Tuesday, August 01, 2006


ICT in education: What works?

I have written about what does not work in education: OLPC, NIIT-type computer training in schools, etc. Obviously, it is very easy to find fault with what others are doing but much, much
axiom: The involvement of teachers,
especially in determining the content and the way in which the content is taught, is key to the success of any ICT intervention.

This appears obvious but, like all simple axioms, missed completely by most people in practice. Many failed attempts at using computers in education, use a model where content (usually flashy multimedia) is created by some centralised 'pedagogic and content creation experts', boxed into CDs and shipped to school teachers who are expected to dole out this content in predetermined (by the same experts) quantities and schedules to the children. A sriking example of such a failed attempt is Schoolnet, a Bangalore based company that was funded to the tune of several hundred crores of rupees, but which eventually failed since, in my view, it ignored this key axiom.

My basis for this axiom is simple: any teacher who takes her job seriously and with passion will hate to be told by some nameless wiseguy what she should reach, how she should teach and in what order, on a daily basis. Teachers who are just holding a job and earning a salary, will not care either way: if told by higher authorities to run through a flashy presentation and animation, they will do it with the same monotony that they suffuse their normal 'reading from the presectibed text' mode of teaching. For the net effect this has on school children, I will rather have such teachers continue their monotonous routine than invest in rapidly depreciating computer assets. At least, kids have figured out already how to deal with such teachers and they will not have to invent new ways to cope with teachers who are armed with computers and gadgets.

OK, let us look at positive experiences that support the axiom.

PicoPeta Simputers was involved over a year with two schools in Chhattisgarh on a project funded by the South Asia Foundation. The broad goal was to deploy Simputers in education. Some raw logs of our experience can be found at. I have not spent time to extract learnings from this experience and I hope to do so during the course of these blogs.

We had no clear idea of what Simputers could do for school kids. But our mandate was to find out by real experience rather than based on theories and hence we went with an open mind.
We had several learning scenarios and applications on the Simputer and discussed these with the teachers. Several suggestions were made, and one of the most rewarding was the following.

The teachers asked for something very simple: how can they teach English better? The background to this request is that the Governement of Chhattisgarh had recently made English compulsory from the first grade.
Our teachers were young and enthusiastic, but were ill equipped in English. They could understand English reasonably well and could speak in broken English, the same level of competence as my Hindi!

We took this simple challenge and came back with a simple solution: A 'authoring tool' on the PC using which the teacher could enter any English text: prose or poem or whatever the teacher wanted to teach to her class. Afetr typing the text, a text-to-speech (TTS) system was used to listen to the same text spoken out. The teacher
could add pauses where necessary. Once she was happy, the lesson was then loaded on the twenty -odd Simputers. This was done in a separate teachers' room.

In the class, each Simputer was shared by two kids. By selecting a line or a paragraph and tapping a speak button, the selected text was spoken out, in excellent Queen's English (we used public domain TTS system called flite
and selected the British accent). Each child (and the teacher!) could listen to the text any number of times in the privacy of their seat, or huddled in a corner or wherever, till the material was learned. Once the material was learned by everyone, the teacher loaded in a fresh batch of text. Since the data constitutes just text, and the TTS is performed by the Simputer, a very large amount of text could be available on the machine before new data is needed. But the choice was left to the teacher.

Of course listening to the text being read out does not constitute English learning, but one has to consider the fact that prior to this solution, there was no one even to do the proper reading. And the solution we created allowed the teacher the freedom to select what text will be used, based on the level and material appropriate for her class.
I cannot imagine similar impact being created by any centrally planned content creation and delivery model.

We also created some other tools that helped in the teaching of parts of speech, but the key learning from this experience is the teachers axiom itself.


The sentence,"The broad goal was to deploy Simputers in education. Some raw logs of our experience can be found at..." doesnt contain the link. Could you update them please.

Once again, Touche'!
I would like that link as well, please!
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