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Skype in the classroom: Digital learning helps children in India escape poverty

Feature Article by Sigrid Lupieri, Public Information Officer, UNESCO MGIEP

Sigrid Lupieri
Public Information Officer, UNESCO MGIEP

Technology is a very big, cheap and attractive tool…Technology attracts children to come to school, keeps them interested and retains children in school.
Mamoon Akhtar, principal and founder, Samaritan Help Mission School

It’s an early July morning in Tikiapara, one of Calcutta’s poorest neighborhoods—one with an unenviable reputation for drugs, crime and high illiteracy rates. But at the Samaritan Help Mission School, in the heart of the slum, the voices of children chanting the national anthem waft through the humid Monsoon air. Then, the bell rings and hundreds of students in crisp blue uniforms pull out their notebooks and begin their unusual lesson plan.

In one of the Spartan classrooms with wooden benches and peeling paint, the teacher switches on a projector and begins a Power Point presentation on English grammar. In another classroom, ninth graders listen to a teacher explaining algebra equations on a video conference call. In the school’s only computer room, students squeeze onto benches and on the floor, working in teams to create a slideshow on the origins of coal. For many of the school’s 1,500 students, most of whom are sons and daughters of daily laborers, rickshaw pullers and migrant workers, this is their first experience of using a computer.

“Technology is a very big, cheap and attractive tool,” says MamoonAkhtar, the school’s principal and founder, sitting in his cramped office plastered with children’s drawings and motivational quotes. After dropping out of seventh grade because he could not afford school fees, Akhtar managed to complete his education and began teaching children in his home in 1999. Today, he oversees two schools which offer classes in English and use technology to reach a total of 2,500 children in some of Calcutta’s poorest communities.

As part of a growing trend, affordable technology is helping children in impoverished or remote locations to access an education they would otherwise have to forego. With a youth population expected to be the largest in the world by 2020 and youth illiteracy rates hovering above 10 percent, digital learning may help develop the skills that many students need to compete on the job market. In particular, the use of ICTs in classrooms can extend student participation from poor or marginalized communities, decrease drop-out rates, and provide access to experts around the world at any time.

“Technology attracts children to come to school, keeps them interested and retains children in school,” Akhtar says about reduced drop-out rates and higher levels of student engagement in his classrooms. In addition to providing Skype lessons with teachers from around India and the United Kingdom, the school helps students and their families to open their own bank accounts. While banks usually avoid opening branches in slum communities, online banking and a new smart card system allows everyone to manage their savings. “The Samaritan Help Mission is not just a school,” Akhtar says. “It is a movement.”

Children using a phone to take pictures.Across the city, in Calcutta’s Salt Lake City neighborhood, young members of a non-profit called Prayasam have been using filmography and smartphone apps to bring about change in their slum communities. More than 1,000 children and young adults are now either leaders or members of the organization. Survey apps on their phones have allowed them to map their communities and ask local governments to provide access to safe drinking water. Their short films on the importance of vaccinations and mosquito nets have helped reduce the incidence of malaria by 50 percent and have received international acclaim at film festivals.

Under the watchful eye of the organization’s founder, AmlanGanguly, the children and young people take classes on gender equality, film-making and leadership skills. All members have to attend school and must give back to their communities by teaching what they learn to their peers. “Most people say we have nothing,” says 17-year-old SalimShekh, a project associate at Prayasam and a film-maker. “But that is not true, we have resources.” Since joining the organization eight years ago, Salim says he has changed considerably and has gained the trust of his family members and friends. “I am responsible and I think about my community,” he says.

…computer literacy and educational games are more than just teaching tools. Children who are technologically empowered, …gain a different perspective on life and a new vision for the future.

Across the country in the capital, New Delhi, children living in city slums are also gaining access to computers and educational games. In a community in Chanakyapuri, where ramshackle houses hug high, barbed-wire embassy walls and where women line up in the summer heat to collect water from a truck, children crowd around two unusual-looking ATMs. Painted a bright, cheerful yellow, the machines are sturdy computers built to weather any climate and heavy usage.

What had started out as a social experiment in 1999 is now an international project called Hole-In-The-Wall, which sets up computer screens in poor or remote locations to allow children to teach themselves to use technology as a tool for learning. After setting up a computer in a slum, the founders of the organization realized that children who had never been exposed to computers quickly grasped the basic concepts and were able to teach their peers how to play games.

“This proves that, irrespective of location, culture, or ethnic background, children are the same,” says PurnenduHota, the project manager at Hole-in-the-Wall. “What drives them is the curiosity to know.” With more than 300 computer stations around the world, the organization has been tracking its users’ progress. According to Hota, children using the computers perform better in school, are more internet savvy and are overall more confident. Furthermore, children sharing the computers learn the value of collaboration and of teaching their peers.

Children who live in a slum play with a computer.

On a weekday afternoon, the yellow computers in Chanakyapuri are in full use. Small groups of children crowd around the screens and cheer each other on. Nine-year-old Ankush is absorbed in a game of intergalactic warfare which also teaches basic principles of math. When asked whether he had ever seen a computer before, Ankush looks up from the screen long enough to shake his head. He types in the answer to a subtraction and a spaceship flickers and falls off the screen. According to SubhashSwraup, who runs a small store selling chicken and snacks next to the computers, more than 100 children show up in batches every day to play with the computers. “The parents in the community are happy because the children are learning something new,” he says.

However, for Akhtar, Ganguly and Hota, who are using modern technology to help children access a better education, computer literacy and educational games are more than just teaching tools. Children who are technologically empowered, say the determined trio, gain a different perspective on life and a new vision for the future. “Often children think, ‘This is my fate, so why try?’ They become fatalists and don’t aspire,” Ganguly says. But computers and modern communications can open a window to the world for many children. “The eradication of poverty starts from the mind,” he adds.