Monday, December 21, 2009

Students act... part one

The students operating the system on their own just before their virtual classroom.


ok, that doesn't need a lot of work :) but she wanted a picture taken to show her dad :)


Once the power is on, it's a simple press on the CPU.
the screen would require some adjudgements... but that's about it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hole-in-the-wall


Lately, I’ve been exposed to numerous organizations that work towards improving the lives of underprivileged people. Education being one major aspect and thanks to EFF, I’ve been also privileged to work closely with some of them.
Beginning from cupboards to be called home for the homeless, food prepared using technology for the hungry, virtual teachers for the teacher-less, and here is yet another, with a rather unusual name, “Hole-in-the-wall”. Except that it’s a hole where thousands of underprivileged children get to touch computers for the first time in their lives. And they don’t have a computer sir monitoring them with a stick. They get to play around and learn on their own.  The computers are affixed to the wall outside the community hall or somewhere near the playground or anywhere in the village where it could be conveniently accessed by the students. An initiative established in 2001, a joint venture between NIIT Ltd. and the International Finance Corporation. This looks like a fine step to self-educating and thereby taking the efforts of educating millions more widespread. Good job. 

Friday, October 2, 2009

Urban vs rural education

As part of the initial research for EFF, we went visiting a number of schools last year. One of the schools we went to was located in Janwada, near Hyderabad. We were interested in the high school, but we also spent some time at the primary school, which was just a few minutes away. My job for the day was to walk around and take pictures of the school and the children.

To say the conditions in the school were deplorable would be an understatement. In terms of facilities, this is what the schools offered:
  • Classroom
  • Teachers
  • A compound and open space around the school
There wasn’t much more, actually.

Here are a few pictures.



At least there WAS a school, you’d say. But the list above was easy to make. A much more difficult list to make is that of the things the school did not have. What DID the school lack? The answer would depend on what you think a school should have. To my knowledge that hasn’t been clearly stated anywhere. Not by the policy makers, nor by an NGO or group that is concerned with the field of education. “Schools should have all the amenities” is the sort of vague claim we are used to hearing.

But let me see if I can put things in a little perspective here.

My sister’s little son very recently turned three, and started attending school, preschool is a more appropriate term here, I suppose. He is in Mumbai, and, although initially apprehensive about going to school, loves it now that he’s started.

There’s a good reason for it. The school is safe, comfortable, and fun. There are beds for the little kids in case they happen to doze off, lunch is provided by the school and so is drinking water; all children carry ID cards with school phone number; and every week there are movies and programs shown in a specially designed hall which looks exactly like a real movie theatre, except that everything is on a smaller scale.

I hardly need to add that the school also has a library, toys, classrooms and teachers, playground, the works.

I’m not suggesting that all government schools need to be equipped with all this too. I know we probably don’t have the resources to provide such facilities in our schools just at present.

But the question is, how far are we willing to lower our standards? Recent efforts, such as The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has maybe increased the number of schools, but the whole project has done little to improve the quality of education. In fact, in a way, the project has been seriously damaging. Where there was no school, people and the media could focus on the lack of educational facilities. Now that the schools are there, such protests, and their intensity, would go down--regardless of whether there is any education happening at all.

In the meantime, the gap between the government schools where the poor and the rural children, and the urban private schools, will keep widening. For some reason, the situation is not considered shocking. It is in fact just accepted by the government that implements this policy as well as the people whose lives are made--and unmade-by this situation. The urban, affluent people who continue to be unaffected by this situation, and perhaps no motive to react anyway. As a nation, we seem to say that if a child is born in a remote place, or a small village, then she cannot expect to have access to a good library. If a child’s parents are poor, or not very well-off, then she cannot expect to have safe drinking water at school.

Before they’ve had the opportunity to even comprehend the world around them, our children are sorted into important and unimportant, and this is somehow normal and acceptable. And what we, as a nation, offer these children is based entirely on what sort of money they have, what the gender is, or even what the social status is, whether on the basis of caste, or financial condition.

At the Janwada school, I approached an empty classroom--there were schoolbags neatly arranged in rows on the floor, but the kids were out for recess. There was one little boy in there though--it looked like he’d just run in to fetch something from his bag, and he was now running out to join the other kids. As I stepped in, he nearly ran into me, stopped, and broke into a huge, ear-to-ear smile.

We did not have a language in common, but for the next hour, he held my hand and showed me around the school. I spoke in English, some of the older children caught important words like “classroom” and “standard”, and translated for the little boy who then showed me around the school.

The only reason this boy, and millions like him, are not getting a good education is because we have learned to pretend, somehow, that the poor or the deprived somehow deserve less.

We need to be educated about what education is--and needs--in the first place, and also realize what we need in terms of resources and effort to achieve this. Forget the air-conditioned, soundproof auditorium but let us remember that every school that today goes without a library or clean drinking water is in fact a compromise of the worst kind, a disastrous situation that needs to be corrected as soon as possible--the lives of a few hundred children depend on this every year, per school.

We’ll tolerate the situation--for the time being--since we must. But nothing gives us the right to accept it. Initiatives such as Education for Free are the result of a simple refusal to accept the condition Indian education system is in, the implicit discrimination, and the incredible tragedy that surrounds us and wait endlessly for someone to come along and fix it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Hysea Awards ...

Hysea Awards happened a few months ago, and although, rather delayed, I wanted to post some pictures here. Our stall was the busiest of the lot--tsk, I don't have a picture to prove that :) We did not win the award, (it went to the Andhra Pradesh Government)--but the participation was totally worth it. We met some very smart people- those that were awed by our work as well as those that critiqued us. Yes, we need them all—I'm still learning the tricks of business relationship management and how to sit gracefully while someone tells you, "This is not going to work"! (Not that we heard such responses very often--just about everyone was positive and impressed. There were a couple of people who had more questions than enthusiasm, but more on them later.)

For now, I leave you with these pictures.




Reading to learn English faster and better

Students keep asking me how they can improve their English. I give them tips now and then but I thought writing about my experience could help them.

For me, reading was by far the most enjoyable and easiest way to perfect my English. Sure, as I began, it took maybe 10 days to finish a 100 pages book, but that’s just the way to go about. I‘ve probably read a few thousand books over the years, but the take off wasn’t easy. Our school did not have a library, you see. So unfortunately, unlike children in good schools where learning English came by default, I had my own little struggles as I manoeuvred to keep that undying zest to speak English going. My initial reading started with the comics—Tinkle was a hot favourite. I even had access to Tintin thanks to my friend’s brother who happened to be a fan. I read these first for entertainment but I also had a secret agenda—to improve my English--as I was told very often that reading was an assured way to get you to speak good English.

I upgraded to reading Reader’s Digest, but avoided the long stories. I would start with the “Humour in Uniform” and the little snippets here and there. The moment I started reading the long stories, I also began to take notes. I would write down all the phrases I thought I could use with my teachers and those few friends who spoke English. It sure did make me feel good that I was into real reading.

My first real novel was Jeffery Archer’s A Quiver Full of Arrows I barely understood any of the stories but it’s on record and it’ll go down in history as my first real book. As I went on reading, I also began to notice that my letter writings became more interesting. I took to writing answers on my own instead of mugging up the teacher’s notes during exams. I started participating in debates and essay writing competitions--in fact, all those literary activities in school that required the use of speaking and writing in English.

It was a conscious effort although the fact that I enjoyed what I did came as a bonus. If you still haven’t tried reading, start with the comics and the newspapers. Each morning as you wake up, get hold of the English newspaper. Start with the section that interests you the most. Skip words that make no sense to you. Get the hang of reading first, then you can start looking up the dictionary. Make it a habit-- keep reading and keep talking. Annoy people if you must--soon you’ll impress them. Being able to speak English will make you feel good about yourself and will definitely help you to get better in life.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Check this link for a comprehensive list of virtual school books.

And this article on livemint.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Article....

Readings---

An article on online education

"Online learning has definite advantages over face-to-face instruction when it comes to teaching and learning, according to a new meta-analysis released Friday by the U.S. Department of Education".



Monday, May 4, 2009

Teach India Project...

If you are an Indian parent living outside India and would want to educate your children on India, you should check out Teach India Project-- an initiative by a group of mothers way back in 2004 is now a successful organization. They provide lesson plans, Curriculum, teaching kit, etc. Schools also use their curriculum. I have families who often order books on India from here which do not reach them on time or have to wait until somebody from the family get there. A customized curriculum which you can use at home for your children sounds perfect to me.

Friday, March 6, 2009

EFF updates...

It’s been quite sometime since I’ve been around on the blog but this is not to say that we’ve not been active :). We’ve been working with a few schools to expand our current pilot for the next academic year. And when we do that I’ll have lots to say.

And oh, EFF Virtual Classroom has been shortlisted for the HYSEA (Hyderabad Software Exporters Association) awards 2009. We will be presenting on the 7th march 2009 at HICC complex (Novotel). Apart from the stage presentation, we will also show case the Virtual Classroom technology to a distinguished line of product industry leaders, academicians and entrepreneurs. This is a wonderful opportunity for us and we are really excited.

And I hope I’ll have some great news to share :)