Conscious that the digital divide is accentuating social, economic and gender inequalities,  MCE Society at Azam Campus emphasizes free or subsidized digital learning from class 1 onwards. Roughly 80% of the students on this wifi campus with state-of-the-art computer labs come from poor Muslim families

“I teach whatever I learn in computer class, to my younger brother and my sister,” says a grinning 12-year-old Nazia*. “This way, even if we are studying in different schools, our knowledge of computers is equal.” Nazia studies in the Anglo Urdu Girls High School managed by the Maharashtra Cosmopolitan Education Society (MCES), located in their Azam Campus in Pune. What sets Nazia’s school apart from that of her siblings is that the MCE Society’s PA Inamdar Information and Communication Technology Academy provides digital learning for student in all its institutes from Standard 1 onwards.

The MCES was established in 1948 to provide education to the economically, educationally and socially weaker sections of society. Over the last 10 years, MCES has been striving to not only provide quality education to the weaker sections of society, but also digitalized education to those who may not have access to digital technology.

“The digital divide is growing wider and soon there will be a section of society that will get further marginalised in a digitized world because of their limited access to digital learning and digital technologies,”says MCES President, PA Inamdar.“We decided that we would provide digital education to every single student at a low cost so that they have the same or better opportunities as students who belong to a more privileged part of society.”

Under the PAI ICT Academy, digital learning is a compulsory part of the regular curriculum for all four schools run by the MCES on AzamCampus including the HGM Azam Urdu Primary School, the Anglo Urdu Girls High School, the Anglo Urdu Boys High School and the English Primary School. “Twenty per cent of class time in the week is dedicated to digital learning,” says Inamdar, “The students spend at least one hour of their day on the computer.”

Each institution on AzamCampus is equipped with a computer laboratory with a minimum of 40 computer systems. Over the last 10 years, over 2,800 networked computers have been set up on the campus. Campus-wide free WiFi is provided at a speed of 155 mbps. “High-speed internet encourages digital learning,” says Inamdar.

The students are efficient in basic computer operations by the secondary school level. The computer science syllabus for the school level is based on the syllabi of the Maharashtra Knowledge Commission Ltd’s digital literacy course MS-CIT, national IT literacy course CCC and the Computer Mastiprogramme formulated by IIT-Bombay and InOpen Technologies. While computer basics are covered for students from standards 1 to 4, from standards 5 to 7 the MS-CIT and CCC syllabus is taught. Students are even required to take the MS-CIT and CCC tests at the standard 7 level. “Close to 6,500 Urdu-medium students have passed the MS-CIT before standard 8,” says PAI ICT Academy Director, MumtazSayyed. The teachers of these courses are all trained annually at workshops in IIT-Bombay under the Computer Mastiprogramme.All of the staff at Azam Campus, close to 1,800 members of the teaching and non-teaching staff, have also passed the MS-CIT.

Not only does the PAI ICT Academy provide digital learning to students studying in all the institutions run by the MCES, including institutions for higher education, but it has set up close to 40 centres for free digital learning in various institutions in and around Pune including Urdu-medium municipal corporation schools, 21 of which are being run by the PMC, and several madrassas. The infrastructure, including the computers and internet connection, as well as the teaching staff, including one computer teacher and one spoken-English teacher, is provided by the PAI ICT Academy. “Since 2007, the PAI Academy has been developing free centres for computer literacy for Urdu-medium minority students,” says Sayyed, “Several institutions outside Azam that are managed by minority groups and whose students belong to minority groups are included by the MCES as sister institutions and are provided free infrastructure for digital learning by the PAI Academy.”

Out of close to 27,000 students studying at the AzamCampus, roughly 8,000 are students from standards 1 to 12. “Most of the children who study at the MCES schools live in slum areas and are from minority communities,” says Anglo Urdu Boys School principal, Sikandar Shaikh, “Our target is to provide quality education to even the poorest students. Out of approximately 8,000 school students, the costs of close to 2,000 talented but underprivileged students are covered entirely by the management.”

Digital education and the access to digital technology and knowledge is the incentive for most of these children to stay in school. “Our students have access to the computer labs all day everyday till 11pm,” says Roshan Ara Shaikh, vice-principal of the Anglo Urdu Boys School, “They even come in on Sundays. In fact it’s hard to keep them away!” Students from the AzamCampus schools even take part in national-level digital learning academic competitions like the National Cyber Olympiad. Digital learning is not restricted to computer science classes. “Each class is equipped with an Educompsmartclass projector screen,” says Shaikh, “The syllabus for subjects like Maths and Science is preloaded onto these systems and taught via the screens.” Secondary school students who excel in subjects like maths and computer sciences are also given the opportunity to apply for a 6-month robotics course conducted in the schools, with 50% of the course fee covered by the management.

Classmates of Nazia at the Anglo Urdu Girls High School chime in altogether with their responses to ‘what do you love doing most on the computer?’ “Scratch animation!” comes one excited response, as the young standard 7 student shows off her most recent Scratch project – a sequence of two little girls playing tennis. “Powerpoint presentations!” exclaims her classmate, as she scrolls through her presentation on the underwater world. Kaif, the girls’ contemporary studying in the Anglo Urdu Boys High School, proudly shows off his Photoshop projects including one where he’s designed his dream mobile phone. The PAI ICT Academy gives these students the opportunity and assistance to equip themselves with skills that would otherwise be completely out of reach to children of their socio-economic status. It not only disseminates this knowledge to the children but in turn, their families. Therefore when Nazia goes home from school and teaches her younger brother, who studies in a PMC school, how to create an email account or teaches her father how to purchase things online, the MCE Society and the PAI Academy has gone a long way in bridging the digital divide.

*Names of students have been changed