Textbooks to Tablets

For Veena Srikanth, the daily math lesson with her 11-year-old would invariably end in tears. “It was hard to get Nirvan to concentrate after 30 minutes,” recalls the Bangalore-based software programmer.

All that changed after his school introduced Mindspark, a computer-based self-learning program that claims to help children improve their math skills; it has been created by a group of former Indian Institute of Technology and Indian Institute of Management students. “It is designed with the child in focus, while adhering to the curriculum,” says Srikanth.

Education in India has long focused on rote memorization, remembering instead of learning, and marks have been put on a pedestal, but a new wave of technology is bringing about change. Mindspark isn’t the only program that’s shifting the focus of education from the dense (and sometimes outdated) textbooks. As parents try and make learning a holistic experience, help comes in the form of educational applications for smartphones, tablets and laptops.

“I keep my iPad right beside me when I teach her,” says Mumbai home-maker Ravina Thadani, mother of a nine-year-old. “In schools they are always being told what to do. Here it is a process of discovery.”

Pune-based businesswoman Reubina Jain concurs. Jain relies on the non-profit educational website Khan Academy’s online video tutorials for her 14-year-old. “E-learning takes children to a world beyond textbooks which do not explain concepts. And you can watch it often, while the class teacher explains it just once.”

The growing demand for enhanced learning services is something schools are waking up to, with computers creeping into classrooms. “Teachers were teaching the same topic with very poor learning outcomes,” says Avnita Bir, principal, RN Podar School, among the first in Mumbai to explore e-learning. “Until students apply the knowledge they get to problems, they do not realize the gaps in learning. We happened to see the Khan Academy videos and started to use them. They noticed this and offered to handhold us.” Now Podar teachers film their lectures. Students can also watch these at home and discuss them in class.

According to some experts, the size of the education sector in India is expected to reach $50 billion (around Rs.2.8 trillion) by 2015. With a potential audience of 673 million people below age 30 (according to the 2011 estimate by VCCircle, an established source of information on entrepreneurship and venture capital in India), many believe e-learning solutions have immense potential. And virtual learning is spreading beyond the metros.

Thanks to this, there has been a rise in the number of e-learning start-ups, mainly in the K-12 (primary and secondary education) space. Investors too seem convinced that such projects will acquire scale. In 2012, four deals in this space were closed by Mumbai Angels, one of the largest venture capital networks in the country.

Demand for quality education is growing. According to the Union government’s National Sample Survey 2012, around 80% of our elementary schools are government-run, making it the major provider of education. However, nearly a third of elementary school students are privately educated. Average household spend on education is rising because of the growing preference for private education. Many rural families choose to send their children to private schools despite the presence of government schools, even though it costs more.

“We have seen a lot of traction from smaller towns, state capitals and B-towns,” says Soumya Banerjee, CEO, Attano Media & Education Pvt. Ltd, a website that offers interactive educational content, and has more than 125,000 registered users. Attano partners with publishers and digitizes their content. “Some places where we see decent traction include Ahmedabad (Gujarat), Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu), Rajahmundry (Andhra Pradesh), Ambala (Haryana) and Guwahati (Assam),” adds Banerjee.

The hitch is Internet connectivity, which remains a problem in rural areas. But smartphone penetration is expected to grow at 57.5% CAGR, or compound annual growth rate, between 2011 and 2016 in India, according to the 2012 report of International Data Corporation, or IDC. The government has also announced its intention of getting the Internet to 600 million citizens by 2020. This, many believe, will fuel the demand for e-learning.

“We believe mobile is the next big frontier and are betting big on Android,” says Banerjee. Joy Deep Nath, a co-founder of StudyPad Inc, the group behind Splash Math, one of Apple’s popular education apps, agrees. “With mobile devices, there is an added dimension, which is ‘learning by touch’. It makes learning a more immersive experience, leading to better conceptual understanding.”

Vodafone, along with the non-profit Pratham, has launched a three-year project, “Learn, Out of the Box”, across 1,000 government and low-income private schools in 12 states. It has designed WebBox—a keyboard-smartphone unit that connects to a TV—which serves as a low-cost smart-class.

Do digital tools actually improve education? There are no studies in India as yet. Some early findings do hold out hope. For instance, the results of the 1999 experiment conducted in New Delhi by Professor Sugata Mitra, winner of the 2013 TED (a gathering that discusses ideas worth spreading) prize. In the professor’s “Hole In The Wall” experiment, children in a Delhi slum were exposed to a Net-connected PC through a hole in a wall. Their behaviour, which was filmed secretly, established that children can teach themselves and each other if motivated by curiosity.

“There are places where good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or don’t want to go,” says Prof. Mitra. “I have seen that exposure to the Internet changes the lives and attitudes of children. What is important is the ability to use technology to find answers to questions and to solve problems. Computers can replace bad teachers, or no teachers.”

This article appeared in the newspaper Livemint. To view click on 

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Classroom of Hope

In the mosaic of bright, smiling self-portraits in a Jagannath Bhatankar Municipal School classroom, one stands out. It’s that of a little boy with his right eye drowning in a big, blue pool of water. The artist, a 10-year-old, suffers from retinoblastoma, a common malignant eye tumour in children. Barring that one telltale sign, the 30-odd sketches by children carry no signs that they are all under treatment for various kinds of cancer.

Helping to strengthen that sense of normality is Canshala, a school for children with cancer which operates inside the municipal school; a first-of-its-kind initiative started in Mumbai in November by the NGO Cankids in partnership with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The school is in close proximity to major cancer hospitals and train stations, which makes it easy to access. If this initiative becomes viable, Cankids hopes to replicate it in other states. Cankids is headquartered in Delhi and has centres in Chennai and Bangalore, besides Mumbai.

“Worldwide, 70-80% of children can be cured of cancer,” says Priti Dhall, director, Cankids. “But in India it’s just 40% because families access treatment late or abandon it because they feel it’s hopeless. We help with funds, treatment and emotional support.” The school is a step in that direction. “It creates a sense of normalcy. The right environment makes them stronger,” believes Dhall.

Watching the 30-35 children aged 5-16 (some with walkers, others on crutches) inside the sunny, colourful classroom, one gets a glimpse of just how determined they are to overcome the restrictions.

For nearly a year, Anu Yadav, 14, was treated for tuberculosis instead of bone cancer back home in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh. She was left virtually paralysed. It was only after her parents managed to put funds together and bring her to the Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, that she was diagnosed correctly. She recently started walking again with the aid of a walker. So determined is she to make up for lost time that she has often walked the 30-minute distance from hospital to school when she has missed the Canshala bus. “I am learning so much here,” she says. “My classmates back home don’t speak English. But I do. I am getting to catch up on all the lessons I have missed over the last two years.”

A timid Alisha Khan, 7, under treatment for brain cancer, has found her voice here. She comes just three days a week as she lives very far. “She is up and ready at 7am on those days,” says mother Farzana. “This school has changed her. She learnt to speak up”.

Cankids’ efforts are directed mainly at underprivileged children, especially those who come from outside Mumbai. “We found families waiting all day in hospitals for test results, with the children sitting by,” says Surabhi Kakar, mentor, Canshala. So Cankids started Chattai clinics in the leading cancer hospitals. Chattai clinics were set up at the Tata Memorial Hospital, Bai Jerbai Wadia Hospital for Children and Sion Hospital. Cane carpets were put in a hospital corner and the children would gather there to read or paint. These informal schools run in the leading cancer hospitals. “At the clinics they could read and play. Many of these children are in Mumbai for years and they are forced to drop out of school,” says Kakar.

Ganesh Kendile, 11, from Dhule, Maharashtra, came to Mumbai when he was detected with bone cancer in the leg. He was 5 at the time. His parents had to mortgage their home and leave his siblings behind. “Earlier he would be alone in the dharamshala(resthouse) while we worked odd jobs,” says mother Kunda. “Now he is looked after and he is studying”.

Following the BMC tie-up, the children have access to formal school education, free books, uniforms and the midday meal scheme. “We have a school bus which picks them up,” says Dhall. “Our health worker checks them every day because they are susceptible to infections.”

There are four full-time teachers, which is not adequate given that many of these children need personal attention given their varied ages and needs. They are grouped according to age and taught what they would be learning otherwise in schools back home. Helping the full-time staff are volunteers like Rakesh Pahawa, 63, a retired software engineer who teaches math to older students. “They are very industrious and have a great desire to learn,” says Pahawa. “We teach them what they would be learning in school back home so there is no great effort involved in rehabilitating them.”

Going ahead, Canshala wants to provide homeschooling for those who are too sick to attend class. Funds and volunteers, however, are a stumbling block. “If we had funds, we would have more buses and we could reach more kids,” says Dhall. “A regular therapist would also make a big difference.”

Even with their limited resources, the school is making a profound difference. In a life bracketed by hospitals and dingydharamshalas, it’s an oasis that brings the life back into these children’s lives. A belief that despite whatever they may be going through now, there is much to look forward to.

This article was published in the newspaper Livemint. To view click here http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/PGuxCKgRI5r1Pdvuvv8Z4K/Small-Idea-Big-Difference–A-classroom-of-hope.html