ASSAM — Education

Digital dividends

Computers and the internet have opened up the world for students and teachers in 64 government schools across three districts

Arnold Pathak, a class IX student, displays a scratch project on a laptop with an animation that explains the water cycle. This would not be remarkable is a city school. But Arnold studies in a government school, the Adarsh Vidyalaya Barkhetri, in Kaldi village in Assam’s Nalbari district. And three years ago, the school had no working computers at all.

An informal survey conducted a while back by the NGO Gramya Vikash Mancha (GVM) found that though every government school in Assam was supposed to have computers, in reality none of them had functioning machines.

Child-centric learning

In 2015, GVM approached the Tata Trusts for support for an education programme with a simple objective to integrate digital technologies into teaching and learning processes in schools. The intent is to encourage child-centric education and improve the pedagogy accordingly. This will in turn improve learning outcomes while enabling schoolchildren in Assam to learn modern day IT skills.

The programme has blossomed in the years since, leading to 12,000 children in 64 government schools in three districts — Kamrup, Baksa and Nalbari — getting access to computers and the internet.

The project came with huge challenges. “Infrastructure and teacher training were unexpectedly tough hurdles for us but we persevered,” says Utpal Medhi, GVM’s head of education. “We realised that putting functioning computers in schools could lead to a revival of interest in learning.”

When schoolchildren have access to computers, they get more interested in learning. “It reduces drop-out rates and increases attendance,” adds Mr Medhi.“It’s about self-paced learning. The children do their own research and learn through multimedia. Getting functioning computers in schools has made a lot of difference to the education these children receive.”

Getting the infrastructure up and running was the first step. GVM set up an IT team that would visit each school to understand why the computers there were not working. In some cases, the team even found new machines sitting unpacked in boxes. Diagnostics, rewiring, maintenance contracts with local service providers — GVM supported the schools with all possible help. Where the internet was not available, the GVM team set up Wi-Fi hotspots.

Motivating teachers

The next step was teacher training. “It was hard to motivate the teachers,” says Mr Medhi. “We covered about 200 teachers in batches and trained them in the use of computers and technology aided learning.” Of the 200 teachers, 38 became master trainers and each of them was given the task of training 15 teachers. That’s how the project has been able to introduce technology aided teaching to about 700 teachers in Assam.

“The teachers came fully on board when they saw for themselves how even ‘poor’ students were working better with computers,” says Mr Medhi. “Government officials came visiting and they praised the schools. Such positive feedback has been very motivating.”

“Earlier we had only one teacher who knew about computers,” says Nilakshi Borah, principal of the Adarsh Vidyalaya Barkhetri, which has 22 computers that are used by about 240 students from classes VI to X. “Now we have five teachers who can teach what we call ‘smart’ classes. We have seen that the children are more interested in learning and, with the help of IT, they are learning by doing.”

The impact of the project on the children is obvious. “We have hundreds of children who are learning to go beyond textbooks and use the internet for research and studies,” says Mr Medhi. “Some of these youngsters have become savvy enough to start their own YouTube channels.”

GVM backs the schools by suggesting school curriculum topics that can benefit from multimedia learning. The children work on these with the help of open source software. They present their work to teachers, parents and government officials, and this builds their communication skills.

“The children are creating things that amaze the teachers,” says Naba Kumar Sarma, principal of Milan High School in Banekuchi village of Nalbari, which was computerised a year back and where 500 students from classes VI to XII are learning on the machines. “On the days when they have a computer lab class, we see 100% attendance and smiling faces. The kids like doing things on their own and this facility allows them to learn and explore. It has opened up the world for them.”

Access to functional computers has enabled these students at Milan High School in Banekuchi village in Assam’s Nalbari district become self-paced learners