Monday, October 8, 2007

Sikshana Case Studies

Case Study 1: Clips from the field – 1The First Step

During the process of laying the foundation for Sikshana, I have run into a number of people who have told me that they always felt a calling to volunteer their efforts to field of education. But these same people had not taken any concrete steps because of a lack of resources that help channel their desire to make contributions to the field. I hope this anecdote relating to my efforts in setting up Sikshana in Bangalore city will provide such people with some direction to launch their own efforts.

The whole idea of volunteering my time to improve basic education had been playing in the back of my mind for a long time. One day I overcame my inertia and inhibitions and walked into the nearest government school. I simply offered to help them in any way they saw fit. The teachers in the school were so excited by my offer that they spent nearly an hour going over all their problems and needs! By the end of the hour I had so much more information than I had dreamed of obtaining in this preliminary visit.

Ideas were beginning to form in my head and I was beginning to see different directions for my efforts. A remark made by one of the teachers during this meeting still stands out in my mind and has inspired me to keep my efforts going. She said: "Sir, even if you are unable to adopt our school for any reason (there were some technical hitches then), please go ahead and do something for children at some other school. These children can do with all the help they can get!".

The next step took me to the Block Education Officer, who has the unenviable task of overseeing a thousand schools. He informed me that the Karnataka Government has a scheme under which an individual or an organization can officially adopt a school and be responsible for its upgrade. This needed a legal document to be signed, for which he took all the steps immediately. The entire process was over in less than an hour and I was accorded VIP treatment during the entire proceedings! Copies of the document were sent to all the concerned schools promptly and we were able to start with our program in these schools within three days. It was altogether a surprisingly pleasant experience!


The Government and its hierarchy do care for primary education. And there are hundreds of schools waiting for you to step in! You only need to take the first step and you will see the path you need to take.

Case Study 2: Clips from the field – 1

"Why should I keep my Son at School?"

This anecdote starts with the visit of one Mr.Narayanappa, who came to meet the Headmaster of a school adopted by Skishana. This person wanted to take his 10 yr son out of the school. His stated reason for seeking the boy's removal was that he was moving to a different part of Bangalore.

As luck would have it, I happened to be visiting this school on that day and I decided to probe this matter further. With a little coaxing, it became apparent that Mr. N was taking his son out of school for good. When I expressed my concern that he should think about the long-term prospects of his son, Mr. N retorted (respectfully), "Sir, that is exactly why I am taking this step. What sort of future do you think my son will have studying up to the 10th Std in a government school? He may not even be able to get through to the examinations in the normal course. If he is lucky, he may manage to score 50-60% at the end, which will be totally inadequate for him to gain admission in any decent college. On the other hand, if I place him with a good 'maistry' (contractor), he will learn a useful trade and earn money for my family. And then with some luck, he may even become a small-scale contractor on his own by the time he is 25! Worse still, if he continues with his schooling any longer, he may not even be inclined to do manual labor, which I see as essential for him to earn a living."


We are way off the mark in assuming that lack of parental concern is the prime cause for dropouts. The larger cause is the inability of the system to offer sufficient incentive to the students (and their families by extension) to continue with school. Even if a small fraction of the students from a Government school are seen to evolve and become visible members in the community as a result of the system, it is my contention that a major upward trend will be seen in educational statistics.

It is not enough to churn out meaningless figures on enrolment and passes. A more relevant yardstick is where the children end up after school. The system needs to offer at least a glimmer of a hope to children (and their families) that their dreams could indeed come true if they stayed the course in school.

Case Study 3: Clips from the field – 2

"What can We do for You?"

I went to see the Head Master of one of the schools, immediately after the school's adoption by Sikshana. It was actually my first meeting with the Headmaster and after we exchanged preliminaries, the following exchange transpired:

Mr.Ramamurthy: What can we do for your school?
Headmaster: Sir, how much money does your trust roughly control?
Mr.Ramamurthy: Don't worry about the actual money reserves. We have enough to help improve the learning levels of the children in your school. Can you give us some ideas on what you need?
Headmaster: to start with, how about getting us ______? (fill in a long list of school items)
Mr.Ramamurthy: I don't mind getting you all that you requested and much more! I can promise you the sky…. But, can you assure me that as a result of our efforts, it, each class will show a 'X' % improvement in their grades.
Headmaster: Ahhh, I see.. let me think about it .. I think we need teaching aids like charts and models badly. Can you get us some?
Mr.Ramamurthy: No problem, please give me a list.

(Headmaster hands over a list after some discussions. A day later..)

Mr.Ramamurthy: Here are all the items you wanted. What next?
Headmaster: Sir, we never thought you are going to come back in a day!! Anyway, can you find us at least two more teachers? We have only five teachers for seven classes.

(A week later, two intern teachers are visiting the schools regularly)

Mr.Ramamurthy: What now?
Headmaster: Sir, we have gone through this in detail among ourselves. We find it is not so easy to identify the causes of poor academic performance and seek specific resources for overcoming them. We need to sit with you and discuss this further.
We did sit together for a few days. Result: The school got 100% pass in the open 7th Std examinations, a first in its history. Three of the children got above 70%!

Pursuit of quantitative targets is possible in the public education system. For results, you need to ignite the spark in the child. You cannot just dump this problem in the lap of the local community. They look for external inputs and advice.

Case Study 4: Clips from the field – 4

A Voice to be Heard
After a round of improvements in one of the schools adopted by Sikshana, I tried to get some feedback on our efforts. I went to the school early one morning and started talking to Deepa, a really smart kid in one of the classes. I asked her to identify among the changes we had introduced the one which had struck her as being the most important one. She said, "You have given us a few more teachers, and now we have one just for our class." I asked, "Is this change more important than the mid-day meals we are providing now?" She said, "Sir, the food is important to many of us who do not get enough to eat at home.

But then, we always managed with the food we did get at home. When we come to the school, we come with the aim of studying and making something of our lives. We can do this well only if we have a full-time teacher to look up to and get all our questions answered. Also, the teacher keeps the class in order so that the majority of us who want to concentrate on studies can do so, without being disturbed."

I asked Deepa, "What is the next most important thing for improvement of the class and the school?" She said, "We need a little space around us in the class room, it is so cramped here. Our teachers are very good and they put in lot of effort to help us. But, there is so much jostling among us that she has to spend a large part of her time just trying to maintain order, she cannot teach much".


The girl was just 10 years old, but she was astute enough to pin-point the two basic faults in the public school system. A child needs a teacher to herself/himelf. And the child needs some space - physical and psychological - all around to enable him/her to grow. That is what the school is all about for a child. If we can throw in such a nurturing environment, the kids and the teachers will go all the way and do the rest.

A point to ponder: In an Industry, a good CEO will lay great emphasis on keeping a finger on the pulse of the worker in the trenches. Why is it that we see so little evidence of this culture in the educational sector?

Case Study 5:

A Lesson in Computer Literacy from India's Poorest Kids

Sugata Mitra has a PhD in physics and heads research efforts at New Delhi's NIIT, a fast-growing software and education company with sales of more than $200 million and a market cap over $2 billion. But Mitra's passion is computer-based education, specifically for India's poor. He believes that children, even terribly poor kids with little education, can quickly teach themselves the rudiments of computer literacy. The key, he contends, is for teachers and other adults to give them free rein, so their natural curiosity takes over and they teach themselves. He calls the concept "minimally invasive education."

To test his ideas, Mitra 13 months ago launched something he calls "the hole in the wall experiment." He took a PC connected to a high-speed data connection and imbedded it in a concrete wall next to NIIT's headquarters in the south end of New Delhi. The wall separates the company's grounds from a garbage-strewn empty lot used by the poor as a public bathroom. Mitra simply left the computer on, connected to the Internet, and allowed any passerby to play with it. He monitored activity on the PC using a remote computer and a video camera mounted in a nearby tree.

What he discovered was that the most avid users of the machine were ghetto kids aged 6 to 12, most of whom have only the most rudimentary education and little knowledge of English. Yet within days, the kids had taught themselves to draw on the computer and to browse the Net. Some of the other things they learned, Mitra says, astonished him.

The physicist has since installed a computer in a rural neighborhood with similar results. He's convinced that 500 million children could achieve basic computer literacy over the next five years, if the Indian government put 100,000 Net-connected PCs in schools and trained teachers in some basic "noninvasive" teaching techniques for guiding children in using them. Total investment required, he figures: Around $2 billion.

On Feb. 25, BW Online Contributing Editor Thane Peterson sat down with Mitra, a stocky 48-year-old with a mustache and a mop of graying black hair, in his tiny, triangular office at NIIT's R&D center on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology in the south part of New Delhi. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Q. What gave you the idea of giving slum kids
access to the Internet?
A. It was a social observation rather than a scientific one. Any parent who had given his child a computer would invariably remark to me about it. I could hardly ever find an exception. Within a very short period of time, the parent would be claiming that the child was a genius with a computer. When I poked a little further, I invariably found that the child was doing things with the computer that the parent didn't understand.

I asked myself whether the child was really doing something exceptional or if what we were seeing was adult incomprehension. If the adult was simply underestimating the child's ability to cope with a computer, then that should happen with any child. And I asked myself, "Why then would we want to use the same teaching methods for children as we use for teaching adults?"

At first, I tested my ideas with children who were easily available -- children at the company here, whose parents are in our executive group.... Then we tried this "hole in the wall" concept, where we put a high-powered Pentium computer with a fast Internet connection into a wall and let [slum] children have access to it with no explanation whatsoever. To be very brief on what happened, the results have been uniform every time we've done this experiment. You get base level computer literacy almost instantly. By computer literacy, I mean what we adults define as computer literacy: The ability to use the mouse, to point, to drag, to drop, to copy, and to browse the Internet.

The children create their own metaphors to do this. To give you an idea of what I mean, a journalist came up to one of these kids and asked him, "How do you know so much about computers?" The answer seemed very strange to her because the kid said, "What's a computer?" The terminology is not as important as the metaphor. If they've got the idea of how a mouse works and that the Internet is [like a wall they can paint on], who cares if they know that a computer is called a computer and a mouse is called a mouse? In most of our classes here at NIIT, we spend time teaching people the terminology and such. That seems irrelevant to me with these children.

But we also found that they would tend to plateau out. They would surf the Web -- is very popular with them because they like games. And they would use [Microsoft] Paint. It's very, very popular with all of them. Because these are deprived children who do not have easy access to paper and paint. Every child likes to paint, so they would do it with that program. However, that's all they could do. So I intervened, and I played an MP3 [digital-music file] for them. They were astonished to hear music come out of the computer for the first time. They said, "Oh, does it work like a TV or radio?" I said, in keeping with my approach, "Well, I know how to get there but I don't know how it works." Then I [left].

As I would have expected, seven days later they could have taught me a few things about MP3. They had discovered what MP3 was, downloaded free players, and were playing their favorite songs. As usual, they didn't know what any of it was called. But they would say, "if you take this little box, and you drag this file into this box, it plays music." They had found out where all the Hindi music was on the Web and had pulled it out.

Q. What does it mean? What does it say for the potential of these slum kids? After all, being able to download music isn't enough to get them a job.

A. I don't wish to claim that this shows anything more or less than what it has shown, which is that curious kids in groups can train themselves to operate a computer at a basic level. In doing so, they also can get a generally good idea about the nature of browsing and the nature of the Internet.... And, therefore, if they view these things as worth learning, no formal infrastructure is needed [to teach them].

Now, that's a big deal, because everyone agrees that today's children must be computer-literate. If computer literacy is defined as turning a computer on and off and doing the basic functions, then this method allows that kind of computer literacy to be achieved with no formal instruction. Therefore, any formal instruction for that kind of education is a waste of time and money. You can use that time and money to have a teacher teach something else that children cannot learn on their own.

Q. What else have you learned?

A. Well, I tried another experiment. I went to a middle-class school and chose some ninth graders, two girls and two boys. I called their physics teacher in and asked him, "What are you going to teach these children next year at this time?" He mentioned viscosity. I asked him to write down five possible exam questions on the subject. I then took the four children and said, "Look here guys. I have a little problem for you." They read the questions and said they didn't understand them, it was Greek to them. So I said, "Here's a terminal. I'll give you two hours to find the answers." Then I did my usual thing: I closed the door and went off somewhere else.

They answered all five questions in two hours. The physics teacher checked the answers, and they were correct. That, of itself, doesn't mean much. But I said to him, "Talk to the children and find out if they really learned something about this subject." So he spent half an hour talking to them. He came out and said, "They don't know everything about this subject or everything I would teach them. But they do know one hell of a lot about it. And they know a couple of things about it I didn't know."

That's not a wow for the children, it's a wow for the Internet. It shows you what it's capable of. The slum children don't have physics teachers. But if I could make them curious enough, then all the content they need is out there. The greatest expert on earth on viscosity probably has his papers up there on the Web somewhere. Creating content is not what's important. What is important is infrastructure and access.... The teacher's job is very simple. It's to help the children ask the right questions.

Q. Are you saying that if we put computers in all the slums, slum kids could become literate on their own? A.

I'm saying that, in situations where we cannot intervene very frequently, you can multiply the effectiveness of 10 teachers by 100- or 1,000-fold if you give children access to the Internet.

Q. This is your concept of minimally invasive education?

A. Yes. It started out as a joke but I've kept using the term.... This is a system of education where you assume that children know how to put two and two together on their own. So you stand aside and intervene only if you see them going in a direction that might lead into a blind alley. That's just so that you don't waste time.... That would create teachers who are experts at composing questions.

Q. What are the business applications of all this?

A. I get asked this question all the time. It's kind of ironic that a company that makes [a big chunk of its sales from running computer-training institutes] should invent a method where no teacher is required. The answer is that just because a method is economically viable, doesn't mean you shouldn't look for alternatives. A good business is one which provides more and more for less and less. The cost of your goods and services should spiral downwards.

The second point is that we are going to have an e-commerce boom. But what happens when an Indian businessman puts his shop up on the Web? Where's he going to get customers from? If someone lets me do this experiment for five years, with 100,000 kiosks, I reckon that I could get 500 million children computer-literate. It would cost $2 billion. But if you had to pay to educate the same children using traditional methods, it would cost twice as much.

Q. If this were to become a business, would it require government funding?

A. Advertisers like Coca-Cola might be interested. But it would absolutely have to have government funding. I can't think of a company that would put $2 billion into this. The governments will have to realize that the problem of the haves and have-nots is about to [become] the problem of the knows and knows-not. Do we want to create another great big divide where the problem of illiteracy will come back in another context? In a very short period of time, adults who do not know how to deal with a [computer] mouse will have a very difficult time dealing with almost everything in life.

Q. But most of the information on the Internet is in English and the people you're talking about don't speak English.

A. We had some very surprising results there. We all have great misconceptions about what these children know and don't know. At first, I made a Hindi interface for the kids, which gave them links for hooking up with Web sites in their own language. I thought it would be a great hit. Guess what they did with it? They shut it down and went back to Internet Explorer. I realized that they may not understand the dictionary meaning of [English] words, but they have an operational understanding. They know what that word does. They don't know how to pronounce F-I-L-E, but they know that within it are options of saving and opening up files....

The fact that the Internet is in English will not stop them from accessing it. They invent their own terminology for what's going on. For example, they call the pointer of the mouse sui, which is Hindi for needle. More interesting is the hourglass that appears when something is happening. Most Indians have never heard of an hourglass. I asked them, "What does that mean?" They said, "It's a damru," which is Hindi for Shiva's drum. [The God] Shiva holds an hourglass-shaped drum in his hand that you can shake from side to side. So they said the sui became a damru when the "thing" [the computer] was doing something.

Q. Of all the things the children did and learned, what did you find the most surprising?

A. One day there was a document file on the desktop of the computer. It was called "untitled.doc" and it said in big colorful letters, "I Love India." I couldn't believe it for the simple reason that there was no keyboard on the computer [only a touch screen]. I asked my main assistant -- a young boy, eight years old, the son of a local betel-nut seller -- and I asked him, "How on earth did you do this?" He showed me the character map inside [Microsoft] Word. So he had gotten into the character map inside Word, and dragged and dropped the letters onto the screen, then increased the point size and painted the letters. I was stunned because I didn't know that the character map existed -- and I have a PhD.

Q. So what you're talking about is a different sort of literacy, a sort of functional literacy....

A. Yes, it's functional literacy. There are two examples I'd like to give you from the recent past. It's already happened in cable TV in India. There are 50 or 60 million cable-TV connections in India at this point in time. The guys who set up the meters, splice the coaxial cables, make the connection to the house, etc., are very similar to these kids. They don't know what they're doing. They only know that if you do these things, you'll get the cable channel. And they've managed to [install] 60 million cable connections so far.

Example No. 2 is the bicycle. I think we have the biggest bicycle-manufacturing industry in the world. The bicycle is ubiquitous here, and it's much the same in Malaysia, China, Africa. But you don't ask how the population became bicycle-literate. They just use it. So what I'd like to see is an India in which a large part [of the population] treats the computer that way.

The other thing is [how the Internet will change when most Indians gain access to it]. We have the analogy of cable TV in India. Originally, it was all in English. It took exactly four years for all the programming to become Hindi. Star TV is now almost all in Hindi. If you go to Bangkok, they hate it.

Q. You're saying that a lot of Hindi content will appear as more Indians surf the Net?

A. Exactly. Let me go on record as saying it's not a question of what the Internet will do to India. It's a question of what India will do to the Internet.... If rural India goes onto the Internet, there will be an absolute flood of Indian-language content from people trying to sell to them.

Q. Has the Indian or any other government expressed interest in funding such a project?

A. Several government agencies, several state governments, and several world agencies have expressed an interest. Unfortunately, I don't want to name them because I need to get the funds first.

Q. You say that only the children used the computer, not adults. What does this mean for adult education?

A. I'm not even going to suggest that we use this [technique] for adults. The only reaction we got from adults was, "What on earth is this for? Why is there no one here to teach us something? How are we ever going to use this?" I contend that by the time we are 16, we are taught to want teachers, taught that we cannot learn anything without teachers.

There are two points I'd like to make about the adults. One is that the adults asked the children to do things for them. For example, to read their horoscopes on the Hindi news sites. The second thing is the reaction of the women. I would ask them why they didn't use [the computer], and they would say, "I don't have enough brains to understand all this." I would say, "What about your daughters?" And the answer was, "They have lots of brains." So I said, "Do you think I should just remove this thing?" The answer was always, "No, no, no." I asked why not. And they said, "Because it's very good for the children."

Now, if the mothers have realized that, I'm happy. I don't care if they don't come [to use the computer]. Because all we have to do is wait one generation. Not even that. In five years, a 13-year-old is going to be 18 and be an adult.

Q. Where do you go from here?

A. There is one experiment that scares me. These children don't know what e-mail is. If I gave them e-mail, I don't know what would happen. I'll probably try it anyway. But remember the stories one used to hear about people finding lost tribes and introducing them to Coca-Cola? I'm really seriously scared about what would happen if suddenly the whole wide world had access to these kids. I don't know who would talk to them for what purpose.

Case Study 6: A Matter of Quality:

A study of people's perceptions and expectations from schooling in rural and urban areas of Uttarakhand
SIDH is a voluntary organisation which has been involved in providing educational opportunities to those deprived of it, in the rural areas of Tehri Garhwal district in Central Himalayas. With 18 primary and pre-primary schools, it undertook the following study to assess the response to their program and its relevance to the community.

During the course of this study, it was observed that most parents were unhappy with the impact of the present education system upon their children. SIDH then gradually began focusing on issues of quality and relevance and exploring the links between micro and macro issues - between education and the larger socio-political, cultural and historical context within which it operated. The results provide an insight into the relevance of the present education system in the country by examining people's perceptions regarding education.

The idea of the research project was to find out what people thought about education. So the obvious area of exploration was their definition of a good school and other questions along similar lines. Discussions were held with varied groups from both rural and urban areas along these lines. When these were taken beyond the routine issues like access, enrolment, dropout rates and the infrastructure needs etc., the team stumbled upon the contradictions which is perhaps the lot of a society mesmerized into imitations without questioning. These conflicts and contradictions reveal that it is not access but relevance, which is a major concern of the people.

For the team, the study only confirmed what Gandhiji knew without having undertaken such elaborate exercises many years ago. The heartening thing was that our so-called 'uneducated' women and men still speak the language of Gandhiji. This study brings out the clarity of thought and lack of dilemmas among the rural, low income, and illiterate groups, compared to the urban, high-income, literate groups. It is time that the sentiments of the people or 'community' are taken seriously by our policymakers.

In conclusion, the study goes on to recommend -
- Making the education system more relevant
before talking about increased access

- Decentralization of the system giving
the community more say in deciding on
the kind of education they want

- Incorporating traditional skills and indigenous
knowledge systems and imparting necessary
training to the child to earn a living