Monday, November 17, 2008

EFF's pilot

We are deploying EFF Virtual Classroom in Kothaguda Government High School, Madhapur, Hyderabad as part of our pilot.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Holidays :(

Schools are on holiday for two more days: Yesterday was Guru Nanak's birthday and today is Children's Day. There has been too many holidays this year! Thanks to the teachers strike, schools were closed for a week last month. Arrrgh! we need a change in the system.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

National Awards for Teachers

The National Award for Teachers (India) was instituted in the year 1958 to recognize meritorious teachers and award them the highest national recognition. Every year on the 5th of September, the day we celebrate as Teachers’ Day, around 366 teachers are conferred with the honor, Rs. 25,000 cash award and a silver medal by the President of India.
This year the award was given to 374 teachers but nowhere have I found the names of these meritorious individuals. I can’t think of any reasons why the names should not be published. In fact, I feel it should be national front page news—something everybody gets to read the first thing in the morning on the 5th of September. Why not? When we can glorify our movie stars, sportsmen, TV actors, singers etc, why can’t we make a grand affair of the best men and women who make a real difference in our lives? 

on broadband connectivity...

If only "news" could come true and promises are kept to be made.

Government has already given directives to provide Internet connectivity in schools under Nagpur division... read the story here

Middle schools in Ponducherry will also get to use Internet if the plan of the Directorate of School Education comes true. It'll do good to around 70,000 students.  Story

The biggest news is Union Minister for Communication and Information Technology Mr. Thiru A. Raju, announcing to make Internet a reality in ALL schools in India by 2012!  just 3 years away from now.  Story

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Teachers' strike--schools hit hard.

Teachers working in government schools in Andhra Pradesh have been on strike for more than a week now! The only outcome being-- the classes are discontinued in over 40,000 schools. And this is why we have not been able to visit some of the schools we had short listed for our Virtual Classroom.
That apart, the strike is such an unfortunate thing to happen for school children as if the holidays round the year aren’t enough! I was told that most teachers cannot finish their syllabus usually for whatever reasons, and this academic year with a very low number of working days and the strike still on, are we in for a grim pass percentage? And I say percentage because that’s the way we measure our students’ progress and their performance.  I hope JACTO (Joint Action Committee of Teachers’ Organizations) and the Government will come to a consensus soon.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

EFF updates...

Since this blog is one of our channels to stay in touch with people, I have another quick round of updates on what Education For Free has been up to:
For the past few weeks, our engineers were working on improving the video quality, and the whiteboard. The video quality works much better now. We will soon have a much friendlier ‘pen’ too to write on the whiteboard. Thanks to the Dusserah vacation, no classes were interrupted.
We were also testing the equipment, especially the microphones—to see which ones work best in a regular classroom. Ravi Shankar, one of the registered members of EFF, helped us immensely with figuring out the acoustics and the right equipment for our classrooms. He is a senior sound engineer with Ramoji Film City and his expertise in this field has helped us understand how the whole sound system works.  He has been extremely helpful, and has consistently gone out of his way, whether to help us solve some nagging audio-related issues, or to just stop by and say hello. We are now using the new set of microphones he recommended, and it works great. A big thanks to Ravi from all of us here.
We are also running around, meeting different organizations for more schools. And phew! by next week we will have 2 more schools with Virtual Classroom. I will sure be writing about this.
EFF as young as it seems, participated in the National Seminar for Education organized by Byyraju Foundation on the 21st October.  Sridhar presented a paper on “A technological approach to educational problems”. 17 other organizations participated in the seminar and collaborated on the issues with the present education system and ways to solve them. It is encouraging and challenging at the same time as we take our steps further, becoming more mature with each experience. And we are thankful to all the individuals and organizations that support and motivate us to do our bit --for our country.
Have the brightest Diwali Ever! :) 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A portal for Teachers of India

Teachers in India now have a website to be called their own. This is not school specific but a website for all teachers to collaborate, contribute and learn. Launched in August by the National Knowledge Commission in collaboration with a few non profit organizations, the site offers, for phase one, a section where articles, lessons plans, or any materials could be contributed which gets uploaded to the website accessible for other teachers to use. At present, the website can be read in five languages: Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada. In future versions, we are told, there is much more coming up. Here’s a list of what functions the website will perform in the coming day:
    This Portal will offer resources related to:
1. Education Perspectives (Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, Economics)
2. Classroom Practice (Principles of Pedagogy, Pedagogy of Language, Science, Mathematics, History, Geography, Political Science, Economics, EVS, Art, Music, Dance, Sports) including manuals, activities, modules, tools, etc.
3. Subject Content (Language, Science, Mathematics, History, Geography, Political Science, Economics, EVS, Art, Music, Dance, Sports)
4. Stories, Songs, Games that teachers can use in class
5. Reading Resources (including links to other websites/portals/on line library
6. Research Information
7. Specific Case Studies
 The following will also be available:
1. Information on organizations/Individuals/Resources (district-wise)
2. Career Information (government recruitment details and opportunities available in organizations and institutions)
3. Teacher education courses – both short term and long term
4. Workshops and Conferences
5. In-service training programs
6. News/information/articles on relevant current events
7. Awards (honors)
8. Calendar of events
I quite appreciate the effort. However, to make this functional and accessible to all teachers, it is necessary to also publicize the effort well, to make teachers aware of the ways in which it can help them. Needless to say, Internet in schools is essential too. But if the launch is planned carefully and implemented successfully, the cooperation and participation from the teachers, and above all their enthusiasm will no doubt sustain this effort effectively.

Virtual classrooms for UPTU

The UP Technical University will be starting online classes soon. This initiative is to overcome the teachers shortage problem they have been facing for sometime now. The university is facing a shortage of over 2,000 teaching staff. Its a project funded by the union ministry of information technology. Read the story here

"For conducting online interactive classrooms, we are setting up a virtual classroom hub at our Noida campus"

According to officials, the upcoming hub will beam teaching programmes to nearly 12 institutes that would have direct access.

The institutes will then extend the online facility to at least 25 colleges located in their vicinity.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

SBI's Teacher-Plus scheme

Here’s a little something for all the teachers out there....SBI (State Bank of India) has a special scheme called “Teacher- Plus”. They offer minimized interest rate when you take loans from the bank. isn't that nice? If you have plans to apply for a loan, you could check this out. This is what they have to say:

SBI recognizes the special position sanctioned for teachers in our society and is proud to introduce Teacher Plus - a special scheme for teachers placed under State and Central Governments as also under the deemed universities. Through Teacher Plus, you can avail of concessions in the rates of interest, processing charges and margin amounts in the following schemes:

* Personal Loan
* Car Loan
* Festival Loan
* Housing Loan

Get the details from here.

P.S: When you click the 'apply now' button, it takes you to the 'report a complain' page. It’ll be more helpful if you contact your nearest SBI branch.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Akshaya Patra Foundation in action

After I wrote about Akshaya Patra Foundation and their efforts in using technology to prepare and provide hygienic food, I searched Google images for the machines--the conveyor, industrial steam boilers, bucket elevators, and material handling systems etc they have mentioned just to get a feel of it, but couldn’t find any. This morning I searched in Youtube and viola! I found some amazing videos. I share one of them here. Their effort is awesome ! And btw, the sambhar totally looks yum! :)
Check it out...


Just a couple of days back, teachers’ day was celebrated in India. And every year esp. on this day, I think of my teachers who taught me the best way they could. But I seldom wish them…the last time I did was ten years back. There are five of them, three --who taught me in my primary school and the other two in high school. This year something told me that I need to thank them for what they have done over the years…moulding hundreds of students year after year. I was up early and dialed the numbers one after the other….I heard them and believe me they were overjoyed! Ex students hardly wish their teachers you see.

My primary math teacher-- my favorite, who taught me arithmetic, because of whom I had fun with numbers, the utmost pleasure of calculating... however, is no longer a teacher. He told me that he is suffering from throat cancer and will not be able to teach any more. I was saddened by the news—sorry for the many students who will not be able to experience the joy of learning from him. Nevertheless, he has done his job and did it so well.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Akshaya Patra Foundation

Until now I had only been aware of people using technology to harness education, EFF being one. But here is Akshaya Patra Foundation using technology to prepare and supply hot (nothing to do with spice) nutritious, quality, hygienic food, to feed thousands of hungry children and thereby bringing them to school and keeping them. It is interesting to note that they have been using industrial steam boilers, bucket elevators, conveyor & material handling systems, and other industrial processes in the kitchens to prepare the meals.
Started in 2000, Bangalore, they feed children aged 6-16. So far they have provided mid day meals to over 825, 000 children in over 4500 government schools. Their vision is “No child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.” And as you enter their website, you will see “Feeding a hungry child is not charity; it's our duty” flashing on the screen. Way to go guys!

Check out their website

Things I learn as I teach--to teach better

Teaching is easy but keeping the students interested or having them listen to you is altogether a battle in itself. Being a teacher myself and a virtual one at that, it is all the more taxing. But after almost 4 months of teaching virtually I have almost figured out what works for them. 

Somehow I’m reminded of the many preachers in the church I’ve attended and I realize that I only liked the ones who seemed intelligent, well read, in sync with the world types. Most of all someone with a sense of humor, who would make the entire congregation burst out in laughter. My girls seem to like that too. Especially. But me being someone who can hardly ‘crack jokes’ my only way to make them laugh is to talk in Hindi! And seriously no matter how much my friends made fun of my Hindi, I didn’t think it could be as bad. But thankfully, it looks like in a way, it works to my advantage.

The other way to keep them interested is to be INTERESTING! Now that’s not easy. On my breakfast-less, lunch-less, after my University trips, I force myself to appear interesting but seriously these are bright kids. I couldn’t possibly fake it. And therefore, the point is, I have to eat well, be healthy and stress-free to be able to teach well. And of course, I need to be passionate of what I teach, whenever I’m not prepared well, even though I know the subject, I can’t keep them interested. I have to keep telling myself that they are supposed to learn out of the lesson I take. Preparing myself, telling myself that it’s going to be fun no matter what; all geared to meet them is what ticks.

Making them understand is again extremely challenging for me. Interacting with students who only know a few English words is difficult. Sometimes I realize that in the pursuit of explaining a word I end up using another three words which they are not aware of. And when they don’t understand, they lose interest. It goes back to the same thing of preparing my lesson with care, be conscious of every example, words I use, and making them relate to it, explain every little detail and not take anything for granted.

Over the past few months, I have also learned that I need to be supportive and kind. Being aware of where they have come from helps me in this aspect. Onetime, in one of my physical classes, I had an assignment for them to write about their family. They were skeptical at first wondering if that’d be assessed by their official English teacher, the principal and the Red Cross representatives but I assured them that was only for me and promised that I wasn’t going to judge them. 

I made myself clear that it was to understand them better and in the process allow them to practice their writing too. And boy! What lovely writings they were. Even now, on sultry weekends, when I find my days depressing, I open the folder where the papers are neatly clipped, and as I read them one after the other, I’m rejuvenated not only for my next class but for days to come, a reminder of hope and life at its best.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

ICICI's Read to Lead

ICICI has also joined in the effort to work towards educating the uneducated millions in India. “Read to lead” is the program which for now will cover the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
ICICI pledges through this initiative that they will educate 1,00,000 children at the elementary level by partnering with major NGOs in this field. By December they plan to reach out to a hundred thousand children.
I hope this initiative will not be only about reducing the drop-out rate but also about quality education—a wholesome drive to give EDUCATION its true meaning.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Idea ad campaign

The ‘idea ad campaign’  has been catching a lot of attention these days. While many people appreciate the ad, there are some who dismiss that it is silly and absurd and that they are ‘abusing education’ and giving false hope to poor people to promote their product.
Both sides have a valid point. The ad in itself is good, creative, and appealing to the masses.
But I wouldn’t take it literally and assume that teaching through phones is going to become a reality. There are issues of cost, or pedagogical effectiveness, and, of course, great as it sounds, if one teacher is going to educate “a million students” in a single classroom, they might as well use a TV, considering the level of interactivity these classes would have. I just think of it as a clever, well-meaning ad and leave it at that.
However, this ad does convey the message that there is a lot you can do with connectivity and technology. That distance isn’t a barrier anymore, that with technology, nothing need be distant or impossible.
Every time I catch this ad on TV, I’m reminded of my grandma who finally had some idea of how EFF works—for her, it was a question of whether the Education for Free project was similar to this. The explanation is altogether a different story, but I’m thankful that there is something we can take away from this ad campaign—even if it is not teaching through phones.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

“The crumbling schools” and the political apathy

I’ve been following the US elections fairly closely this time around. I’ve always kept track of them, but it was just as part of catching the daily news on TV. This time, though, I find myself actually seeking more information, reading not just the headlines, but also some analytical articles, and much more detailed news.

It’s partly because I’ve started to admire Obama’s oratory skills, and enjoy the way he uses rhetoric effectively. What has impressed me most is the way, regardless of who the candidate is or what the party is, education is one of the key concerns that everyone tries to address.

For example, in a major speech titled “a more perfect union” Obama declared:
At this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

Don’t you just love the rhetoric--measured, rhythmic phrases all balanced together? Obama has some concrete plans too--check the section dedicated to education.

Which brings me to my point: I’m no expert, but I’ve always taken a reasonable amount of interest in Indian politics and Indian elections. And I honestly cannot recall, off-hand, a single instance where education was part of any election agenda or any political debate surrounding an election. I wonder if this has happened at all.

Off the top of my head, I can think of religion, caste, taxes and subsidies and reservations, linguistic identities, and regional identities as the issues that dominate our elections. I know it’s easy enough to say something like “We Indians don’t have that maturity yet,” and explain away why our elections are never about our schools and our children, but why DON’T we have the maturity? Why do we really never ask about drop-out rates and about schools without classrooms when electing our representatives?

The situation is genuinely surprising, because Indian parents typically spend most of their energy and time trying to ensure a better life for their children. It is hard to think of another goal that an average Indian couple aspires to as strongly.

And that's why I’m puzzled. At the personal, domestic level, everything is about--and for--the children. But the public, political part of our lives is solely an adult world where children are not even a presence, let alone a minor one.

There must be some way of ensuring that even the political, social processes we are involved in begin to address the needs of our children, and not just of us adults. Some way of making sure everyone realizes that while as individuals we can do a lot for our children, as a nation working together, we could do a lot more for all the children, and not just our own. And that we need to speak up, and talk about the problems our children face and what we want for them, and then elect someone who is willing to do something about it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sashi Tharoor on eductaion in India

Just a few days before Teachers’ day, I came across Sashi Tharoor’s article “Let’s groom teachers of tomorrow” in the Times of India. Succinctly written, intense, urgent, and genuine. I can’t agree more with him. It’s one of those articles of which I take a print out, laminate and neatly store in my article collection box. I know with technology there are many convenient ways of storing such things, but it’s just an old habit that refuses to die. Here are some excerpts from the article:

UNESCO defines an illiterate person as one who cannot, with understanding, both read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life. By that definition, i fear that fewer than half our population would really qualify as literate
What is missing is not just financial resources, but a commitment on the part of our society as a whole to tackle the educational tasks that lie ahead.
How are we going to cope with the 21st century, the information age, if half our population cannot sign their name or read a newspaper, let alone use a computer keyboard or surf the Net?

Happy Teachers' Day!

Happy teachers’ day to all the teachers out there…this is the day to honor you for all that you have done to educate the nation. Today, as you receive flowers, presents, cards and hugs remember that “a better tomorrow” is in your hands. Teach in a way that our children not only listen but also learn and grow up to be responsible citizens.


Monday, September 1, 2008

An excellent list of problems with Indian education

Over a relaxed weekend, I came across this article by Rushi Bakshi in The Hindu. Certainly worth a read. As you’ll see, Rushi makes an excellent, nearly exhaustive list of all the problems that plague the educational in India. Everything we’ve been telling people for a year—from lack of teachers to unhygienic schools to boring, colorless textbooks—Rushi mentions it all.

The similarity is striking. But then again, not quite. Rushi is recommending the satellite route to cure many of the ills—set up the hardware in rural schools, and beam quality content via satellite.

While I do not doubt that such an arrangement will benefit students, I’m not sure to what extent it will fix the problems we face. After all, good education can only be facilitated only in an environment where there is open interaction between teachers and students, and where students participate in their education, rather than just “undergo” it.

I suppose satellite can allow two-way interaction too, but I doubt if that will be financially viable in terms of equipment required, as well as in terms of scale.

On the other hand, using the Internet to achieve the result is far more practical and cost-effective. And with Internet spreading into various corners of the country at a dramatic rate, more and more schools—and children—are in a position to benefit from the Education For Free initiative every year.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Education For Free in Eenadu

Eenadu, a Telugu newspaper, one of the most popular in Andhra Pradesh wrote about Education For Free this morning. For those of you who cannot read Telugu, I'll have a translated version soon. While the lucky ones can read the story here.

Picture Courtesy: Eenadu

Friday, August 29, 2008

an Education For Free update...

As I write this, I got a report from our database guy that we have received the 1800th member sign up! Thanks to The Hindu, that’s a staggering number in just 23 days. The power of press indeed is mighty! :)

It took us quite a while to read and sort all the emails we received from almost all over the world. Majority of the writers were from India, USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Dubai and Germany. We also had lone representatives from Korea, Rome, Maldives and Saudi Arabia.

Out of the 1800 emails, there were about 20 individuals and organizations willing to adopt schools. There were others who came to meet us directly. These organizations will need teachers and we’ll have the Education For Free volunteer teachers helping them out.

To help us with our plans, implementation, coordination, we have formed an Education For Free group comprising people from all professions, students, homemakers, and retired folks.

A quick update of what we are up to so far:

We are working on our Teacher For Free portal which will be launched soon. This will be a place where volunteer teachers and schools will register. A place for schools and volunteer teachers to find each other.

We are also looking for sponsors to fund about 20 schools. For each school we need about Rs. 60 thousand for the equipment (projector, computer, webcam).

We are working on putting up a process in place to train new volunteer teachers, training and deployment technical support, coordination between teachers and EFF etc. This will eventually be automated from the TFF (Teacher For Free) portal.

And btw, we have a full time Education For Free Virtual Classroom teacher, Ambica Ayla, who after reading the article in The Hindu came to our office soaked in rain asking if she could volunteer for a day in a week—her only day off from work. Her enthusiasm and passion for children and education touched us so! We interviewed her the next day and if I had a math teacher even half as good as her, I would have been flying saucers today. :)

She teaches math, physics and chemistry to 9 and 10th graders.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Terry Pratchett on education

Over the weekend, I found myself re-reading parts of Hogfather, a novel by one of my favorite writers, Terry Pratchett. It is an excellent book, if you enjoy comic yet meaningful fantasy fiction. This post isn’t about Terry Pratchett, but about a striking, intelligent comment on education in the book.
Now working as a governess and teaching and looking after children, Susan, an important character in the book, recalls her childhood and upbringing and realizes:

It had been a good education, too. But it had only been later that she’d realized that it had been an education in, well, education. It meant that if ever anyone needed to calculate the volume of a cone, then they could confidently call on Susan Sto-Helit. Anyone at a loss to recall the campaigns of General Tacticus or the square root of 27.4 would not find her wanting. If you needed someone who could talk about household items and things to buy in the shops in five languages, then Susan was at the head of the queue. Education had been easy.

Learning things had been harder.
Susan’s education is of the affluent kind. But, as Terry Pratchett observes, even with plenty of resources, education can suffer from basic, nearly intangible mistakes.

In India, schools would be lucky to have problems at this level though. In the government schools that EFF is targeting, there is at present too much dependence on textbooks of average quality, too much focus on studying for the annual examinations, and there is practically no focus on the actual learning.

You could say that most school-level education in India is focused on just helping students survive the system of education itself, and not on learning things.

With its potential for effectively combining learning with exposure (to the world, to people, to means of communication, to just about everything), we hope that the Education For Free program will help a number of schools eventually rise to a level where they tackle higher level problems regarding the concept of education, its purpose, and the like.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Let India be Free...

Today we celebrate 61 years of freedom from the British Empire. I hope we'll also be free of hunger, child labor, illiteracy, and social deprivation soon enough.

I hope some day, soon enough, we 'll be proud of India, a free India in soul and spirit.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Indian schools and holidays

When I was in school, years ago, every holiday announcement was greeted with loud cheers and desk thumping, and we would all rush out of the class even almost forgetting our schoolbags.
But after I started working, any sort of holiday (apart from weekend that is), just feels like an annoying inconvenience. Most people would take this as a weirdo syndrome but hear me out here. A holiday means:
  1. More work load the day after
  2. Unfinished task to worry about
  3. Break in the flow
  4. Add more
For me, it also means getting my routine messed up with my students. Holidays are in fact a big problem here. Sometimes it feels like they have a holiday every other day! There are the three national holidays: the Independence Day, the Republic Day and Gandhi Jayanti (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday). Then there are the religious and regional festivals. Also the births and deaths days of important personalities must be observed with a holiday. So far they’ve had: Goru Gobin Singh Jyanthi, Pongal (which goes on for a week here in Andhra Pradesh), Good Friday, Id-e-Milad-un-Nabi, Holi, Ambedkar Jayanti, May Day, Buddha Purnima, and tomorrow is Independence Day. And of course there’s more coming up! The schools even had a “precaution from rain” kinda holiday on Monday!
Out of 365 days, there are 52 Sundays and most Saturdays are holidays too, and over 20-30 days are other holidays, so schools are usually left with only about 240 working days. And with major teacher leaves and absentees, the working days come down even more. Add to that the usual summer end of academic year breaks (about two months long) and the winter break (usually a month), and you begin to wonder if the compulsory school education policy is all a myth.
The authorities should realize that too many holidays are counterproductive. An occasional holiday makes for a refreshing break, but too many of them serve no real purpose and in fact get in the way of the important project of educating our children. It’s time something was done to minimize the number of holidays.
Important occasions still need to be observed, and they should be—that’s part of the education we give to the children. But not working or learning on these days sends out the wrong message. In fact, maybe we could have, instead of a holiday, some other ways of marking the occasion: extra-curricular activities like a ‘literary day,’ or an environment preservation activity, a drive to clean up your locality, or the like. Such activities will practically benefit the students, and not lose precious school time.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Amartya Sen in the Central Hall Of Parliament House

Lately, I’ve been reading Amartya Sen quite a bit. I’m rather fond of his take on “Social Exclusion and Inclusive policies”. I understand him better now when he talks about India’s “quiet acceptance of the consistent deprivation” in his inaugural of Hiren Mukherjee Memorial Parliamentary Lecture on “Demands of Social Justice” in the Central Hall of Parliament House.
He directly addressed members of our Parliament. So hopefully that made some difference.
Read the story here

Monday, August 11, 2008

Students from India do the 'disappearing act' in USA

Four school children from Doaba Public Senior Secondary School, Garhshankar Punjab, while on a trip to USA to attend the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) rocket project went “missing”. This would normally be a cause for grave worry for the families concerned, but the parents of the 'missing' students stated that:
I don't know how this happened. But from my relatives, I have come to know that my son is in California” and that “he had no idea about his son's plans to stay back in the US.”
So looks like the disappearance was well-planned and carried out carefully, with the participation of parents and relatives settled in US.
We have heard of similar “missing’ stories but even school children resorting to this illegal act makes me want to scream out loud! Certainly, there are plenty of great opportunities for people outside of India, but it makes no sense to jeopardize one’s life and also sacrifice dignity and self-respect in the process.
Come to think of it, students who were picked to participate in a high profile NASA project are probably the best students in the school. Isn’t it a matter of extreme concern when our best students resort to such extreme and desperate measures? Also, it can’t do a lot of good for students who’ve been “left behind”. They probably looked up to these four students, who have now sent a clear message that they have little regard for the school, or for the country.
Most of all, these youngsters will now remain illegal immigrants for a long time, if not for good. Getting a permanent residency will be practically impossible, and by the time they are caught and deported, they will have lost a precious academic year at the school they abandoned.
Read the story here

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Overwhelming response to the EFF initiative

We got featured in ‘The Hindu’ yesterday and since early morning hours we have been receiving tons of emails! There are college students wanting to teach during their free period, homemakers, retired professionals, professors, doctors, engineers…the works! We also have people willing to adopt schools. The response has been overwhelming and we are deeply touched.
Indeed, there are wonderful people out there with good loving heart who want to contribute for the betterment of the society. This is a not a clichéd 'vision statement' but words of individuals willing to contribute with time, knowledge, money --all for free. For a better, educated India.
P.S. We’ve received over a 1000 emails and more are still coming in. We are going through each email carefully to see how each individual can contribute the best way possible. We will get back to you soon.
In the mean time, thank you so much!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Shortage of textbooks in schools in India…

Well, that’s hardly news anymore. It is a regular phenomenon which happens every year as school reopens.
But this year, this academic session, the ‘news’ pinches me a little harder than usual. Because the policy makers of our country are into fancy stuff. They proclaim that they are going to give each child a laptop for free. A laptop which is going to cost only $10. Hang on, it’s actually $100. It seems our dear minister missed a ‘0’. But didn’t our minister think that it was “pedagogically suspect”? What happened to that ‘good’ sense? While I’m all for improving the quality of education through the use of technology I’m not much of a supporter of One Laptop Per Child schemes be it India’s or Nicholas Negroponte’s. Especially when children go without even basics like textbooks. We all want an educated India but I’m very sure this is not going to be achieved by throwing laptops in the laps of children!
Here’s a list of “textbooks shortage stories”:
K Chandrika (name changed), a student of class 10 in a Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) syllabus school will consider herself lucky if she can procure all her textbooks by September-October.
A survey of bookshops selling school books in many parts of the city revealed that textbooks for many classes are not available. Sources said this year, syllabi of class 3rd and 7th standards have changed and hence books of these classes are yet to be made available in the bookstores.
22nd June 2008-- Urdu schools go without textbooks, teachers
Like all school-going children, 13-year-old Atyaab Hussain of Quami School carries a bag to school. However, instead of books, this sixth grader carries a bottle of water in it.
Urdu schools in Delhi are battling a resource crunch. At the heart of the crisis is a pressing shortage of teachers and textbooks.
Parents of children studying in different schools here Monday expressed concern over the shortage of textbooks of various classes published by Punjab Textbook Board. A parent in Rawalpindi said that he went to buy books of Class 8th for his daughter and Science book of Class 6th for his son but was disappointed on their non-availability.
The problems dogging the field of education seem far from over. After the recent class XIth admission fiasco, now, primary and secondary students are confronted with the problem of shortage of text books. The text books approved by Maharashtra government, as prescribed by the state board for most of the classes are not easily available.
Contrary to the claims of Chairman Sindh Text Book Board, some forty three books for both English and Urdu medium are short in the market, as the academic session started Friday after two-month summer vacation in the province.
Plus-One and Plus-Two students of Government Higher Secondary School in Panakahalli in Thalavady Union face a peculiar problem: they study without text books.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Problems with the Indian public school system

Before we started developing the technology that we have right now, we did a lot of research—going to villages and talking to teachers, parents and students. We were aware of the various problems that have crippled the Government schools in India but getting a first hand experience of the whole scenario put things in a much better perspective for us.

Here is a far from exhaustive list of the main problems we saw in the Indian public school system:

  1. Too many students and not enough teachers (Recruitment is slow, and there are many vacancies that go unfilled for years. Result? Unfair workload for existing teachers and corresponding decline in the quality of teaching.
  2. Teachers need to work for all government programs, from election duty to pulse polio campaigns. At the expense of the children who come to school to learn.
  3. Teachers are made to attend way too many training programs.. These mandatory programs need to fit into an already busy calendar, and teachers invariably do it at the expense of their students. Moreover, this training is often based on theories that do not take the real situation into account. With the real situation that teachers have to deal with-- the large number of students, the limited time available, the examination oriented focus of education, and the lack of facilities—this training proved to be irrelevant for the teachers.
  4. Very high percentage of teachers are absent from schools. The reasons are varied, and include infrastructure, corruption and motivational issues.
  5. There is supposed to be a teacher for every 40 students. Most administrators follow this to the letter: if a school only has 120 students then they only get 3 teachers even if the school actually has 5 classes or grades.
  6. Serious infrastructure issues like power, lack of classrooms, lack of study material (Even textbooks--the minimal study material available to children--are usually delayed by 2-3 months every year.)
  7. Lack of basic amenities like drinking water and toilets. It turns out that the lack of toilets is a major reason for female students’ absence from school.
  8. Students do not put in any effort at home. Everything from lack of family encouragement to working after school, to lack of infrastructure at home (privacy, space, light, books) conspires to prevent children from studying at home. While many of these factors are not within the direct control of the teachers or of the educational system, little effort has been made to find an effective substitute for the system of assigning homework.
  9. A very small percentage of the students coming out of our primary schools has basic reading and writing skills.

The list could go on, and I will be sure to elaborate on these various problems, as well as their impact and the urgent need for solutions in the near future. I’ve identified problems specific to the rural education system. Satya Meva Jayate’s detailed article offers a more general critique of the Indian education system in general.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Another 'no teachers' story...

India Today writes about "Classroom in crisis" in Uttar Pradesh. With mind-boggling stats on schools that need teachers and other higher educational institutions, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan after all, is not as successful as it is claimed to be. Need a reality check?

With an acute shortage of qualified and experienced teachers, both in primary as well as higher education institutes, the education system in Uttar Pradesh finds itself severely crippled.
Most alarming is the condition of the primary schools, where out of the total 2.82 lakh sanctioned posts, 1.8 lakh posts have no takers.
So is the condition of the universities and colleges providing professional degrees in the areas of aviation, medical, engineering and agriculture, where about 50 per cent of the teaching work is either done by part-timers or ad hoc teachers...
Read the story here

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Some pics with Amongla teacher :)

I see them all--each one from my desk in office

and they see me--loud and clear :)

as I teach away from the comfort of my desk...

Interaction at its heights. They love to talk. Like teacher like students.

(Click on the image for a better view.)

Getting to know the Whiteboard...

During my after-class interaction with the Red Cross School teachers one of them asked me how the EFF Virtual Classroom could be useful for subjects like math where a lot of talking is done through symbols. Since I don’t teach math I haven’t had the opportunity to experiment on the symbols we have embedded in the Whiteboard. Although I intend to rope in one of the software engineer friends I have. Anyhow, I did a demo for them and while I was at it, I also managed to take some screenshots. Here's a quick summary of what I told them:

Some basic symbols: Geometry, math, shapes etc.

some of the math symbols we have

In the whiteboard, you can draw, upload images, type text, highlight and so on

Prepare presentations in the Editor and save them in the slide library. Simply click on the respective icons. These presentations can be used for teaching/demonstration through the Whiteboard. You can edit them as only have to save the changes and a new version will be up there in the slide library.

(Click on the images for a better view.)

Chandigarh Govt. School

Government schools in India are synonymous to all things negative. Schools where parents wouldn’t dare to send their children unless they are from economically poor families. Sad that such is the case. However, I came across this article while browsing the Internet. Sounds unbelievable! I’d like to believe that there is hope—that people would fight for admissions in government schools irrespective of rich or poor.

Thanks to excellent results, low costs and upgraded technology, government schools in Chandigarh are way ahead of private ones when it comes to attracting the brightest brains.

In most parts of India, state-run schools are associated with poor infrastructure and unsatisfactory results. But that's not the case in Chandigarh where admissions began Tuesday.

With many students from the region preferring to opt for top government schools in the city, especially Classes 10, 11 and 12, getting admission in them is all the more difficult.

Even the students of elite private institutes opt for the government schools of Chandigarh when it comes to seeking admission in Class 11. Students from states like Haryana, Punjab, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are also applying to government schools here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

in words and pics...

After three virtual classes I wanted to see for myself how my students were responding to the whole new change. From the other side of the table, as it were. So this morning, I walked down to the school and sat with them as my friend and ex-colleague agreed to volunteer for the class.
The girls were a little shy initially but felt comfortable soon and started to interact as usual. Being seated on the floor did not deter them from carefully taking notes. I remember being such a diligent student only when we had to crack the Pythagoras theorem in school. I was particularly impressed with how comfortable they felt in this virtual classroom. In terms of discipline and in terms of their attention and level of interest there was no difference from a real classroom. In fact, this new way of learning seemed to have created much more interest.

Afterwards I spoke to my friend about how he felt teaching in this novel way. This is what he said:
I’m impressed by the fact that these girls are very keen learners and refuse to let any learning opportunity be wasted. They had lots of questions and as a group they made sure that everything that needed clarification was in fact clarified then and there.
As a teacher with previous classroom experience I also felt comfortable using the virtual classroom which provided all the essential elements that a classroom needs. In less than ten minutes I was comfortable using the technology, was extremely pleased with the high level of interactivity, and at the end of the class came away convinced that I could actually teach using virtual classroom for an entire year.”
The class was on the basics of punctuation and I wish learning punctuation was as easy as this for me too. Apart from lil glitches here and there, the technology does look like a little wonder of wonders!

Monday, July 21, 2008

A thank you note.

For the past three days I have been teaching from my office using the Virtual Classroom technology, and I’m overwhelmed at the way I’m able to teach so easily and also explain complex lessons conveniently with the use of images and videos.
While I do it with so much joy and warmth in my heart in the knowledge that I’m able to contribute to make millions of lives better, I really should not forget the many people and organizations that made this wonderful technology possible.
I opened my EFF journal, where I have been making notes on our progress, and jotting down hopes and concerns. This was a good way to remember how we got here—the journey hasn’t been easy but at the same time, the generous contribution of some special people made EFF possible. We started working on EFF last year in the month of June and today we have the Virtual Classroom technology in place. This would not have been possible without the help of some generous and like-minded people who shared our vision and went out of their way to help out.
We thank you for believing in us!
ESPRE Solution’s David Espenlaub and the CEO Pete Ianace for giving us their excellent video technology which powers our virtual classroom.
Jon Beck and folks at OpSource for giving us the network and servers to host this service.
Red Cross School management for letting us deploy this technology and do our pilot from here.
Suresh Panchal and Satish Babu from Pioneer Online for giving us the Internet connection to the school.
And of course our engineering team who worked so passionately, for days and nights together, to make the EFF dream a reality.

EFF's Virtual Classroom live in a school!

EFF Virtual Classroom went live on Friday the 18th of July 2008 in Red Cross Govt. Girls' High School. After a year of research, planning and developing with immense passion and hard work, it was indeed a proud moment for all of us.

I taught the eighth graders from my office desk while they were seated in their school computer room. I could see them sitting systematically forming a pyramid like shape so that the camera could capture all of them. The moment they saw me in the projector they started giggling and chimed in unison “good morning Teacher”. I did explain how this was going to work but thanks to the ‘idea ad’ on Television, they now had a better idea.

And even before I started with my introductory note, they started asking questions just as in our regular classes. The comfort level was amazing and they sure were incredibly enthusiastic. When I asked how she liked the Virtual Classroom, Soni, one of the students, responded that she felt lucky because she never could even dream of these things being provided in a government school. She says she now looks forward to coming to school more than ever.

We always believed that this is something that would change the face of Indian public school system. And now that we see in action, we are convinced that the “change” is not too far away. Our target is to deploy EFF’s Virtual Classroom in 1000 schools in the next 5 years.

Here is a photo of the class in progress:

(more pics and videos on the way :))

(Click on the image for a better view)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

What do these school text books in India teach?

In my class yesterday, I asked my students if they knew where I was from. They didn’t. So I told them I was from Nagaland. Did they know where it was? This time I heard a “yes.” Without any suspicion or doubt about their knowledge of where my homeland was, I enthusiastically asked “where.” Two girls stood up and shyly somewhat unsure, said that Nagaland is in Africa!
I was amused and shocked at the same time. It was one of those feelings that you can’t quite give a name. With my very tiny little eyes and typical Asian features, I couldn’t possibly be mistaken to be an African or Nagaland to be in Africa.
With a wide smile stuck on my face I told them that I was one of them-- that Nagaland is one of the states in India. Desperate to teach the girls at least some of the basics about their country, I even drew a map of India on the blackboard. It wasn’t anywhere close to being called an Indian map, but thanks to the distinct shape on the right hand side of the map, I was able to show them the part that is called the North-east India. I then gave them the list of states that come under it– most of the names were completely new to them. For the rest of the class, instead of English I ended up teaching them Geography.
So yes, it ended well enough. The girls learned a little lesson, and I learned a big one. I’m left wondering about the kind of education we are giving these children. What is the worth of this free education anyway? We don’t care if the students know anything about the country they live in, the land that’s their home. Instead, year after year, we keep fighting about portions of “communal flavors” in our text books, and other irrelevant stuff.
Someday, hopefully, we’ll start to worry about what our children should learn, instead of being obsessed about what they should not learn.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

More Kendriya Vidyalayas to come up

It has just been announced that many more model schools on the lines of Kendriya Vidyalayas will be coming up in India in the near future. Arun K. Rath, secretary in the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry said, “We are rolling out these 2,500 schools from August." (Read here)
For the school education system in India, this is excellent news. Students will have something to turn to because KVs are inexpensive and definitely centers of excellence.
Kendriya Vidyalaya is a system of Central Government schools spread widely across the country. Started in 1965, it now has 981 schools with 9,94,730 students in all parts of the country. The Minister of Human Resource Development is the chairman of Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan.
One of the missions of KV is to cater to the educational needs of the children of Defence or Para-military personnel who are constantly on the move. Kendriya Vidyalaya has been doing exceedingly well in the board exams for many years now. The school provides a common program of education thereby making it convenient for students to catch up with the syllabus without many hassles.
In the long term, this move will probably benefit India as much as the increase in the number of IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), if not more.
(View the achievement page here)

Inflation hits school education too...

It looks like inflation is the most happening thing in India today. Everything costs more: From fuel to flight fares, cooking gas and vegetables--it just doesn’t seem to end.
The latest on the list is education. We have been paying more and more for education, the cost will keep increasing. Check this story in Economic Times, a survey conducted under the aegis of the Social Development Foundation of Assocham on ‘Rising school expenses vis-a-vis dilemma of young parents.’ The cost of school education has risen by a whopping 160% in the last 8 years. And this is, believe it or not, excluding tuition fees. Most middle class parents today spend a significant part of their income on their children’s education.

Some mind boggling numbers from the report:
Annual Expense for a single child
  • Risen from 25,000 in 2000 to 65,000 in 2008 (excluding tuition fees)
  • Tuition Fess 35,000
  • Another 30,000-35,000 more for a host of 'overheads'
If this is what good education actually costs, I wonder what our government schools, which offer “free education” are actually dishing out to the vast majority of children in India.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Some of my favorite blogs on teaching...

Christina Laun has a comprehensive list of some “must reads” by teachers in Teaching, a teachers’ resource website.

I went through the sites and blogs and I list my favorites here: (great find! thanks Christina :))

  1. if bees are few

  2. Teacher in a strange land

  3. TeacherCount Blog

  4. Artichoke

  5. One crazy teacher to another

  6. 21st century Teaching

  7. Successful Teaching

  8. The Teacher's View

  9. The Teaching Professor

  10. Ranting Teacher

NCERT textbooks speak through pictures!

Much of early learning is motivated by a sense of wonder. Wonder about sounds, smells, people and their attires and languages, and everything else. A lesson in geography that speaks of the desert, and has a description of a camel cannot be as effective as, say, a video clip of a camel crossing the desert, with the roar of strong winds in the background.
Imaginative movies, and fictional narratives about visiting the past, or parts of the world are therefore popular among children, and come in handy as teaching aids. They serve as the perfect excuse for taking the audience of children on an audio visual tour of the past or of a place, where things can be shown and heard, and not just told.
The reason is simple: the more we see and hear, the more we learn. (Read more)
Looks like the NCERT has taken at least a baby step in providing what educational theories have been proposing for many years now.
The students are in for a nice surprise this academic session. Text books with illustrations since pictures speak a thousand words! Pictures of our freedom fighters, soldiers, weapons, the socio-religious reforms by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and other eminent personalities. Would it work? I'll have to check with my kid cousin.
In a unique way to present the glorious history of India's freedom struggle, the NCERT has resorted to pictorial presentation of the subject aiming to generate interest and inquisitiveness among the students to explore the past.

Read the complete story here

Another Government school in shambles...

Yet another sorry state of a Government school. The Jowai Government school located somewhere on the hills of Meghalaya opened in 1941 is close to shutting down. Doesn't the Jowai Government school started in as early as 1941 even before our independence deserve a little attention? Considering that this is one of the first schools in India! But then, being so alienated from the mainstream, so distant in heart and hearth, it is no surprising that the center is heartless about it. However, I'm certain that a host of Meghalayans (bureaucrats, educators, businessmen, political leaders) are alumnus of this school. Can't somebody, anybody do something about it?

It has been almost 61 years since we attained independence and we have seen numerous governments come and go and we have heard promises after promises from these governments. But the condition of the school is deteriorating day by day.

The school has been facing numerous hardships for some decades now without any government coming to its rescue. Some of the main problems that the school is facing vary from shortage of manpower to the infrastructure.

Little drops of water indeed make the mighty ocean

There are millions of homeless children here in India. Several NGOs, the government, individuals are all doing their bit to give these homeless a space and a place in society. Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta talks about his experience as he helped an institution in Bhopal where orphans and underprivileged children found a place where they could get some education and a locker to be called their home. It is indeed touching!
These children, in my opinion, do not have anything personal and individual, no assets, no home, not even a toothbrush, nothing. It is a totally transient existence. And it is horrible, not to have anything to call your own.

But the idea was, that if they have a locker, with their own locks and keys, it becomes their little piece of home. And that is what we saw, there were thirty lockers and each had been decorated individually by their owners. The key was hung around their necks with a piece of sturdy twine, but some had put up photographs, some had arranged their clothes in pleasing manners, one even had managed to put in a tiny curtain in that locker.

Read the story here.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Lite talk

I do have a lot of fun teaching English to my students. Sometimes I really wish I knew Telugu, Urdu and Hindi to aid me in my teaching. I can manage colloquial Hindi but not enough to explain meanings or translate English words into Hindi. However, I do my times, out of sheer desperation I call up my Telugu and Hindi speaking friends too in the middle of a class!

Last week, I was teaching them the names of the parts of the body--I showed them my fingers and asked them what they were called--"fingers" they chimed. But when I showed them the a loud angelic voice they answered "leg fingers"! and calf they thought was called "back sheen" Sweet aren't they? I forget my walking woes when I'm with them :)

Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan...

Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) reaches out to the children of commercial sex workers in a corner of the city in Kolkata as a part of their “Education for All” program.

The social stigma and the fear of ostracism kept mothers from enrolling their children - till the SSA intervened with regular counselling, interaction and awareness drives.

“Children are never made to feel that their mothers are from this disreputable place where I live. Ten years ago, school not have even looked at us, let alone admitted our children to study. So much has changed over the last few years,” said Banita, a sex worker, whose daughter Sona studies at the Swamiji Vidyapeeth Primary School.

Read the complete story here.

12 years of distance learning invalid

Today, online distance learning, virtual classrooms have found an enthusiastic audience in many parts of the world. The advantages that this system gives are tremendous. The ability to earn a degree and also pursue a job at the same time has improved the career prospects for many people, who would not otherwise be able to afford an education. And since one isn’t limited by one’s location, it’s possible for people to “go the distance” looking for a good course administered by an excellent faculty.
Many people need to work and support themselves for an education and the best deal they have is to go for a distance course.
While lunching with a friend in the university campus a couple of weeks ago, I met her brother and got around to talking about his work and his education. He’d finished his graduation through the distance mode and was working in a private bank. But it seems next week he is shifting base to Delhi because he plans to join a coaching institute and write the central banking exams.
Why am I telling you about him? I remembered him when I read this story in Times of India this morning:
Several lakh degree certificates awarded by the University of Madras and a few other state universities through the distance education programme for over 12 years are not valid for getting employment in Central government departments.
I hope he didn’t go to one of these universities. But there are thousands of people who did—in a long span of 12 long years. I find it shocking that universities could be irresponsible enough to offer courses they were not authorized to offer (weren’t they supposed to be the very foundation of our educational system?) and I am amazed that for 12 years, this fraud was allowed to continue: universities collected their fees, printed out stacks of certificates, and the only ones who lost anything (precious hours of study at night, many years of effort and hope) are the students. It just goes to show how devious and negligent some people can be.
Two solutions come to mind:
All the degrees issued in this manner should be recognized and the people who were systematically deceived should now be allowed to write central Government exams (as long as they meet other conditions, of course).
The people who were involved in committing this fraud as well as the people who were supposed to put an end to it but did not should be required to give up their own citations or increments—effective from 12 years ago.

East or west, government schools are the same!

In India, Government schools are synonymous to lack of everything a normal school should have: Teachers, classrooms, drinking water, toilet, desk and benches, books, the works!
I’ve been writing about the government schools in Andhra Pradesh ever since we started the EFF project. For a quick recap, it’s here, here, here and here.
As I read this story in Express India, it’s a déjà vu moment for me.
Due to lack of infrastructure, students are made to either sit in the verandah or outside the classrooms, irrespective of the weather — rain, heat or cold.

The pictures below are students of Rasoolpura Government School Hyderabad diligently taking a test in the veranda of their school.

Despite the absolute negligence by the government towards the school, the students are blessed with an organization called Bhumi--a group of young individuals who have revived the school and have given it a fresh lease of life. In two years, apart from other necessities, they have even managed to built enough classrooms for all the students-- Thanks to organizations like Panterra Networks (formerly Pandora Networks--where I worked last) who in their own way contribute to make this change easier.

Next time around when I visit the school, i'll see a different picture. Literally.

Red Cross School girls...

This afternoon I took the engineers to the school to examine the room where the Virtual Classroom technology will be deployed. As they got busy discussing the logistics and stuff I went out and took some pictures of the girls. Not just the uniform but they are bright in every way!

The 7 graders--the girl in glasses (front) stood first in the previous year...this morning she read out a poem in Hindi and translated bits and pieces of it in English for the non Hindi speaking audience :)
The lower graders waiting for their parents to pick them up.

I lifted the red schoolbag just to get a feel of how heavy they were and goodness me!They were as heavy as a ten kilo rice bag!

Buying guava from a fruit seller through the grill of the school gate.

It's 2pm and they are dying to go home but the gate is locked and will be opened only after the long bell is rung :)
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