At Zensar’s Digital Learning Centre in Yamuna Nagar, semi-literate women are encountering computers and the internet for the very first time. The initiative, in partnership with the PMC and Nasscom Foundation, aims to bring digital literacy to every household in the low-income settlement.

“I now have my own email account,” says an excited UshaGalphade as she explains why she likes coming to the community ‘computer class’ everyday. “I joined because I wanted to learn something new.” Her friends and fellow students of the 12 pm ladies batch of the Zensar Foundation’s Digital Learning Centre in Yamuna Nagar, nod happily in agreement.

As part of the National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM), the Zensar Foundation has launched a digital learning centre in the AnnabhauSatheSamajMandir in the Yamuna Nagar settlement in Viman Nagar, Pune. The project has been set up in partnership with the Pune Municipal Corporation and NASSCOM Foundation.

In keeping with NDLM’s aim to empower at least one person from every household with digital literacy skills by 2020, Zensar Foundation conducted a door-to-door survey of all 410 households of the Yamuna Nagar slum community. “We reached out to every family in thevasti and asked them to sign up for the free classes,” says centre coordinator, MohiniJagtap. “We  opened the centre on October 6, 2014.”

From 410 households, 97 individuals have enrolled for the course, not more than two from a single home. They are divided into seven batches of about 15 each, including two batches in the afternoon that are exclusively for women.  The majority of students are young people – school or college students above the age of 15. The centre is open from Monday to Saturday.

According to trainer SarikaBhosale, the course curriculum is divided into seven chapters beginning with an introduction to the basic infrastructure of a computer. “Sometimes even concepts like ‘what does a mouse do?’ are hard to grasp,” says Sarika, “It takes practice.” Students are also introduced to other interfaces like smartphones and tablets. “Some of them, especially the younger people, are used to smartphones,” says Mohini, “But we have many women come and ask how to use smartphones. They have seen their husbands or children using these devices and want to understand them.” The centre is equipped with seven or eight laptops and two smartphones that the students are allowed to access and explore.

The following chapters give students an introduction to the internet and connectivity. “We explain what the browser window looks like and what a search bar is,” says Sarika, “A lot of the times this becomes challenging because many of the students, especially women, are either semi-literate or illiterate. With them the process is slower. Their literacy is sometimes limited to simply recognising the letters on the keyboard.“  In an effort to overcome the language barrier, lessons are taught in Marathi and the students are taught to type search words in Marathi script or in simple English.

Further lessons include enumerating the benefits of the internet. Students are familiarised with concepts like email, internet banking, social networking, e-commerce, online ticket booking, etc.  “They are particularly interested in social media,” says Sarika. “Many of the younger students already have Facebook and WhatsApp accounts.” Although these skills are taught in the class, Mohini admits that most students would not utilise these skills outside the centre. “They feel it doesn’t concern them,” she says. “At most they will use Google to search for information on things. Many times they ask for our help to do a Google search.” Students are also taught how to access government websites to stay informed about schemes that concern them directly.

To ensure that the course does not become too heavy and jargon-laden, the trainers try and include some fun activities as part of the class. “They like searching for images of their favourite television or movie stars,” says Sarika, “Once we even got them to find Yamuna Nagar on Google Maps. They loved that.”

Although the centre has 97 individuals on the rolls, many have dropped out. “The men often don’t have the time to attend a two-hour session,” says Mohini. “They work from morning till evening. That is the reason why although we have batches for young students and women, we have not been able to start a batch for adult men.” The women, Mohini says, are very enthusiastic and sometimes even bring their young children to the class to sit with them if they cannot find anybody to take care of them for two hours. “They often come to us with their personal queries outside of the class,” says Sarika, “They mostly ask us how to recharge an internet package or how to search for something on Google. One woman even asked me to help her look up current sugarcane prices because she wanted to sell her crop.”

“What we learn here we can go home and teach our children,” says ManishaJakawne as she and Usha practice accessing a Gmail account – Usha’s brand new one. “Madam is always there to help if I need help with anything.” At another computer, PratibhaChandane and SangeetaNavire look for pictures of Marathi television starlets on Google Images. “I don’t like missing computer class,” Pratibha says, “But if I miss the 12pm batch, I can always come and sit for the 2.30pm batch.”

Zensar representative and project manager, Sharada Singh states, “At Zensar we are committed to three aims — community development, environmental sustainability and employability. This project as part of the NDLM has been undertaken with a view to community development and employability by way of digital literacy and empowerment.”

The Zensar Foundation is in the process of mapping the Yamuna Nagar community and the Digital Learning Centre will continue to run until the entire community has been covered.