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Monday, 26 September 2016

How these students from 49 remote village schools are learning in state-of-the-art digital classrooms

The Indian government has achieved significantly in strengthening the rates of children’s enrollment to school. But, the real problem is in their learning outcomes. 85 percent of the 1.3 million schools in the country are in rural hinterlands, causing an acute shortage of good quality teachers, as well as a failure to create a confluence of cultures and exposure from the outside world, for the student. As of 2011, eVidyaloka is that nexus. A service-delivery model that aggregates passionate people across the world as volunteer teachers, eVidyaloka orchestrates sessions and lectures in schools in remote villages of India, by conjuring up a “digital classroom.

Meet the ideator
Venkat Sriraman is an engineering graduate from the class of ‘95 at BITS Pilani. A momentum that was set by his engineering degree transported him to civil engineering for three years and software, for 14 years. But, for Venkat, his plunge was a ‘smooth transition’, into an alternate career. At least, it felt like that, because he was driven by his principles coupled with his professional competencies, to create a model built on years of research. “eVidyaloka was not an aha idea, but a diligently explored and evolved model of innovation,”says42-year-old Venkat.

What is eVidyaloka?

Registered in Bengaluru in 2011 and governed by Section 12A of the Income Tax Act 1961, the eVidyaloka model brings together qualified Indian nationals currently living across 110 cities, leveraging the power of technology to enable access to high quality teachers for the children in the remotest villages and tribal zones of India. It focuses on children aged between 10 and 14 years (6th‑8th grade), delivering live interactive classes in the local medium, through a powerful partner ecosystem.

What do the kids have to look forward to?

Predominantly, the state board’s curriculum itself is being taught by the volunteer teachers, with an objective of augmenting it with rich digital content like videos, visual flows, pictures, activities, etc.

They have even engineered their own softwares to facilitate the sessions, like My eVidyaloka 3.0, which digitises the various process frameworks that are involved in the working of the sessions. They use Skype, Google Hangout for tuning the teachers in.

Who is teaching?
Over 70 percent of the volunteer teachers are qualified professionals in various fields, post-doctorates, homemakers, retired teachers, graduate students, Ph.D students and working professionals from India and abroad.

Who are the allies?

eVidyaloka values regional idiosyncrasies and leverages them by empowering the existing grass-root level organisations to work with the government schools in their villages. It is designed to be a complimentary or supplementary component to the established Government Education System. The respective authorities in the State Education Department are in the loop about the functioning and the value proposition of the programme and necessary consent is obtained, prior to the start. In regions like Giridih, Jharkhand, they received overwhelming support from the technological government institutions like NIC alongside the District Administration.

The journey

It all started with a trial, a virtual Summer camp in a village called Thenur, in Perambalur district of Tamil Nadu, in the year 2010 (April and May). The camp was put together with the Projector infra and the recently obtained BSNL broadband by the locally functioning NGO called Payir Trust, and with few handpicked passionate individuals across Chennai and Bengaluru.

Two fundamental things were well established in this eight-week experimental phase. Despite fragile internet connection and digital infrastructure, the children just thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning. Secondly, the teachers were developing emotional connect with the children and expressed eagerness to continue their time beyond the summer camp.

In June 2010, the classes were extended to the same children from class6th to 8thafter the school hours for Maths, Science and English, in the NGO premises. From there evolved the first model of remote class delivery – a local-partner driven, outside-learning centre.

Improvising – an indispensable part of entrepreneurship

In July 2010, eVidyaloka drew a two-year pilot plan for their documented delivery model, defining three offerings- the ‘after school, NGO premises, NGO managed’ format, the ‘after school, rented premises, eVidyaloka directly managed’ format, and lastly, the ‘in school, NGO managed’ model.

Executed between April ‘11 and March ’13, they were able to establish six centres across TN, AP and JH, over 40teachers had taught over 250 children, over a span of more than 450 hours – completely online, of course. The students were showing results, too. Seventy percentof the children scored at least 50 percent in their academics back in school.

What Venkat learnt from this experiment is that the biggest catalyst of this innovation is the children’s instant acceptance of the virtual world, for a child’s mind is absolutely unbiased. And that the internet was still unstable and unavailable in villages is a myth - over 100,000 villages, as of 2012-13, were broadband connectivity powered, and it was only going to get better. Having said that, the connection was certainly not up to the mark. Moreover, erratic power supply was more of an issue than the internet. This was addressed by making a UPS system to handle the digital infra. Finding alternate broadband connections has been a constant part of the equation– as they shifted from BSNL Wired broadband to WiMax, mobile 3G and now, Reliance Jio.

Trial and error

Testing the waters with three models, the first, ‘after school model’ didn’t work as well as the ‘NGO premises/managed’and ‘eVidyaloka managed’ models. It was because the former would eat into their play hours, and girls found it difficult to make it beyond 6 pm because of social and safety reasons.

Having established sound fundamentals, a three-year-plan was laid. It was decided to replicate and scale it upto 50 villages across five states, reaching out to over 3,000 children with over 300 teachers from across the globe.

Moreover, based on the reviews from three schools in the Dharwad regions, which spread in all the lands, a total of 50 government school teachers assembled from the CRC, and spent time to understand how the eVidyaloka model works. Three of the panchayats where the eVidyaloka school is running, came together and invested resources to make sure the digital classrooms look neat, clean and conducive. The district administration of Jharkhand has even offered to take care of the entire school’s infrastructure and have eVidyaloka serve the KGBV schools, a phenomenon repeated in the adjacent district of Deogarh.

The result: 175 out of the targeted 300 were headhunted to teach at about 25 centres by 2015.This number was raised to 338 teachers, 49 centres across 49 villages from Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, 3,000 students and modules in four languages by 2016.

Kodak moments!

The team of 20 was able to rope in the inventor of Google Glass himself, to interact with the children of Jharkhand and even give them a live demo of the product, in a memorable session.

“I go and proudly tell my friends that my school is no less or better than most schools in Hyderabad”, says Genus, the Headmaster of Juvvalapalem School, a partner organisation in Andhra Pradesh

Venkatesh P, a volunteer from Hyderabad, heartily narrates, “I am engineer, but always wanted to be a teacher. eVidyaloka is a dream come true for me where I am realising my passion.”

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