Feature story

Leg up for learning

Rural schools have been the focus of a multidimensional approach to enhance education outcomes for students in eight states

The meaning of madrasa is ‘a school for Islamic instruction’, but Mustafapur High Madrasa (MHM) is a lot more than that. This modest institution in Mustafapur village in the rural reaches of West Bengal’s Hooghly district stands apart for the manner in which it has blended traditional religious learning with modern pedagogy that embraces the study of maths, science, language and, not least, the digital world.

MHM is one of the 63 madrasas, spread across six districts of West Bengal, that are part of the Integrated Approach to Technology in Education (ITE) programme of the Tata Trusts. Implemented in eight states of India since inception, this multidimensional initiative aims to enhance teaching and learning outcomes for middle- and high-school students in rural areas.

ITE’s intent is to help bridge the digital divide in schools where the technology chasm is the widest. The schoolchildren in the programme, the majority of them first-time computer users, learn through a variety of projects to improve analytical thinking and retention skills. For teachers, there is professional development and capacity building. Teachers design learning activities and students use technology to further their learning.

MHM’s 317 students — more than 200 of them girls — are the ones most enthused about their exposure to the digital world. “Our children have responded very well,” says Mohammed Mallick, the articulate headmaster of the madrasa. “They are eager to learn more about new technologies and we are looking forward to an acceleration of the IT programmes taught in our school.”

Collaborating for good

The Trusts have worked in collaboration with the state governments, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and a clutch of nonprofits to implement the initiative. Coordinators and workshops, technology tools and a recast pedagogical framework are important components in an effort that is not dependent on content or language. And neither does it need always-on internet connectivity.

Piloted in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district in 2012, ITE has grown in the years since to become an effective solution in pulling up those previously lumbered in learning by lack of infrastructure and proper systems. The programme has ‘master trainers’ to tutor teachers and, for students, activity-based projects that are embedded in their syllabus.

Lesson plans incorporate the real-life experiences of the children, who get to use technology tools to collect data, analyse information, organise knowledge and present findings while audiovisual formats help to better understand the world around them. Students also get to interact with their peers in other schools, develop individual as well as collaborative abilities, and improve their communication skills.

The Trusts’ implementing partner for the programme at MHM, where it has been running since January 2016, is the Vikramshila Education Resource Society, an NGO that has been active in teacher training and curriculum design. Madrasas, in particular, are in acute need of the kind of expertise and enhancements that ITE can deliver and MHM is one among those that have benefitted in West Bengal.

It started with a four-month certificate course for madrasa teachers, conducted with the support of the state government by TISS. Thereafter, ITE was launched in four private madrasas in Hooghly district. IT courses were conducted for students from classes V to VIII. Alongside, 28 madrasa teachers from six districts in West Bengal completed the certificate course. They became master trainers and passed on what they had learned to 351 ‘outreach teachers’.

Network of the enlightened

The progress made through the project is evident. “There has been a rise in student engagement, dropout rates have fallen, students are moving away from rote learning and they are able to connect better with others,” says Babita Dutta Majumder, a senior manager with Vikramshila. Parents, too, have come on board as good results begin to yield.

The transformation wrought by ITE is clearly visible at the Nadia Model Madrasa (NMM) in Nadia, about 120km from Kolkata. This is an English-medium madrasa — it also has Arabic in the syllabus — with 700 students and 10 teachers. “ITE has helped improve the performance level of our students, and it has helped bring about changes among teachers as well, says Maman Halsana, who heads NMM.

The shift away from antiquated modes of teaching has been facilitated by the use of computers. There are 40 of them at NMM and they have been put to quality use. “Without computers there can be no sustainable education,” says Abid Hussain, Director of Madrasah Education (DME), West Bengal.

DME has under its umbrella 650 institutions with some 600,000 students. According to Mr Hussain, more and more of these schools want to be part of the ITE initiative. “We are creating an atmosphere where technology can be deployed for students,” he adds. “What they learn in class can be applied in their projects.”

The change brought about through ITE is noticeable in the attitude of girl students, now more convinced than ever that they need to go to college and further. With the girls-to-boys ratio in West Bengal’s madrasas at 65:35, that is encouraging news. In the past, many of these girls would drop out of school and early marriage was common.

“In earlier days education was not a priority for girls in West Bengal, but today they want to study more and are willing to postpone their marriage plans,” says

Mr Hussain, who adds that religious leaders and parents have accepted the transformation that is occurring in the state’s madrasas. The proof of the pudding lies in the changed outlook of the students themselves. Many want to appear for competitive exams and some have gone abroad for higher studies.

“ITE has generated a sense of eagerness among the children to explore and to create; it has, equally, encouraged and enabled teachers to evolve their pedagogy,” says Panchalee Tamulee, a programme officer with the Tata Trusts. “Teachers and students are co-learners in a school ecosystem that is geared to creating knowledge for everybody involved.”

Students at the Mustafapur High Madrasa in Hooghly learn modern subjects along with theology

Technology instead of textbooks

Nalbari, a small town in Assam that was a hotbed of anti-government militancy through much of the 1990s, is a blooming example of what can be achieved if peace and a proper education are given a chance.

Nalbari is one of the six districts in Assam where the Integrated Approach to Technology in Education (ITE) programme of the Tata Trusts has taken root. The programme covers 50 rural schools in these districts, and to ever-deepening effect.

“Technology is replacing textbooks,” says Bubul Sarmah, the principal of Adarsha Vidyalaya, an English-medium school in Chenga in Nalbari. “Children working on a project on floods, for instance, are provided cameras and encouraged to go out to affected areas, take photographs and to make presentations and videos.”

The ITE initiative in Assam goes beyond school boundaries. Students and teachers organise community-based projects in nearby villages, interacting with farmers, the elderly and groups of mothers. “The idea is to increase awareness about technology and strengthen the relationship between the school and the local community,” says Prithibhusan Deka, president of Gramya Vikash Mancha (GVM), the NGO that partners the Trusts in the initiative.

Teachers and students make presentations to the community on social issues such as child marriage, child labour and substance abuse. It’s a far cry from how it used to be — “There were problems everywhere,” adds Deka — but the restoration of law and order in the region has put social development back under the light. ITE has added to the brightness.