EducateZilla : Using technology to improve quality of education in rural government schools

By Dr. Rajugopal Gubbi and Prabha Mysore

An earlier blog in this series by Suvidya Foundation, Bangalore, had discussed the details of the Textbook-on-tablet technology for rural government schools. Suvidya Foundation, Bangalore is a technology NGO working to improve the quality of education in rural government schools through the use of technology. At the time of this writing, Suvidya Foundation is successfully running its EducateZilla program using the Textbook-on-tablet technology in 35 rural government schools in Karnataka. Suvidya Foundation hopes to extend the program pan India.

This blog describes how the EducateZilla program has shaped up over the past five years.

Learning using the Textbook-on-tablet
Learning using the Textbook-on-tablet

The EducateZilla program started in a very small way in November 2013. With the help of funds from EqualSky (another NGO), CSR India (an IT company, later acquired by Qualcomm Technologies Inc) and funds from the founders, Suvidya Foundation was able to buy tablets to deploy in three rural government schools. Even though the tablets were too few in number the children did not mind sharing them. They were thrilled to see lessons from their own textbook on the bright, shiny tablets, that too in a much more attractive form with more pictures, maps and all. Each tablet was loaded with the Textbook-on-tablet solution along with content for English and Mathematics for just the 6th grade. The children in all the three schools took to the technology like ducks to water. Weekly visits to track the progress of the children also helped refine the content, deploy it immediately and observe the effectiveness of the software as well. This in turn, helped EdZilla Software Technologies refine its Textbook-on-tablet technology. The results of the pilot program infused confidence to extend the program to more schools the following year as well as to build content for 5th and 7th grades. With each passing year the EducateZilla program has grown more structured, gradually evolving a formal model for technology based programs in rural schools. Suvidya Foundation, being a technology NGO, has adopted technology with gusto in its field operations as well.

In the academic year 2014-15, the EducateZilla program was extended to 13 schools and in the very next year it reached 33 schools with sponsorships from Mindtree Foundation, Motivation for Excellence and Vaishnavi Foundation. Help poured in from all quarters, like the officials from the education department who willingly signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Suvidya Foundation, the hardware vendors who offered extra discount and/or extended warranty on the tablets, the individuals who sponsored tablets for schools, the partner NGOs who connected Suvidya Foundation with potential schools for the program, the partner NGOs who connected Suvidya with volunteers for content creation, friends, relatives and acquaintances who volunteered for content creation. Suvidya Foundation is grateful for all the help that it has received throughout its journey so far.

Word had spread that the Textbook-on-tablet solution was a real boon to rural government schools. Every day government schools were calling to find out when and how they could become a part of the program. This was the right time for Suvidya Foundation to stop and re-examine its priorities. The mission and the strength of Suvidya Foundation is technology deployment in rural government schools not necessarily running a huge field operation. Instead, if a major chunk of the field operation could be automated using tools developed specifically for that purpose, then it would be easier to partner with other NGOs in the field to extend the reach of the Textbook-on-tablet technology. Creating content for more grades and constantly refining the existing content would further increase the impact. So, over the past four years, Suvidya Foundation has been running the EducateZilla program in about 35 schools and focusing on its core strength of technology deployment and content creation. Suvidya’s partner NGOs have been running the program using the Textbook-on-tablet technology in the government and tribal schools that they are involved with.

As one can imagine, it takes a lot more than an app on a tablet and some content for any technology to be successful in the field, especially so in rural government schools. The EducateZilla program involves various operations for overall program management and in-school program management. Some of the key operations are discussed below.

Involving the education department

Prior to adopting schools in any Taluk, Suvidya Foundation signs a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Block Education Officer (BEO) of the Taluk. Where possible it seeks the help of Cluster Resource Persons (CRP) and Education Coordination Officers (ECO) to identify new schools for the program. Suvidya has involved them in the deployment, periodic school visits and the end-of-the-year prize distribution events. Suvidya Foundation also encourages the CRPs and ECOs to review the progress on the tablets whenever they visit the schools.

Sponsorship drive

Getting sponsorship for technology based programs is not a cakewalk. Technology, especially in rural schools, takes time to get accepted. It takes even longer to produce any tangible results. Companies had to understand that sponsoring hardware for rural schools does not offer the same instant gratification that sponsoring school kits, shoes, stationary and Christmas gifts do. Luckily some companies did understand it and that’s how Suvidya procured sponsorship for its schools. Suvidya has involved them in the deployment, periodic school visits and the end-of-the-year prize distribution events to help them observe the impact firsthand.

Selection of schools

Experience in the field has taught Suvidya Foundation that a rural government school must satisfy the following requirements in order to qualify for participation in the EducateZilla program.

  • A higher primary school with less than 4 teachers or a lower primary school with less than 2 teachers is better suited for this program, as children will have enough free class hours to benefit from tablet assisted learning. 
  • Teachers should have a genuine interest to actively participate in the program and not just the initial excitement that novelty commands.  
  • The head master of the school should agree to the following requirements of the program.
    1. The hardware should not leave the school premises for any reason and should be used by the students and teachers of that school alone.
    2. Grades 5, 6 and 7 should each be allowed to use the tablets for at least one class hour every day.
    3. The school should strictly adhere to the guidelines provided to keep the hardware safe, secure and operational.
  • The school should have at least 4 or 5 other schools that qualify for the program or are already running the program in a 5-10 Km radius so that the mentors assigned by Suvidya Foundation can be optimally utilized.

Hitherto, rural schools were used to corporations donating things like books and computers typically without any evaluation or follow up to study their impact. Hence, being asked to agree to the above requirements of the program was a bit of a culture shock for the schools even though the technology was being given free of cost. It took a while for the schools to understand and accept the ‘give and guide’ motif of the EducateZilla program as opposed to the well accustomed practice of ‘give and leave’.

Despite the due diligence, there have been instances where the three requirements were not met or the interested teachers got transferred and/or replaced by those who were not interested in this intervention. This resulted in waste of resources. Consequently, there have a been a churn of a few schools at the beginning of each academic year.

Hardware management

Hardware management for the EducateZilla program includes

  • Selection of low cost tablets through comparison of features such as battery duration, display resolution, processor type, clock speed, memory size etc., of sample tablets from multiple vendors. This is done by testing the Textbook-on-tablet solution on them at the Suvidya office followed by field tests at a couple of schools.
  • Procurement after negotiation for a reasonable price and an acceptable Service Turnaround Time (STAT). Suvidya Foundation has deployed tablets from many different vendors. So far the Dell Venue tablets have given the best value for money as well as STAT.
  • Deployment and maintenance – While Suvidya Foundation procures sponsorship for the tablets, it encourages the schools to purchase a UPS with the help of the School Development & Monitoring Committee (SDMC) in the village. It is a well-known fact that when the SDMC gets involved in any program, the school becomes more serious and better accountable.
  • A small repository of spare tablets is maintained to be used as temporary replacement for defective tablets that are being serviced so that the program is not disrupted.
  • Timely maintenance largely depends on prompt reporting from the school to the field mentor and consequently to Suvidya office.

In-school program management through mentors

Like many other NGOs working in the field of education, Suvidya Foundation has also adopted the model where its trained mentors visit the schools regularly. Suvidya Foundation trains its mentors to empower the children to self-learn using the Textbook-on-tablet technology. Suvidya Foundation, being a technology NGO, naturally uses technology to assist its mentors with their field work as well as to train them. Each mentor gets a tablet loaded with a field operation tool called the Mentor Assistant App (MAA) that automates a lot of tasks in the field, such as marking the mentor’s attendance at a given school, updating tabs with software/content, preparing class level performance charts to help mentors focus on underperforming classes and so on. The tablet also contains the Textbook-on-tablet solution along with special mentor training modules. It includes a teacher training module as well to enable mentors to bring round the year training to the teacher’s doorstep. The MAA helps the mentor through constant reminders to undergo regular training as per an automated schedule and tracks the mentor’s progress.

Periodically all the reports from the mentors, including their training reports, are consolidated and analyzed on the server to facilitate timely course corrections.

Motivating children to learn

Children absorbed in learning
Children absorbed in learning

Needless to say that the EducateZilla program is designed for and is centered around children. Whatever keeps the children excited and motivated to learn assumes the highest priority in the program. The following are some of the motivational aspects of the EducateZilla program.

  • Since a technology based curricular solution is a rarity in rural schools, for most of the children, that itself is a major motivation to learn. Seeing their lessons on the tablet as interactive content, having pronunciations and meanings of English words at their finger tips, viewing animations on concepts in mathematics, getting instant feedback on tests etc., immensely excites them.
  • Deploying enough tablets to give each child in the class a fair chance to self-learn is another motivator. There was a choice of deploying just one tablet per school in an attempt to increase the breadth of the impact. Instead, Suvidya Foundation preferred to have a deeper impact in fewer schools.
  • Creating harmonious study groups with the help of the class teacher facilitates smooth peer learning motivating the entire group.
  • Textbook-on-tablet’s ability to adapt to the individual child’s learning pace is yet another motivator. Because of this, every child in the class is comfortable to use the technology and learn at his/her own pace.
  • Giving the children achievable goals at their own level and having the mentors give them as much attention as they need certainly motivates every child in the class.
  • Being able to view their own usage and performance metrics on the tablet motivates children to do better.
  • The scholastic games encourage children by awarding stars and trophies as their scores increase. The mentors not only nurture a competitive spirit among the children by sharing the screen shots of the highest scores with all their schools, but also motivate the toppers further by periodically recognizing such children in the class.
  • Right from the first year, the entire program has been designed and projected as a year-long inter-school competition. At the end of the year the performance data from all the schools for the entire year is analyzed on the central server at Suvidya Foundation. Prizes, trophies and certificates for different achievements such as maximum usage, best performance in Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) and highest game scores are decided across all the schools. For the children in grade 7 there is also a ‘Best Outgoing Student’ award. In addition, the schools are compared based on usage, teacher participation, number of distinctions, number of certificates and prizes. The best school gets a school level trophy.
  • Suvidya Foundation holds prize distribution functions at the schools with the best performances. For this function the education officers and SDMC members are invited so that the children get the maximum attention. At all the remaining schools, the assigned mentors felicitate the children in the presence of teachers and the SDMC members. The top school and top scorers get mentioned at all these functions. All this immensely motivates children from each batch to try their best to outperform the previous batches.
  • Suvidya Foundation also conducts enrichment programs during vacations to keep the children from forgetting what they have learnt during the school year. This makes the transition from one grade to the next smoother motivating the children to take on new challenges.

Watch this space for our blog on how adopting a mixed medium of instruction might create a win win situation for our rural schools.