Daan Utsav: Remodelling Education Through ‘Remote’ Access – eVidyalokaBloombergQuintOpinion
This #DaanUtsav, BloombergQuint brings you a series of first-person accounts on volunteering that narrate stories of how different organisations across India are engaging volunteers at scale, or in depth, and bringing about significant transformation.
October 2010. Just another typical day at work. Or so I thought. I was checking mails when I came across a newsletter that proved to be a tipping point in my career. A note on volunteering by another colleague from Microsoft – Bangalore, caught my attention and a phone call later that night with Satish, led to a passionate conversation of how volunteering and technology can come together to bring quality education to rural India. This two hour phone call not only changed the course of my life positively, but also over 15,000-plus children of rural India, now, as we speak.
We all have been beneficiaries of education. It stems from the premise that education is something that drives a fundamental and long-term transformation in society.
Personally, I come from a classic middle-class upbringing and am of the firm belief that working in the social space requires some amount of tenacity. Education is probably one of the least-resistant ones, and I thought my efforts would be more effective in this space as opposed to other complex spaces like healthcare or a rights issue.
My co-founder is from a financial background who has toyed with remote teaching for children in a rural village. One thing that was clear to us was that we just did not want to pick up something for the sake of it.
Some of our learnings have been very interesting, to say the least, and have helped us get a broad picture of the education sector.
We realised that 90 percent of our education is in rural areas and most of it is in government schools.
There is a perception that the government has not been doing anything, but we studied the data and realised that we could build in on the existing digital systems laid down by the government. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of effort on the infrastructure. The push on mid-day meal schemes is not a recent phenomena, but plays a key role in student enrolment. Essentially, all the barriers that would come in the way of parents sending their children to school have been removed, and we have 99 percent school enrolments. This is a very significant achievement.
The need of the hour was the learning outcomes. That is probably what needed to be addressed and we decided to focus on this aspect. The sheer shortage of quality teachers in remote villages has been one of the fundamental reasons for this, and this is where we started envisioning about eVidyaloka. We said ‘okay, while there might not be well-qualified teachers in villages, there are people in the cities, who have benefited from the same system in education’.
If we were to look at the macro picture, the corresponding information technology initiatives from the government side, there was a scheme of connecting panchayats by broadband. The backbone has been built, and it is time to start delivering on the over the top services.
The core value is not about the technology, but about the people, who we believe otherwise would not have been available or accessible to education as a sector. Technology continued to be an enabler.
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The eVidvaloka Model
What does it take to get people to teach online classes in a remote village, and how can this be scaled? These were the two central questions at eVidvaloka. Here are the key tenets on which our model is built.
1. Tie-up With Government Schools
We said we would operate only in the rural villages to begin with, where the government school is the only avenue of learning for the child.
I hail from a village in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. We started off in a remote village in Trichy, called Tenur. Another friend of mine also started providing access in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh. We started the pilot in South India – for six-seven months. Here, people said it is very easy to do this, try the North and East. We took that up.
2. ‘Click And Mortar’
The second key tenet we understood that we cannot reach a village directly through eVidvaloka. We started to realise that our society is more decentralised in nature, and more community-driven. Trust and relationships are central to our ethos.
We decided that the best way to go about this would be to always access a remote location through a local NGO partner, who had trust and relationship with the community.
This has been our most important learning in the last 5-6 years.
We created a dual, hybrid model or what I call the ‘click and mortar’, where there is a local preference, where the local NGO brings in the trust and relationship, and access to the children whom we wanted to serve. On the other hand, for NGOs, eVidvaloka brings an out-of-the-box education experience and focuses on enhancing learning outcomes. So, this synergistic partnership of catering to the child, has ensured very sustained operations of remote online classes so, far.
A pure brick and mortar approach is not scalable. In a country like India, with many ‘inaccessible’ locations, a hybrid model seems to be most effective in using technology to overcome a challenge.
The third aspect was that localisation is important in the context of a village. We resorted to the state board curriculum. The teacher should not only be able to speak, but also read and write in, the local language and keep the medium of instruction the same as that of the state board curriculum. This makes the friction between teacher and child homogeneous. English is the second language. When the instructor speaks in the local language as well as English, the children overcome the fear that English is very difficult to learn.
Also read: Daan Utsav: Every Indian Volunteering
How Volunteers Connect With Students
This is probably the most exciting part that we see here, where the volunteering is the vehicle that has helped enable this education initiative. Teaching is in the DNA of these volunteers. We find the yearning to teach the common thread across participants. This innate desire to teach is the subtle and not very articulated aspect of this entire idea of eVidvaloka.
The two hour per week strategy is by accident, where we say that a volunteer does not have to give more than two hours and teach from wherever they are.
People said they could do more than two hours, to which we said no, saying we wanted dedicated two hours which we could map, and we wanted this for a longer period of time, and we didn’t want this volunteering to impact their existing lifestyles.
There are two basic prerequisites that are required:
- Are you able to give two one-hour time slots from Monday to Saturday? (during Indian school hours)
- The second perquisite as mentioned above, is whether the volunteer can read and write in an Indian language.
Children drive a very strong emotional connect with the teachers. Then they are inspired to learn more and continue till the board examinations. Today, our aim is to ensure that the children complete their boards, and continue to go onto college. We conduct online parent-teacher meetings as well. Parents are reassured of a quality education. Children overcome hurdles to learning and over 95 percent students, who would have otherwise dropped out due to other factors, are continuing with their studies.
Children are fascinated by this medium of education. It’s like watching TV. They thought it’s a robot, and then were fascinated that the robot actually responds!
We want to make sure that this is highly affordable. People ask, how can quality come at such a low cost? The main costs are:
- infrastructure and
- the teacher’s salary
We don’t incur either of these costs, since we work in government schools, and teachers volunteer their time.
The only costs are on the orchestration of putting this in motion.
We have had cases of a teacher pursuing a PhD in robotics in the United States. We had an engineer who was the initial inventor of Google Glass and demonstrated the workings of Google Glass to his students. We had a student from Stanford talk of the Google Driverless project. A child sitting in a hot humid terrain can see snowfall in live-time, in Germany.
We host the National Student Innovation Challenge – two children from eVidvaloka and urban schools come together, pick up a problem from United Nations Sustainable Goals and present a solution for the project. One was on gender equality. This report was then presented to the district collector. There was also a project on Zero Hunger which documented the wastage of mid-day meals and a solution was given. This was actually recognised by the governor of Tamil Nadu. We had a child from Dharawad (eVidvaloka school), who won the CV Raman award for innovation, competing with students from all the top notch schools of the country.
We need to prepare children for tomorrow. We cannot prepare them for today.
Here are these people, who are living in the current digital age, exposing our children to cutting-edge ideas; children who have not even seen a keyboard in their life.
These experiences are not even accessible to the brightest children in the most affluent schools in urban areas. The kind of exposure that these volunteers bring to the classroom, is phenomenal. An exposure beyond their village is the biggest value-add to our story.
It’s amazing to see the talent that exists in rural India. Its only the access to opportunity that needs to be enabled. In the next 6-8 years, we really believe that we can bring on board a million teachers to address the issue of poor education.
Venkat Sriraman is Executive Director at eVidyaloka Trust.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.