Technology for rural government schools

By Dr. Rajugopal Gubbi and Prabha Mysore

In an earlier blog we had listed out some of the major issues plaguing the rural government schools. While technology cannot be an alternative for a good teacher, it can mitigate a lot of issues and help improve the quality of education in rural schools. Thanks to mobile phones, today, a vast majority of rural children are adept at using technology. They are excited about technology and are able to grasp new technologies much faster than grown-ups. This is a real blessing when it comes to introducing technology into rural classrooms. 

This edition of our blog series talks about the unique requirements for technology based solutions for rural schools. But first, let’s take a look at the various educational technologies that are currently being used in rural schools, their merits and demerits.

Educational technologies currently available in rural schools

There are three major technology solutions that are currently being used in some, if not all rural schools. They are,

  1. State governments have provided an infrastructure comprising a television, a dish antenna and a solar based power supply to many rural government schools. This has enabled the children to watch satellite based transmissions of lessons conducted by expert teachers at set time slots.
  2. The education department as well as many NGOs have provided enriched co-curricular and extracurricular content on CDs, DVDs and other storage media to augment classroom teaching. If the school has a computer, either donated by an NGO or provided by the education department, the children can watch the content on it.
  3. There are NGOs providing educational games to rural schools. There are also a number of educational games freely downloadable from the internet. These can benefit the children in rural schools provided their school has computers.

The satellite based solution is a good initiative as it can enable children in remote villages to learn from an expert teacher residing elsewhere. However it has its drawbacks. First of all, it is hard to make such sessions interactive. It is well known that anything that is not interactive has little impact on primary school children. The children have little patience or attention span for one sided communication unless it is a cartoon show on TV. Secondly, the satellite based teaching sessions are not adaptable to the child’s learning level. That means that the slowest learner in the class is expected to learn at the same level as the class topper during these sessions. Third, the high cost of such a solution cannot be justified for schools with low enrolment.

As with the satellite based solution, most of the co-curricular and extracurricular content provided on storage media is not interactive nor is it adaptable to the child’s learning ability. Also, given that this content is viewed on computers, invariably a few children monopolise its use denying the rest of the class the benefit of learning from it. The cost of the solution quickly escalates if all the children have to be provided with a decent opportunity of using it.

The third solution, namely educational games, tends to have very limited curricular impact as games are invariably designed with a larger audience in mind and are almost never tailored for rural schools. Having limited curricular impact, such a solution fails to become a part of the mainstream learning in the school. In other words, such a solution tends to get shelved within a short time thus depriving the children of the advantages it offers. In some exceptional cases teachers do encourage children to play the games. However, only a few children tend to benefit from these games due to limited availability of computers.

The above analysis of educational technologies currently available for use in rural schools brings out a few important points. First, the solution has to be interactive to have an impact in the field. Second, a solution is effective only when it constantly adapts to the learning pace of the child throughout the academic year. Third, the solutions for rural schools have to be curricular, supporting local medium of teaching and tailored for rural schools. Fourth, for widespread deployment in Indian rural schools the solution must be accessible to every child in the class. For example, until each child in a class can get a reasonable amount of computer time, computer based solutions cannot be effective. Having said that, it is worth noting that the NGOs providing computers to rural schools have done a great service to the children there by exposing them to technology at a very young age. But it is just that such solutions cannot become mainstream learning methods in rural schools at the moment.

Many ready to deploy, interactive solutions for self-learning/teaching are available today. But they are not suitable for rural government schools for two reasons. First, they expect the school to have a good infrastructure like internet connectivity for at least part of the learning session if not the entire session and one computer / tablet per child. This is an impossible ask today in rural government schools. Secondly, most of the currently available solutions specialize in English medium content. But rural government schools need content in local medium that is specially oriented towards the local syllabi.

Technology Requirements

Having analysed the merits and demerits of educational technologies that are currently being used in rural schools, it is evident that the following requirements have to be met for a technology to be effective there.

  1. Local language being the medium of instruction, any technology targeting rural government schools should provide content as well as user interface in the local language.
  2. The technology should provide curricular content, as opposed to co-curricular content. By making the content curricular, the expertise and the pedagogic principles that have gone into making the syllabus can be fully leveraged instead of each solution provider trying to reinvent the wheel.
  3. The single largest issue that is plaguing our Primary Education is a severe lack of teachers and little hope of overcoming it in the near future. Hence, the technology should focus on self-learning and peer learning while also supporting teacher centric learning sessions.
  4. The technology should provide instant feedback to any input from the child making learning interactive and hence more effective.
  5. The technology should be interesting enough to keep the children engaged throughout the academic year, not just when it is new. 
  6. The technology has to constantly adapt to the child’s learning pace throughout the academic year. In order to do this, it has to constantly track each child’s performance.
  7. The technology should render itself to be used as teaching learning material (TLM) in class. It should also enable teachers to improve their own knowledge and teaching methods/skills.
  8. The technology should function effectively even with limited or no internet connectivity, as the availability of internet connection in rural schools is still rare. Where it is provided, the internet speed may not be good enough to support the entire class at the same time.
  9. The technology should provide performance reports that both teachers and children can easily view and understand.

Deployment requirements

From the deployment perspective, the technology should be scalable in terms of cost, the cost being proportional to the number of children in the school. In other words, the cost of the technology required for a school with just 10 children cannot be the same as that for a school with 50 or 100 children.

The hardware for such a program should preferably be off-the-shelf requiring limited or no maintenance and requiring no customization. Today most children even in villages are hooked to mobile phones and can quickly learn to use new apps on them. As Android tablets are very similar to mobile phones, they are the natural choice of hardware for rural government schools. Other compelling reasons for this choice are their portability, low cost and low power requirement which in turn translates to a less expensive uninterrupted power supply (UPS).

The other key factor that ensures the succes of deployment is timely availability of the right content. Creating curricular content and enriching it is a humongous task, which is invariably underestimated by a lot of NGOs in the field. A few major decisions that will help facilitate incremental development of the same are listed below,

Choice of subjects: Over the years, in many state board examinations, the maximum number of failures have occurred in Mathematics and English (second language). This and the fact that most government primary schools do not have specialized teachers for these subjects make them the most desirable candidates for technology assisted learning. While other subjects can also be taught using technology, if there is a resource/time constraint on content development, these two subjects should get the priority.

Choice of grades: Considering that the technology is supposed to act as an additional teacher, an age group of children mature enough to use the hardware (like tablet) without constant supervision, has to be chosen. In primary schools, grades 5, 6 and 7 are the most obvious choice for this. Hence creating enriched, curricular content for grades 5, 6 and 7 should get priority over lower grades.

Type of enrichment: In order not to overwhelm the young children, the content must contain small modules and short practice sessions. To facilitate better understanding of the lesson, enrichment in the form of pictures, maps, short animation clips, sound clips and so on should be inserted where appropriate. Long video or audio clips are better avoided as young children tend to get bored quickly of one way communication of that sort. Interesting additional information can also be added to stimulate fast learners.

These requirements, drawn from our hands-on experience in rural schools, gave birth to the Textbook-on-tablet technology that has been currently deployed by Suvidya Foundation  in around 35 rural government schools in Karnataka.

Watch this space for our blog on what Textbook-on-tablet technology is all about.