Monday, 30th October 2017

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The new English Channel

Technology can indeed meet the English literacy challenge in rural India quickly and efficiently, reports Prasun Chaudhuri

By Prasun Chaudhuri
  • Published 29.08.16

Ten-year-old Zaqiya Parveen is reading aloud the story of the monkey and the crocodile to a class of 32. She hardly stutters and confidently sails through the two paragraphs. This is an achievement for the Class V student to whom words in the textbook didn't make any sense just a year ago.

Today, Parveen is familiar with the words on the glowing white screen in her computer lab. More importantly, she reads out the tale of the smart monkey to her younger siblings. Her father, an electrician who's barely literate, is very proud of his daughter.

Things changed dramatically for Parveen once the English class at the Cossipore Institute for Girls was shifted to the computer lab. A large white screen, a projector and computers replaced the blackboard, chalk and duster. "Our book comes alive on screen and it's just like a huge TV," says Parveen. As teacher Sanghamitra Basu Mullick places the cursor on a word, it gets enlarged and an Indian voice enunciates the correct pronunciation. A dictionary also pops up with the meaning of the word in Bengali, its English synonyms and pictures.

An English class at the Cossipore Institute

Cossipore Institute is one of the 769 government and aided schools using information, communication and technology (ICT) to teach 1.84 lakh students in West Bengal read English as part of the RightToRead programme - a national initiative to promote technology-enabled reading and comprehension. "We use the same textbook used in the school so that teachers don't fret about the syllabus and resist change," says Priya Viswanath, vice-president, EnglishHelper, a partner of RightToRead India. "We want to make the teacher an integral part of the process," she adds.

RightToRead is one of several organisations that are trying to fix the reading crisis in Indian schools. Year after year, education surveys highlight that more than half the students in government schools are unable to read textbooks of lower classes in their native tongue. English, a foreign language, is a greater challenge. "Our children need to learn English fast to get included in the mainstream and online world. And ICT is the best and cheapest way to do it," says Abhishek Bagchi, deputy manager, academics, Pearson Schools India.

Non-profit trust Abheda Foundation believes that ICT can bring about faster social inclusion. Says Biswajit Mitra, co-founder and retired IT professional, "English is a huge enabler and leveller but its knowledge is dismal among the underprivileged." The trust, formed by IT professionals, professors, research scholars and philanthropists, created an application for the android platform named Abheda English. "It's a free app available on Google Play Store. Anybody who has basic knowledge of English, including students and school dropouts, can learn through it," says Mitra. The app uses a voiceover in Bengali, Hindi or Santhali.

Abheda Foundation distributes low-cost tablets to students to use the app. A teacher too can access the content via a tablet or smartphone and share it through a projector or TV. "Our method first removes the psychological hurdles and common mistakes through proper explanations, followed by lessons in grammar, reading and conversational skills," says Mitra.

 The Abheda tab

The classroom model is being executed at eight locations in West Bengal, including one among tribals in Birbhum. Pushpita Roy, an Abheda scholar from Canning in southern Bengal, recently passed Madhyamik with 85 per cent marks. "Before I got the tab in 2014, I was very weak in English. Now I am learning English easily...I wish to be a doctor when I grow up," she says.

"Our programme largely focuses on self learning because the teacher-student ratio is ever widening in rural India. Moreover, lack of teaching material and inept teachers pushes poor students towards unaffordable tutorials," says Mitra.

Bagchi agrees that the best solution is to make children in rural areas self-reliant and teach them to utilise their resources properly.

About 100km south of Calcutta, educationist Sugata Mitra built a school at Korakati, in the midst of the Sunderbans, as part of his worldwide Schools in the Cloud project. A 40-feet bamboo tower was erected to help the solar-powered school receive a high-bandwidth Internet. There are seven computer terminals and two Internet connections for the 150 students. Says Ritu Dangwal, project co-ordinator, "We built this school to check whether technology for learning works in such a remote location." The logic is: if the experiment works here, it will work anywhere in the world.

Students at this school were found to pick up English quite effortlessly through collaboration or peer-to-peer learning. They create their own learning environment with a little bit of mentoring from some grannies (mostly retired English teachers) through Skype. "They use Google translator to translate English words or phrases to Bengali if they fail to understand anything." After learning through collaboration, these students show a remarkable improvement in English reading, comprehension and even speech.

All these experiments with technology-enabled learning hold out a ray of hope for India's reading challenge. Such technological interventions can easily be spread to many more schools across the country with a little support, minimum investment and higher Internet penetration. And the Zaqiya Parveens and Pushpita Roys can get connected to the world.

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