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.
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