No schools in your area? Try mobile classrooms

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Can Modi government’s ambitious Digital India Programme solve the problem of scarcity of teachers and schools? Can E-Education reach students when schools don’t even have electricity, forget basic computer infrastructure? Yes it can, provided we do away with traditional models of classrooms.

The aim of Modi government’s Digital India Programme is to transform the country into a digitally-empowered knowledge economy. This is a huge challenge for a country where more than 282 million people don’t know how to read and write (as per 2011 census, there are 282.70 million number of illiterates (7+ age group) in the country). For this programme to be truly successful, it is important that every citizen of the country is literate.

Recognising this fact, the government has emphasised on E-Education, one of the major highlights of Digital India Programme. Under this scheme, the government intends to provide education to everyone using internet, apps, laptops and smartphones. While this programme is likely to benefit students who go to schools, what about those students whose schools have been/are about to close down due to low enrollment or because they are run by a single teacher (as per the government report tabled in Parliament recently, over 1 lakh schools in India have just one teacher)? And what about those children who have to walk miles to reach the nearest school, forcing many to drop out even before completing primary education? How can e-education reach them?

Traditional Definition of Digital Classrooms

While digital classrooms are a reality, very often the definition is limited to using digital tools as teaching aids, which is, making school books/lectures accessible as e-books/presentation to be read/heard on tablets and laptops. Also, with various private companies having entered the market, teachers are supplementing their lectures with multimedia tools to make their classes interesting and interactive.

But why limit digital classrooms to the four walls of schools? Why not stretch it a bit further and include mobiles classrooms under its purview as well?

 Mobile Classrooms

People in broadcasting medium are all familiar with OB (outside broadcasting) vans. For the uninitiated, they are used extensively for live broadcasts by news or sports organisations. They are usually equipped with LCDs, cameras, satellite dish system, wireless LAN setup and backup supply through UPS/Inverter, laptops and others. The technology, as we all know, provides us live action – as it happens on ground.

Why not use the same technology for teaching those students who have no schools or teachers in their neighbourhood? Why not modify these OB vans in such a way that they act as a classroom for these children?

The idea is to customise the technology in such a manner that bigger trucks/vans (having adequate sitting capacity) replace the traditional classrooms, and internet acts as a substitute for teacher. The interactive live sessions between online tutors and students can successfully overcome the shortage of teachers. For those doubting the idea, well, the success of Khan Academy tells us that the physical presence of teachers is not always needed for students’ learning. And in any case, physical presence of teachers can always be arranged by the administration by hiring part-time teachers. They would be required to interact with students only once or twice every week. The vehicle, if converted into a caravan can ensure teachers travel to the remotest areas without any discomfort. Since it would be a part-time job, many teachers would be willing to take it up to earn some extra money. On a daily basis, all that the caravan needs is a technician, two of them possibly, to operate the system. But is this really possible?

The idea is to customise the technology in such a manner that bigger trucks/vans (having adequate sitting capacity) replace the traditional classrooms, and internet acts as a substitute for teacher.

“This solution is possible but costly. There are a lot of maintenance costs involved besides the challenge of safety of vehicle and its equipment,” said Sachin Ralhan, Sr Project Officer, Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF). DEF is one of the leading organisations actively involved in spreading digital literacy in remote and rural locations of the country. He suggests, “The caravan could also be used to deliver many other services, based on the requirement of a particular place, like information about other government schemes, etc.” While this may be an additional benefit, there are several advantages that explain why we should bet on mobile classrooms and not worry about the cost factor. The security can always be arranged when the will of the administration is strong.

Advantages

  • Arouse curiosity among people, thus attracting both young and old. The fascination for digital technology will drive many to studies, and the interactive platform will make studies fun for them.
  • The timings of classrooms can be flexible. Since caravan will be inside the villages, near their homes, classrooms can remain open from dawn to dusk.
  • Of late, quality of teachers in schools located in remote areas has generated a lot of debate. This too can be addressed by these classrooms, thus ensuring students get not just tutoring but quality education.
  • Students from all age groups and classes can come and study here. Each class can be allocated a different timing with each day specializing in one particular subject. For example, Monday can be reserved for Maths, one hour for every class. Similarly, Tuesday for Hindi and so on.
  • These classrooms will save students’ travelling expenses and also provide safety to female students (which is a matter of great concern in some villages).
  • Since the idea is to provide elementary education to all children, the syllabus can be modified as per the infrastructural limitations.

Khan Academy - the game changer 

US based Salman Khan used to remotely tutor his cousin who was struggling with Mathematics. Soon, other members of the family requested him to teach them as well. In order to cater to so many students, he decided to heed his friend's advice and began posting videos of his tutorials on YouTube. The videos became so popular that in 2009, Khan quit his financial analyst job and decided to devote himself full-time to his Khan Academy. The academy is now one of the most popular educational websites and offers its content free to anyone with internet access.

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