Education takes off in rural India, helped by PCs

Computer-assisted education is helping to draw village children back into school, and going a long way toward improving India's literacy rate of 65 percent.
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor

INDIA--Computers have proved to be a big draw at village schools, helped along by growing partnerships between Indian states and private companies to push computer-aided learning like never before.

"Computer-aided learning has the power to transform education in a fundamental way," Parth Sarwate, head of advocacy and communications, Azim Premji Foundation, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview. "We have found computers to be a big draw since these are gadgets [aspired by] those living in rural areas."

Run by the Wipro group, Azim Premji Foundation is a not-for-profit organization working toward universal education since 2001. It currently works with 14 state governments, and reaches out to 16,000 schools and over 2 million children.

Computer-aided learning holds significance for India, where the literacy rate--at 65 percent--is below the world average of 80 percent.

At the turn of the millennium, the Indian government launched a universal education program known as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). The initiative aims to achieve relevant elementary education for all Indian children by 2010.

The Indian government also introduced the Mid-Day Meal program in 1995, whereby children are given a meal in school. The objective is to increase enrolment, attendance and retention at government-run primary schools.

Like midday meals, computers are also helping to draw more children to schools.

"Computer education in rural areas has definitely helped in lowering the school dropout rate," L. Balasubramanian, president of school learning solutions at NIIT Technologies, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview. As per government statistics, over 7 million children aged 6 to 14 years had dropped out of school as of end-2006.

NIIT has worked with the state governments of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu, Tripura and West Bengal, to offer computer-assisted education in schools. Over the last 10 years, it has provided computer-based learning tools to over 7,700 government and private schools, reaching out to over 2.3 million school students.

According to Balasubramanium, children in rural areas usually come to school bare-feet, but the sight of computers brings a gleam to their eyes.

Sarwate said: "They see these machines as a challenge. Within two to three classes, they are able to work with PowerPoint presentations made in the local language.

"Children find computers very novel and exciting. We have found the attendance rate at schools that offer computer-aided learning programs to go up considerably," he added.

Balasubramanium said: "In the coming years, India will see a major growth in computer-aided learning in rural India."

Facing infrastructure issues
However, computer education in rural India comes with its own set of challenges.

First, electricity supply in even the most developed and forward-looking states can be very erratic. Second, access to educational facilities is poor and children often have to walk miles before they reach their school.

According to UNICEF statistics, an upper primary school in India is 3 kilometers (km) away in 22 percent of habitations. And often, these children have only one school to choose from, leaving them with little choice but to travel the distance.

Balasubramanium said: "With the penetration of cable television, villagers today are aware of what's happening outside of their village. And that is changing the way they think."

NIIT recently bagged orders to provide computers and computer-aided education to 1.9 million students in 900 state government-schools in Maharashtra and Bihar. With these orders, NIIT would now be bringing IT-assisted education to nearly 3.4 million children in 11 Indian states.

The IT vendor runs computer laboratories at schools for a period of five years, during which the company sets up and maintains the laboratory--including the provision of consumables--trains and recruits staff, provides courseware and conducts examinations.

Through its experience of working in villages, the Azim Premji Foundation found the critical parameter measuring "learning outcome" to show little change if six critical factors were missing from the program. These were:

  • teacher involvement and leadership;
  • making computer-aided learning an integral part of teachers' pedagogy and classroom process, rather than a standalone activity;
  • dedicated government resources and ownership;
  • all-time availability of the prescribed infrastructure and hardware;
  • availability of good quality digital learning material; and
  • continuous ongoing dialog with teachers to explore the strengths of the available technology.

Sarwate explained: "While infrastructure and the number of teachers are primary requirements to ensure a healthy education system, many supplemental ideas need to be explored to hasten India's literacy movement and ensure quality universal education."

The five-year cost of setting up a computer laboratory at a school varies between US$19,750 and US$27,880, and includes expenses such as faculty salaries and Internet connection costs.

In November 2007, NIIT entered a strategic alliance with U.S.-based NComputing, a provider of virtual PC applications, to further bring down the cost of computer-assisted education. The NComputing technology uses virtualization tools so that multiple users can use the same PC through various access devices.

"Through this alliance, the cost of setting up a computer laboratory comes down by 20 percent," Balasubramanium said. "We can use the cost savings to offer computer education in more rural schools."

He noted that the biggest challenge facing computer-aided learning initiatives is understanding the ethos of the region. For instance, there are different rules applying to institutions run by religious bodies. Teachers working in these institutions often need to belong to a particular religious sect.

In addition, every state in India has a different approach toward computer-assisted education. "Therefore, the curriculum we evolve has to be different for each state," Balasubramanium added.

Today, providing computers to schools in rural areas has become a common corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative among IT companies. Microsoft India, for instance, runs a CSR initiative--dubbed Project Jyoti--under which the software company has partnered non-governmental organizations and invested US$8.5 million to impart IT skills across 20 states and Union Territories. Nokia has a similar initiative called, Helping Hands.

Swati Prasad is a freelance IT writer based in India.

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