Young graduate Sai Rath is using computers to empower teachers and complement classroom learning in rural Bihar.
As dawn breaks in the tiny district of Samastipur, its light illuminating the winding, dusty streets and modest houses, children gleefully prepare for a day of fun learning. Tightly clutching their school supplies in their tiny hands, they make their way to the Bherokhara Middle School. Winds of change have been blowing through the school – lessons these days are no longer restricted to the words of a textbook or the lectures of a teacher. No, lessons these days are about understanding the ‘why,’ ‘what’ and ‘how’ of things; about learning by doing and learning by teaching; about using the wonderful technology of computers to learn about the wonderful world around them.
This change in the teaching methodologies of the village school can be attributed to one young graduate and his desire to introduce rural children to computers: Sai Prasanna Rath.
Sai Rath graduated from NIT Rourkela, Odisha in 2015, with BTech and MTech degrees. While in college, he realised there were many drawbacks to the education system in India: “I found that our focus is always on theoretical concepts. We pay very little attention to practical application and because of that, there is just no link between our everyday life and what we are taught at school,” he says.
Sai was wondering how he could use his passion for computers to change the abysmal state of education in India, when he stumbled upon an article in The Better India about SBI Fellow Nupur Ghuliani: “I saw that through the Fellowship, Nupur was able to do a lot of good. While researching the Fellowship, I also learnt that they give us an opportunity to implement our own ideas. By doing so, we can also help local NGOs. I thought this would be the ideal opportunity for me,” recalls Sai.
Sai joined the Fellowship in August 2015, and began working with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme India in the Pusa block of Samastipur district, Bihar.
It was during a couple of meetings for teachers that Sai’s idea for his project first began to take shape: “There were teachers from 12, 15 schools present and I asked them what challenges they were facing in delivering quality education,” he remembers. “I found that the biggest problem was the fact that there were too many students and very few teachers.”
“That is when I thought of using videos and other digital resources to reach out to more students at the same time,” he says.
Using just one laptop and one projector, Sai began experimenting with videos on making toys from trash. While the response and engagement from the students was incredible, the response from the teachers was lukewarm at best: “I found that they were not involved and, quite simply, lacked the motivation to try something new,” he says.
With this learning in mind, Sai decided to launch a three-month long project that focused on students as well as teachers.
“I contacted IIT Bombay since they have developed a low-cost laptop with open source software for educational purposes. They offered their support and I set up a crowd funding campaign to collect the funds to buy the laptops,” Sai recalls.
In February 2015, Sai set up a computer lab with five laptops in Bherokhara Middle School and began his pilot.
The focus of the pilot was on complementing classroom learning: “We were very clear that the focus is not on teaching them computers, but on using the computers to deliver content, to support the teachers and to help them conduct their classes more efficiently,” Sai explains.
For students, this translated into activity-based, interactive learning: “We taught them how to access Wikipedia in offline mode. So, after a class, if they have any doubts, they can use Wikipedia to understand concepts better,” he elaborates.
“After they were done researching a topic, we would ask them to make a model of the concept and present it to the class and help their classmates understand the concept as well.”
To combat the prevalent low reading levels and poor comprehension skills, Sai collected 394 e-books. These e-books came in the form of animated stories with Same Language Subtitles (SLS) to improve reading capability and comprehension.
“I also realised that for teachers, the digital aspect was not as important as making them a part of the decision-making process,” Sai says. “At present, they feel like postmen, who are only delivering the lessons but have no say in what is being taught and how. They have actually been given the power to teach as per the requirement of the environment and the students but they simply do not know about it.”
Sai then set out to empower these teachers using workshops: “We used these workshops to involve the teachers in decision-making. We tried to understand their needs and asked them about what resources they needed and how they wanted to go about doing the activities. After all, a teacher knows his student best and will be better able to understand his needs. We then started collecting resources for them based on their inputs and feedback,” he explains.
Adopting an approach that addressed the problems of the teachers as well as the needs of the students has proven to be extremely beneficial, with the pilot being well-received by both, students and teachers.
Sai now has teachers coming up to him, discussing the new and innovative ways in which they want to conduct classes and how they want to use digital resources to make lessons more interactive and fun for students.
Interactive and activity-based learning has led to increased participation among students, which in turn has translated into better academic performance.
This has by no means been an easy journey:
“I had never done anything like this before, I was completely new to everything and every step was a great learning experience,” say Sai. And one that was definitely worth it, a fact that students and teachers of Bherokhara Middle School can vouch for.
Sai hopes to continue to empower teachers through more focussed workshops conducted by a more qualified research team, thereby providing teachers with a platform where they can gain and share knowledge: “They should feel that they are all a part of a big society of teachers. That is the vision,” he explains.
He also hopes to replicate his successful model in more schools in the district.