Wednesday, February 17 is Digital Learning Day. A day to celebrate advancing education through tech, and according to the official ‘Digital Learning Day’ website, a day started “as a way to actively spread innovative practices and ensure that all youth have access to high-quality digital learning opportunities no matter where they live.”
No matter where they live. That’s a pretty bold concept, and I doubt even the founders of ‘DLDay’ know how far it reaches. The depth of digital learning, or ‘e-Learning’—is truly astonishing—spanning all the way to rural tribal villages in India.
Four hours from the packed streets of Mumbai, the mountains are home to remote villages where water is still retrieved from wells and shoes are considered a luxury. But computer-assisted education? They’ve got that covered.
“We train them on computers, we train them into games, but the long term project is enhancing their educational quality and bringing up the generation on a different platform,” said Dr. Madhav Sathe, chief functionary of the Bombay Mothers and Children Welfare Society. Sathe and his team have installed a series of e-Learning programs in village schools throughout the region. These are self-contained computer programs that are projected on to a large screen in a classroom. The programs don’t require Internet, and offer animated lessons in a variety of subjects including English, math, biology, and Hindi.
A teacher at one of the schools, who goes by Bhausahev, noted that these students have great potential because they are able to learn how to use the computer easily while they are still young. “This is a turning point in our learning process, because earlier students [did] not talk with us confidently,” said Bhausahev. “But due to this e-Learning process, the students are very confident, they use words, like English words.”
Sathe reported that setting up the computer program wasn’t difficult, but getting the kids into the classroom proved to be more challenging.
“We found that all these tribal kids are very low on their BMI [body mass index] and their absentees were quite a bit, and their learning abilities were not up to the mark, so we decided that we should go on a nutritional support system,” said Sathe. The struggle for food and good health had taken priority over education, but with Bombay Mothers providing the necessary daily calories, the kids were able to take their seats in the classroom and focus on their studies. Attendance at one school went from three to 30 kids in one year.
A key value of the program is how it allows the students to teach themselves, and bring their lessons home to their families. They learn how to operate the computer on their own, and some even come in at night to continue learning.
It’s paying off.
Bhausahev said his students recently won first place at a science fair for their presentation on the adverse effects of smoking. This competition featured students from 150 schools, representing both rural and urban populations. “What we see grossly is that there is definitely a change, and the gap between the rural and the urban divide is decreasing rapidly,” said Sathe.
Another Bombay Mothers employee, Priyaa Bhandari, talked about the kinds of opportunities these kids have access to now. “What we do for the children is really going to affect their future,” Bhandari said. “They can go for higher studies, from leaving the village they can work outside and they can earn good money.” But Bombay Mothers doesn’t want them all to permanently relocate to the urban areas. Mumbai in particular is overcrowded, and the job opportunities many seek are nothing more than a myth. India’s 2011 Census reported that more than 40 percent of households in Mumbai are located in slums, which are defined by the census as:
Residential areas where dwellings are in any respect unfit for human habitation by reasons of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangements and designs of such buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light, sanitation facilities or any combination of these factors which are detrimental to safety, health and morals.
Now there is a side to slums that is often overlooked, with budding businesses and close-knit communities. But they are oversaturated to say the least. Considering the fact that these cities don’t offer the path to prosperity that the tribal children aspire towards, the idea is that they will continue their education at universities, but then return home to transform their villages into productive communities with a much higher standard of living.
“This is a very simplistic program, this is a very basic program,” Sathe said. “Most of the things that we are doing are replicable, most of the things that we are doing are scalable, most of the things that we have done are innovative.” Sathe added that while he can keep costs low, they still are a consideration. One e-Learning program costs about $1500 USD and that lasts for three years. This program is dependent on funding through organisations like Buy1GIVE1, a nonprofit that promotes regular giving through their business community. Sathe calls the program ‘self-sustainable’ because when the donors see the results, they are incredibly impressed and keep on giving.
Martin Bissett is a Buy1GIVE1 affiliated business owner who visited a school where e-Learning was just installed, and he was thrilled to see where his contributions were going. “It’s just such an astonishing experience to watch them so obediently and reverently just watch what is on the screen. So absolutely amazing,” said Bissett.
Bombay Mothers offers other programs for these communities like tree-planting and vocational training for the adults so that they can earn a sustainable income. But e-Learning is their cornerstone, the foundation with the greatest return, as it carries the hope to transform these villages for generations to come.