OPINION: Rural education in India needs a comprehensive digital booster—one child at a time

OPINION: Rural education in India needs a comprehensive digital booster—one child at a time
Representative image(BCCL)
During a field trip to a remote village in West Bengal’s Burdwan district in August 2021, I was astonished by what I saw! Six-seven children were gathered around a smartphone tied to a bamboo pole with an umbrella, drenched in the rain. On inquiring, I learned that the children belonged to a local school and were meeting their teacher virtually for the first time since the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no smartphones available for children’s learning in these parts of the world when schools were shut down in 2020. The teacher lives 50 km away in a different town.
This made us develop a Digital Lab at a similar tribal village in the Jhargram district early this year that would become a free space for children and adults alike to walk in and learn digital skills. The post-covid world has changed dramatically. This catastrophic disaster has helped accelerate the digitisation of India’s mega school education system, which has more than 250 million children. With schools remaining closed for more than two years, students have been forced to accept digital education and distance learning as alternatives. But the divide has remained, or rather widened!

Growing inequality in access to education

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), in partnership with Meta, has released the Inclusive Internet Index 2021. And it clearly shows that most students belonging to lower or middle-class families have suffered the most. Either steady internet wasn’t available to them, or smartphones were not affordable for their parents. As a result, their learning was stopped. Many girl students were married off before they turned 18, while the underage male students accompanied their parents to work as labourers. Yet, India ranked 49th out of 121 countries.
Analysing the way India adopted digital learning, one would realise the progression wasn’t organic. While the Ed-tech players invested millions to standardise the learning, we were dependent on a teacher just using Whatsapp video features to teach. That might be a reflex reaction to the sudden epidemic but certainly not the right way to proceed.
Even without the pandemic, the rural education system wasn’t doing great. Why do we witness school dropouts despite mid-day meals? Why are students performing poorly even though we have primary schools built every 5-10 kilometres! The answer lies in teachers and the learning process. The primary schools, as well as the high schools in rural India, lack supervision. Yet, almost 65% of the country’s population is dependent on these schools. Many teachers often lack the motivation to teach, and the students, of whom many are first-generation learners, do not feel the urge to learn.

Towards solution through digitisation

The solution lies in standardising the education system through ICT devices powered by the internet — minimising the role of on-ground teachers. Through Advaita Bodhi Foundation, we have created specialised study modules that are classified by age groups. The modules include subjects like English, Arithmetic, Health & Hygiene and a regional language, Bengali.
The modules are inspired by the unicorn EdTech platforms and are created in collaboration with teachers and scholars from around the globe. They are lectures with demonstrations followed by pen and paper quizzes. Our digital labs are built to help rural youth learn job-ready courses ranging from e-commerce to digital marketing to internet-backed banking.
We are piloting six digital labs that we call Jana Pragati Udyog across West Bengal, equipped with computers, projectors, printers, and tablets. While around 300 children have enrolled, 50 students have started learning. They gather in these digital labs during the weekday afternoon and weekend mornings. We have trained local graduates to conduct these classes. The learning begins with a 20-minute cartoon show on hygiene using popular animated animals, followed by learning maths and English.

The medium of teaching is in the local language with an emphasis on English as a written as well as speaking language. In the urban cities, we have seen English-medium schools flourishing, and despite similar learning abilities, it’s because of language skills that a better percentage of city children is more successful. Our initiative isn't to make students toppers but initially to ensure they are at par with their city counterparts when they go to high school.
It’s an agreeable fact that students who know English have better opportunities. In the eastern Indian states, speaking and writing in English becomes challenging for rural students because they aren’t taught in the right way. Our lab in the Nadia district of West Bengal has personalised devices with headphones to learn English with an emphasis on pronunciation, grammar, and comprehension.

Education for all

One major bottleneck in the Indian rural education system is that the children lack motivation because they don’t often see adults who studied a lot and succeeded. We need to build it up. Curiosity amongst children needs to be aroused through newer content frequently. To inculcate the ambience of education as a culture in these villages, we employ 12th-passed girl students to invite the children to these labs and talk about their learning, experiences, and motivation.
The Digital India program has brought the Internet within reach. As a result, feature phones are now rapidly transforming into smartphones. While there are plenty of apps available in the market, most of them are beyond the reach of the average Indian family in the villages due to the direct and indirect costs attached to their use. Just like the way NCERT developed low-cost books, the government institutes need to build similar apps that are low-cost or free, maintaining the standard like the private ones.
Ed-tech players like Byju’s have come out with ‘Education for all’, committing to provide free education to underprivileged students through digital technology. This is definitely a welcome step! However, they must ensure that it doesn’t stay limited to urban slums but reaches the remotest villages.
We have already made a blunder with the schooling system where the affluent do not go to government schools. We cannot make the same mistake again, standing at the brink of an educational revolution.
Suchayan Mandal is the co-founder of the Advaita Bodhi Foundation.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the author/interviewee do not necessarily reflect the views of Business Insider India. The article has been partly edited for length and clarity.