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INDIA: 100-Dollar Laptops Bring In Distant Kids

Ranjit Devraj

MUKTESHWAR, India, Jan 8 2011 (IPS) - Responding to the lack of computer training in Mukteshwar’s schools, Veena Sethi, a retired Delhi University professor, set up two used personal computers in the basement of her home with the aim of bringing the basics of computing to school children.

Girls share a 100-dollar laptop. Credit: Komathi A.L.

Girls share a 100-dollar laptop. Credit: Komathi A.L.

“There were no libraries, no laboratories and no computer classes. In fact, most of the schools in Mukteshwar [which is in the Nainital district of northern Uttarakhand state] had no electricity,” Sethi told IPS.

Worse, the central government did not have a well-defined policy on developing computer-learning skills in schools, leaving it to state governments to work out arrangements with private companies, she said.

In 2005 Sethi began her programme and by 2008 the demand for computer training had grown to a point where Sethi could establish Unified Developmental and Academic Activities Network (UDAAN) to run computer education programmes in schools based on courses designed by the National Council of Education Research and Training.

“The state-run schools [some of which actually had computers allocated to them] showed little interest in the programme citing the usual reasons – no electricity, no teachers or no permission from higher authorities to enter into a partnership,” said Sethi.

UDAAN, however, moved on. A partnership with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University made it possible for the NGO to introduce the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programme in selected schools in Mukteshwar in May 2010.

OLPC’s stated mission is to provide a means for learning, self-expression, and exploration to some two billion children in developing countries with little or no access to education.

So far, more than one million ‘XO’ laptops – each costing 100 U.S. dollars – have been distributed under the OLPC programme to children in the developing world.

“The XO machine is ideal for children in remote places where the classroom may be no more than the shade of a tree,” explains Satish Jha, who heads OLPC in India.

The XO laptop’s wireless connectivity and free, open-source “Sugar” operating system allows children to reshape, reinvent, and reapply both software and content. “The laptops grow with the children,” Jha said.

In Mukteshwar, 136 school children from five schools take turns working on 15 OLPC laptops on a rotational basis. “That was the best we could do,” Sethi said.

Schools with solar power arrangements were selected so that the laptops could be charged. “The children quickly took to OLPC programmes such as “Speak” where typed text can be turned into an audio file in Hindi or English,” Sethi said.

The central government is attempting to implement an Information and Computer Technology in Education (ICTE) policy.

Ashish Garg, country director for the United Nations Global e-Schools and Communities Initiative, told IPS that she sees little difference between students emerging from India’s schools today and those who did so 20 years ago when the country first announced plans to introduce ICTE in its 1.2 million schools. “They may as well have been working on typewriters.

“For ICTE to work the basic requirement is an end-to-end policy backed by strong political will,” said Garg.

“ICTE is about problem-based learning and development of critical thinking to enable higher-level learning,” Sethi said. “But these are not relevant to children in rural India who have little chance to even get near a computer… Children in Mukteshwar benefit from the hands-on experience and build basic computing skills from the OLPC programme.”

Sethi takes comfort in the fact that she has achieved some measure of success where ICTE programmes have generally failed in most of India’s 30 states.

At Mukteshwar schoolchildren benefit not only by learning how to handle computers but also by familiarising themselves with the English language.

“The children learn many things by using computers, but they are able to pick up things in Hindi as well as in English,” said Anuradha Saksena, principal of the Government Primary School at Mukteshwar. “They are getting familiar with both languages and this is good for them.”

Saksena said UDAAN’s programme for teaching math on computers was helping the children to “visualise” simple calculations and was holding their interest. “Visualisation is good for teaching science too,” she said.

Nanyang University is already preparing an evaluation report based on tests in three areas of cognitive empowerment – computer self-efficacy, academic self-efficacy, technological literacy and functional literacy.

UDAAN has, in the new year, launched the Jyoti (Light) project, representing the next step in computer learning – meant for children in the upper primary schools – with support from the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM).

“We are starting with an internationally popular animation programme, followed by one on graphics,” Sethi said. “The objective is to make the learning process challenging but not intimidating.

“It is like learning to ride a bicycle. It can’t be done until the learner actually gets to the machine and suffers a few falls.”

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