Classes in boxes

By Think Change India|26th Dec 2009
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Sudhar Krishnamachary is a TC-I education correspondent.Mia, a middle school student at Aditi private school in Bangalore, bubbles with enthusiasm, pausing to find the right words, “There is so much interaction with the teachers and so much group work that makes us interested in the subject and…want us to come to school and never miss school.” Contrast that to Swarna, a student at a government school not too far from Mia’s school: “I am scared of my teachers and my friends are scared too, I am afraid to talk in class and we all sit quietly.” (see documentary here)

The two girls symbolize the spectrum of Indian schools and their pedagogy. Of the estimated 200 million school-going children in India, a saddening 53% scoot out at upper primary level. A critical factor in poor student performance and high drop-out rates in rural Indian schools is the expertise and commitment of the teachers, and their teaching methods. Having said that, most will acknowledge that good teachers are out there, albeit, uncommon. “The question is how we could build something that amplifies the good teachers’ reach, helps the less trained teachers learn, and bridges the good and poor schools”.

That problem had Dr. Randy Wang leap out of his seat at a TED conference session. Inspired by how John Wood (‘Room to Read’) used yaks to deliver books to remote villages in Himalayas, Dr. Wang marveled if the same principle could come to help bridge the pedagogical gap between good teachers and the less-trained ones, ultimately benefiting the students in rural and slum schools. He went on to put the pieces of the puzzle together, named it “Digital StudyHall (DSH)” and describes its technical approach as “the educational equivalent of Netflix + YouTube + Kazaa.” In other words, they digitally record live teaching sessions of good teachers (more likely to be found in better schools in urban areas) and distribute it via DVDs to teachers in rural schools, who then use it as a supporting material for their in-class teaching (and for their own development). Joining hands with local social entrepreneur Dr. Urvashi Sahni, he assembled a crew of tech pros and teaching consultants supporting the supply side of in-class production and the demand side of in-class learning and mediation. The crew has since been on a mission that has archived and distributed thousands of teaching lessons, all recorded live off of actual classroom sessions.

One could argue that the best learning happens only when the students interact face to face with the best teacher as opposed to watching and emulating from a video. Nevertheless, “it is their showmanship, their way of relating to their audience, their people skills, that are their most potent tool” and DSH is promising a suite of practical solutions to replicate the best teachers’ methodologies, and augmenting it with existing rural educational setup. Basic language (regional + English) and math lay the foundation for much-needed life skills as children grow up, so DSH’s initial focus has resulted in about 1500 English and Math lesson recordings including many in regional languages. DSH has structured the system using the hub and spoke model, where ‘hub’ schools produce relevant localized content, integrating ‘spoke’ schools for distribution and consumption.

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To increase the credibility and adoption of this endeavor, DSH cross-pollinates the teachers and students in innovative ways. Select teachers from the hub schools visit rural schools and record their lessons with rural students, fostering trust and collaboration amongst peer teachers and schools administrators. In another approach, one or two bright students from the rural classroom are given an opportunity to mediate the video lessons when the incumbent teacher is frequently absent (talk about commitment). And for participating rural school teachers who showed significant improvement in their teaching methods, DSH ‘promotes’ their classes for lesson production, virtually setting the stage for an “Idol” competition amongst the teachers. Ultimately, the purpose is for the local communities to see for themselves that empowerment and transformation are entirely possible, with DSH acting just as a catalyst.

Strategically, DSH has its eyes on the right objective: United Nations Millennium Development Goals of universal primary education. DSH eventually wants to scale up their digital catalog to every course, every subject in every language and make it available to every Indian student. A monumental undertaking, but the initial results are nothing short of impressive; findings from an in-depth study of the participating rural schools suggest more interaction and collaboration between teachers and students, a desperately needed shift from the conventional monologues and docile students. 72% of all English and math students showed an improvement while 44% improved their scores by greater than 150%, and 31% of the children doubled their scores. Indeed, the researchers caution that the scope of DSH’s work and its short-term results are just a miniscule dent in the challenging rural Indian landscape, particularly, education.

Over the next few years, DSH wants to tap into its pool of rural teachers to help each other, keeping in mind what’s viable technically and operationally. DSH is prudent to not blindly bet on PC + Internet hype, learning from the challenges on the ground. Yet, with ubiquitous 3G presence across India, a complementary voice-mail based social network is being built to stay connected with network of participating teachers, share personal experiences and build momentum together. On the distribution front, research is underway to build a low cost, high utility, video player with wireless connectivity that can store entire library of classes with local language interfaces. Partnership with state governments, UNICEF and other NGOs is helping feed its growth further. As a proof for its viable concept, DSH has inspired Microsoft India to launch the Digital Green project, to capture indigenous agricultural know-how and disseminate it to other regional farmers. The premise being the same: provide motivation to learn new practices by observing and emulating peers.

A single unit of TV, DVD player and power support still costs a few hundred USD. Of course, that represents just the variable side of the equation while fixed components (regional production hubs, overhead) run one-time into thousands. Just as most non-profits, DSH runs through grants, corporate contributions and donations from anyone willing to fund the social innovation. However, it does aspire to be financially self-sustaining at some point through revenue generating business deals for its content and distribution assets. Urban schools could be tapped to pay for faster access to content, while third-party producers can tap into their distribution for entertainment or any value-added services. Such vision for financial independence aside, DSH remains committed to its core operations of serving the rural and slum children with all the video lessons, for free. In the end, it’s all about empowering Swarna to have an equal chance with Mia, so they are ready to fly.

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