Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A quest for change in education

For the last few years, I have been increasingly interested in the area of Open Education Resources (OERs). MIT's Open Course Ware was one of the pioneers of OER and the manner in which it was used across the world was truly fascinating. Khan Academy took the concept of OERs and made it wildly popular – the 3000 videos on its web site have been viewed more than 133 million times!

Why this interests me is because I believe (as do many others) that education is one of the most critical inputs for India's development. Well, more than an input, I'd say this is the critical factor that decides whether our country descends into chaos in the next few decades or emerges out of poverty and takes a place of pride on the world state as one of the developed nations. Think of it as that moment when an aeroplane gathers speed on the runway and generates enough thrust to break free from the gravitational pull of the earth and soar into the sky. If we educate our youth and make them skilled and able citizens of India, we will soar into the skies. If we don't, we will land with a thud. As simple (and scary) as that.

Over the last few months, I've been trying to understand the education space in India and within that space, how OERs can help the Indian education system. It is no secret that there is a huge demand supply gap with the need for educational infrastructure and teachers not being matched by the Indian education system. Even among teachers that I have spoken to, there are huge gaps in the skills imparted to them. It is obvious that, as a country we still have a tremendous amount of work in terms of breadth and depth – breadth, in creating a network of teachers that reaches the remote villages of India and depth, in terms of ensuring that these teachers are equipped with sufficient skills and knowledge to teach their students. To understand this, I have been visiting educational institutions across India and I will be writing and documenting these experiences as I go along.

One of the first such educational institutions I visited as part of my quest was appropriately named QUEST, which is short for “Quality Education Support Trust.” QUEST is an NGO that works on enhancing quality of education and has its office in Saloni Village in Wada District, an underdeveloped tribal area of Maharashtra State in India. Some of the teachers I met their had done their BEd from premier institutions in India, but I was shocked when they told me that they had no training in how to teach in real-life situations. QUEST has been working to fill that gap.

Saloni village is a two hour drive out of Mumbai and by the time we reached the QUEST office around 9.30AM in the morning, the heat is above a blistering 40 degrees celsius. Accompanying me in the car are Nilesh Nimkar, an educationist working for the last 15 years in tribal belts of Thane; and Rammohan Khanapurkar, a young techie working with the ObserverResearch Foundation. Together, they have implemented Moodle, an open source Learning Management System, which has been customized to Marathi, for the benefits of the teachers who are being trained by QUEST.

Some of the work that QUEST has been doing to improve education quality has been so simple that one wishes more people adopt it. For example, over a hundred teachers affiliated to QUEST are now using the Moodle forum in Marathi, to exchange ideas with each other on improving education quality. I find about 25 of these teachers assembled at the QUEST office in Saloni village for a workshop. When I quizzed these teachers about the benefits of the Moodle forum, they said that many teachers who were too shy to ask questions in a classroom would open up and ask questions online. They found that the forum had an impact on education quality because they could post problems and find solutions quickly. One teacher said that he was struggling with slow learners in his class and the ideas from other teachers in the forum helped him bring the slower kids up to speed. The teachers were so enthused by the online forum that many of them spent their own money to buy netbooks and data cards to connect to the forum. One of the key factors for the success of the forum was that the teachers were given a 15 day training in using the Inscript keyboard in Marathi, which helped them use the online forum more fluently. Khanapurkar says that the usage of the forum shot up once the training was completed. For the Indic computing community, this is a point worth noting, for ensuring the success of Indic computing.

Another intervention that QUEST has made for improving education quality is the creation of videos that explain how teaching can be done in an actual classroom. In one such video, a teacher is teaching the Marathi alphabet “Na” to a class of kids who are around two-three years old. She uses more than 20 words with the alphabet “Na” in it, emphasizing the “Na” and makes her students repeat the word. Then she asks each of the students to give her one word with “Na” in it and finally tears up a newspaper into pieces and asks the students to underline every occurrence of “Na” in the piece handed over to them. The video serves as a powerful example of how multiple methods of learning (auditory, kinesthetic etc) can be combined to serve the core concepts being taught. The video is barely ten minutes long, but the teachers say that it has made a difference to the way they teach alphabets in their classes. Nimkar tells me that QUEST sometimes uses as many as eight cameras to make these videos, and pay particular attention to capturing the reactions of the students. Such videos can be a powerful means of upgrading the skills of teachers in India.

Most readers will also agree with me that we need a fundamental rethinking of the education system in India. Critics say that India's education system was created by the British to fulfil their need for clerks who could keep the colonial empire running. Be that as it may, our system treats students as inert objects whose only task is to soak in the information dished out to them, and regurgitate/ vomit it at exam time. When I completed my graduation, I looked back on my five years in college, and the ten years in school, and came to the sad conclusion that those were my most wasted years of my life. Therefore, when I saw Kiran Bir Sethi's video on TED, I looked forward eagerly to meeting her and seeing the Riverside School that she founded.

Kiran got a standing ovation for her TED talk and a well deserved one too because she is teaching her kids at Riverside to be doers instead of being inert absorbers of knowledge. If India is to emerge out of this immense morass of corruption and incompetence, we need more people who believe that they can change the world for the better, and then go out and do it. As Indians, we whine about corruption and wallow in our miseries because our education system loads us with inert information but teaches us nothing about what to do with it. At Riverside, Kiran worked on a program called Design for Change that is transforming kids into individuals who say, I CAN’ instead of ‘Can I?’ Riverside kids have lobbied and campaigned for child-safe zebra crossings and for parts of Ahmedabad to be closed to traffic and dedicated exclusively for children.

I believe this kind of education is the need of the hour for India. If we as a nation do not believe that we can make change happen, we will continue living in the mess we have created and that is a horrible thought. If we teach our children how to make change happen, we can emerge as a strong, powerful and well developed nation in the next few decades and rout poverty from our country. Personally, Kiran's work also appealed to me enormously because in the last seven-eight years that I have worked in public policy and advocacy, I have seen with my own eyes that making policy change is not a difficult as people imagine it to be. The Indian government might be a byzantine and complex organism but there are definite ways of making it work. The Design for Change program started at Riverside has now become a global movement encompassing 35 countries of the world, which encourages children to work on challenges like health, environment, education and others facing our world. Search for “Riverside School Ahmedabad” on YouTube and you see some amazing possibilities how our education system can create better students and a better India. I hope these videos become more popular, and more and more educators rethink how they teach their kids.

The good news is that QUEST and Riverside believe in OERs and are willing to share their work with the rest of the world. In that, I see seeds of hope for a better future for India's students, teachers, our education system, and ultimately for India itself.