Those who have climbed their high school ladder before the era of cellphones and flash drives might be familiar with the classes where your teacher had a hard time explaining three-dimensional geometry and she eventually bought a pack of LEGOs to the class to make demonstrations. Teaching concepts that are not tangible are said to bring out the best efforts from a teacher. It is no cakewalk. But not anymore, as the intimidating chalk dust atmosphere has given way to the magic world of multimedia technology. With the classrooms go digitally equipped increasingly, the global education culture is undergoing a fast paced revolution.

In the Indian backdrop, education, especially rural education is the cornerstone of a brighter and sustainable future. According to the 2011 Census, 68.84 per cent of India’s population lives in rural areas. It is imperative to ensure quality education for the rural population, particularly to the underprivileged sectors of the society.

However, the major stumbling block in moulding a well-educated society is the lack of organized systems to ensure the quality of school education provided. Higher dropout rates and outdated curricula worsen this struggle for quality. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a non-governmental audit of elementary education in rural India conducted by the NGO Pratham, more than half of the fifth grade students are unable to read second grade textbook and solve primary school mathematical problems. Insufficient learning materials and poorly trained instructors are found to be major reasons behind this trend. The outdated educational practices like the rote learning add to the woes.

classroom-smart

Smart Classrooms with technology enhanced learning

The advancement of technology has offered a solution to this pertinent headache in the form of ICT equipped classrooms, fondly called smart classrooms. The term smart classrooms refer to technologically enhanced classrooms that make use of a set of technologies and equipment for instruction. The technologies include projectors, audio systems, tablets, digital boards and laptops. Issues including the lack of learning materials, access to quality information and the absence of a common syllabus were addressed with the induction of technology into the rural education sector. Many studies also show such technologies generate interest in learning and increase the perception level of students.

Booting up to the future

The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Schools was launched in December, 2004 as a Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) and revised in 2010. The goal for this venture was “to provide opportunities to secondary stage students to build their ICT skills and make them learn through computer aided learning process.” According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the scheme aids in bridging “the digital divide amongst students of various socio economic and other geographical barriers.” The ICT Scheme provides support to the States and Union Territories (UTs) to establish computer labs on sustainable basis as well as the establishment of smart schools.

As per the scheme, 150 smart schools would be set up by State Government and Union Territories in each district using a grant of Rs. 25 lakh along with a recurring grant of Rs. 2.5 lakh per year. The HRD Ministry’s statistics show that as many as 87033 government and government aided secondary and higher secondary schools have been approved for coverage under ICT in Schools Scheme.The importance of ICT was emphasized in the draft of Indian government’s New Education Policy – 2016.

The projects are being executed by state governments in public–private partnership model. State governments have made tie-ups with various private organizations across the nation to implement custom made software and equipment according to requirements of each state and their curricula.

Books don’t need batteries

It was Nadine Godimer who said “books don’t need batteries”. Neither does these smart classes. The Maharashtra Government’s innovative rural education project implemented for its Palghar district shows light to a new future in eco-friendly tech-classrooms. Through the ‘EkShiksha’ campaign, a tie up between the State government and ConnectEd Technologies, over 27,000 rural children will receive world-class education. The initiative provides a solar-powered, teacher-aid product that works flawlessly in demanding rural conditions. The System enables students and teachers to have an interactive, personalized multimedia platform to cater their academic needs.

EkShiksha – World-class education for all – Youtube video – Credits: Recall Pictures

“The idea of starting an edu-tech venture aimed at making quality education and vocational training accessible to rural youth first came to me and my partner, Lavin Mirchandani in early 2014,” says Lehar Tawde, co-founder, ConnectEd. They successfully approached various stakeholders, including the Ministry of Education to deploy their solar-powered ‘Smart Classroom System’ which enables educators to effortlessly integrate multimedia educational content into daily teaching practices.

“Everyone knows our rural education system is not in best shape, but not many are aware of what is actually wrong with it. Lavin and I, both, are products of the urban education system and hence, we spent over six months just understanding India’s rural education system; the problems plaguing it, and how technology could step-in to solve it. After we felt reasonably sure of our understanding of the system itself, we quit our jobs and took the road less travelled, into rural Maharashtra, to garner support of key stakeholders in the Palghar district of Maharashtra,” Tawde said.

The systems installed at Palghar schools are developed considering the needs of rural audiences, following extensive research on the use of existing technologies. They cater computer illiterate instructors and students also as they are so easy to operate.

ConnectEd's Smart Classroom System

ConnectEd’s Smart Classroom SystemConnectEd’s Smart Classroom System – Image credits: Recall Pictures

According to Tawde, the project was well received and appreciated by all and countered little struggles. “I guess one doesn’t have to face too many challenges when you’re working in a sensitized environment; creating products that are tailor-made for audiences, based on solid research,” the young entrepreneur wondered.

“Our vision is to enable masses to participate in the India growth story, thereby turning India into a human resource powerhouse for the world,” he sums up.

The path of thorns

Such advanced projects and visions easily contradict with the poor infrastructural facilities of public sector rural schools. Shortage of teachers who have received expert training to handle the tech coupled with the absence of proper storage and maintenance facilities makes it a herculean task to install and support the smart classroom programmes in rural government schools. In some schools, teachers who are trained to use smart classroom technologies are merely 20-30 per cent.

school-thinking

school-thinkingLack of proper physical facilities is what bringing down the momentum of such an impressive project.

Talking to Academicpost.in, Assistant Educational Officer Abdul Razakh, former Kottayam district coordinator and a trainer of the IT@School project in Kerala says that infrastructure is the greatest challenge when it comes to smart classrooms. “Digital boards were distributed to several schools last year but some of them still struggle to manage well-built classrooms and school buildings. Lack of proper physical facilities is what bringing down the momentum of such an impressive project. The project failed to bring any rampant changes to the system as it received lesser enthusiasm from the part of untrained teachers. In the past years, no new funds have been earmarked for the project making the growth go stagnant,” he said.

In most states, the major beneficiaries of the projects are high school students. In the primary level, technology based curricula were not introduced in most states. For the rest, such programmes went dormant after a while and little focus was given on integrating technology to primary classrooms.

India still has a long way to go before achieving pedagogical revolutions and to improve the comprehension ability of the students through smart classroom technologies. The issues of access and equity will be only addressed when the technology makes optimal inroads to the education community. To ensure the smart-tech facilities aid quality improvement, the infrastructure required to support such programs should be sufficiently funded and maintained. The governmental agencies responsible for the execution of such projects also should take up continuous interest in improving the quality of recruitment and training to ensure that the quality teachers. A regular evaluation of the efficiency of programmes should be done by measuring the learning outcomes of the recipients.

The baby steps have been made. Now it is time for the pixel-world to stretch its legs and watch the rural India opens their window to the world of knowledge. And yes, the teacher can finally let go of the LEGOs.

Featured Image: A Girl Student at a school in Palghar District; Image credits: Recall Pictures