animation. Radio’s great, don’t get me wrong, but this adds a sense of fun and gets people excited to watch. The ability to pause and play back sections could be useful, and the video version might also allow deaf people to participate more in the learning process. I’m not trying to replace the radio show, just to augment it. Older people will still listen to the radio while they’re working in their food gardens or whatever.”
The WSB radio shows are accompanied by educational resource books for use in classrooms. After looking at some of the work done by people like Kate Fosk using Moviestorm to produce "comics", John is thinking of doing the same for these study books using stills from the movie instead of hand drawn images. This would speed up production and also give them a consistent "look and feel" with the video.
“Education is the most important thing in the developing world. It changes communities. It changes lives. Moviestorm’s a great tool for enabling that.”