Computer education for rural kids riddled with obstacles

By Frederick Noronha

There are plans afoot to computerise thousands of rural schools across India, attended mainly by poor children. But where is the software that is suitable for use in these schools?

WHY IS it easier for Indian school students to use the computer to study the geography of the United States, rather than know the states of their own country better? What is the fate of students in non-English schools who want to learn how to use computers optimally? In a word, are we producing suitable software to cope with the needs of our own schools?

These issues come up regularly to haunt educationists keen to give school-children better access to computers. More so, when the students come from underprivileged or poor backgrounds, are familiar only with regional languages, and study in resource-poor government schools.

"Availability of suitable (educational software) material in the Kannada language is next to nil," complains engineer S Jayaraman. He is a consultant to the Azim Premji Foundation (APF), a philanthropic network started by Bangalore's prominent IT house.

The APF has plans to computerise around a thousand rural schools, attended mainly by children of the poor. So far it has managed around three dozen. This too has not been problem-free. Plans to set up these 'community learning centres' which could be used in the evenings by general villagers have, among other things, been hit by a lack of relevant software.

"Some of the (commercial software producers) are offering syllabus-based learning," says Jayaram. Much of the 'educational software' available is in English, and better suited to foreign students rather than Indian needs. Others firms have simply taken textbooks and dumped it onto a CD.

Some of the other problems the Azim Premji Foundation has to struggle with include finding sufficiently motivated teachers close-by, difficult infrastructure (high and ultra low-voltage power), reluctance of school authorities to open access to villagers outside school hours, and the like.

But the Foundation is already reporting that putting computers in rural schools has boosted attendance, and that admissions to otherwise-ignored government schools has also improved.

APF has been able to make use of two specific software -- one a Karnataka-based treasure hunt, giving information on the state's various districts; and the other called 'Brainstorm' that helps students practise simple Arithmetic concepts.

C V Madhukar of the APF stresses that the foundation has taken up "primary education as our target, not so much as philanthropy but more as problem-solving". He said the possible agenda on this front could revolve around computer-based content creation (either teacher-centred or child-centred content); TV-based content; setting up Community Learning Centres; and facilitate the donation of used PCs from companies to schools.

Tia Sircar of the Bangalore-based TeLC (The e-Learning Consortium) also stresses the need to look at the 'content needs' of the Indian rural masses. She points to the success of some experiments like the Pratham initiative of computer training in Mumbai, which Sircar says has been a "vast success".

Sircar concedes that students across the country feel the need to study English. But without regional language software, the aim of making India a computer-literate nation would simply not happen, as educationists agree.

Others wanting to promote computers in schools have also faced similar problems. From the west coast, the Goa Computers-in-Schools Project (GCSP) is an Internet-based alliance between overseas Goans and those here to help spur on attempts to give schools in the state access to more computers.

Recently, the GCSP managed to finally get the Central government to allow Customs-free import of once-used computers from abroad to non-elitist, non-commercial privately run schools. This is particularly relevant in Goa, a state where much of school education is privately managed.

Such measures could allow overseas expats to send in donated and once-used computers by the containerful, on just paying the freight charges. But software questions remain. In the past too, some linked to this network have raised questions about the ethics of using pirated proprietorial software in schools, where students are supposed to be taught to follow a principled approach to life.

Other approaches are being tried out. Aware of this acute lack of educational software, the small but active network across India that promotes Open Source and 'free' software is also beginning to pay some attention to the issue.

Prof Nagarjuna G of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai has set up a Internet based mailing-list to study the potential in school education of GNU-Linux, the Open Source and 'free' software. Life can be contacted via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. while the website is at http://hbcse.tifr.res.in/mailman/listinfo/life

There are other global websites like linuxforkids.com which offer megabytes for education software on a CD for prices ranges between three to six dollars. Programs offered include First_math (a maths quiz game), Anton (a challenging maths game), Cindrella (commercial interactive geometry software), Linux Letters (learning game for children from 2-up for letters and numbers), TuxType (typing tutor), Gnerudite (a Scrabble-clone), Across (to generate your own crossword puzzles), Qvocab (to increase your foreign language vocabulary), Lingoteach (to learn foreign languages), Atomix (a molecule-creation game), LOGO (tool for children to learn programming).

This might be helpful, but doesn't quite solve the main problem at hand.

Linux is still, unfortunately, seen as a "geeks' operating system". So, support available is relatively limited, specially in remote rural areas. In addition, again the problem of having relevant, local-language educational software remains.

On the positive side, there are some signs of hope. Local GNU-Linux enthusiasts are showing signs of growing interest to build India-relevant software applications, and the educational sector could benefit too.

Committed supporters of Linux do appreciate that for their Operating System to grow in popularity, it should have something specifically relevant to Indian needs. Bangalore incidentally could be called one of the Linux capitals of India, with its active network of supporters and enthusiasts who showcase their work through events like the IT.com in November and the Banglinux held in early summer each year.

Others are also trying out their own initiatives.

Dr Pavanaja, a scientist who was earlier with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai and now devotes his time to promoting computer usage in Kannada through the Kannada Ganaka Parishad (see vishwakannada.com), agrees that relevant software is sorely lacking in regional languages.

"The only field IT has failed to change dramatically is education. Computers can remake education. It is indeed time to begin," says he.

He points to his own initiatives. 'Kannada-Kali' is a software that generates a jig-saw puzzle from Kannada alphabets. One has to fit the pieces in the right place, thus enabling youngsters or those not knowing the Kannada language to practise on its alphabet. "I don't claim you can learn Kannada using this. But it is an entry point," says Dr Pavanaja.

He has also put together a Kannada version of LOGO, the logic-oriented, graphic-oriented software that is used as a tool to teach young children the basic concepts needed for programming. It is still under development. So far, only a few keywords required for the LOGO program have been completed. Some 300 more keywords are yet to be done.

Dr Pavanaja is more than open to the idea of freely sharing his 'intellectual property'. In fact, the Kannada-Kali program has a prominently distributed message: "Feel free to distribute this among your Kannada friends." In such a situation of scarcity, it is indeed laudable to see some of those working on such themes to be more than willing to share the fruit of their labour generously, without thinking about monetary gain.

Of course, at the end of the day, much of the Indian educational software scarcity simply boils down to a question of economics. In spite of their millions-strong numbers, the rural dweller simply doesn't have the purchasing power. So why should anyone bother with writing software specifically for him? Even if this is a country that is increasingly claiming the status of being the world's software superpower.

(Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist based in Goa-India interested in developmental issues)