Photo by Ranjitsinh Disale

Nine years ago, the government primary school in Paritewadi village, Solapur district, was located in a dilapidated building, sandwiched between a cattle shed and a store room. There was no electricity and hardly any students. The innovative use of ICTs has brought more children to school, got parents involved with education, and taken students on new journeys of learning across the world. The school’s teacher writes about his innovations with technology in education.

When I was in Class 7, our school conducted a science exhibition. Students were to exhibit their experiments and self-made tools. I made and presented an egg-shaped computer monitor in place of the conventional square one. Dr Vijay Bhatkar, creator of Indian’s first supercomputer, was the chief guest. He complimented me and advised me to ensure that the design was legally mine. A year-and-a-half later, I got the design patented.

I had never seen a computer until I was in Class 4, but once I did I was hooked. I studied basic computer applications up to Class 10, and in Class 12, learnt computer programming. After getting a degree in education, I joined government service as a teacher. My school is the Zilla Parishad Primary School, in Paritewadi village, Madha taluka, Solapur district, Maharashtra.

My mind brimming with ideas on how to use technology in education, I joined the school on January 5, 2009. The school was set up in 2000, with 27 children initially studying in Classes 1 to 4. The school serves children from the farming community.

My first glimpse of the school was a shock. It was a dilapidated building. One room was used as storage. The second room was used as a cattle shed. I realised the enormous challenge before me. The school had no drinking water and what little there was, was not given to the children. There was no electricity. The number of children coming to school was very low. I was amazed to find that parents did not complain about the school either.

I told myself that it is relatively easy to achieve success by working in areas where conditions are favourable; success is achieved by working in tough situations. I set to work.

To get a sense of the educational status of children in the locality, I conducted a comprehensive survey on the number of educated persons in the village, the number of educated women, and employment and family status. The information helped me prioritise three issues in my five-year action plan: 1) parents’ indifference towards the educational progress of children; 2) the lack of quality education, and 3) lack of professionalism in the teacher.

I first addressed parental awareness. I realised that there were two kinds of parents—those who were conscious of the importance of education for their children, and those who would rather have their children in the fields than in school. I identified the children who were absent and went to their homes or to the fields every day to bring them to school. I did this day after day. In the beginning, I spent my entire morning on this, leaving me little time in school. It yielded results, however. Parents started sending their children to school rather than making them work at home or in the fields. As students started trickling in, I engaged them in singing and other fun activities.

Next, I decided to do something about the classroom. With the help of the village sarpanch, I was able to reconvert the cowshed into a classroom.

My next goal was to get the villagers to be more proactive about education in the village. Here, I hit a wall. I began attending several celebrations in the village. This helped me get to know people’s thoughts and ideas. I knew that the situation would change only if I had their backing.

With more children coming to school, I decided to take a laptop to school. There was no electricity, so a desktop computer was useless, and children were more interested in handling a laptop. I borrowed money for the laptop from my father.

I found that the children were usually tired when they reached the school. Tired minds are unimaginative minds. So for the first three months, we watched movies and listened to songs on the laptop. Schools generally believe that they should be teaching something new. I think, however, that schools should be a pleasant place where the learning process is full of fun and laughter. When I felt the children were ready to learn, I began to teach them whatever they wanted to learn. Finding a place for all of us to sit was a problem. With a friend’s help, I found a place. I soon began to teach them about computers formally, but keeping the emphasis on developing the skills needed to solve the problems of their everyday lives: skills of learning, communication, critical thinking, verification of information, creativity—or what is known as 21st-century skills.

In the beginning, I was making videos and PowerPoint presentations in my own language so that students would be able to relate to the content. With the help of a computer and the textbook, I helped them understand and use language more effectively. I also used many YouTube videos, producing them in Marathi with permission from the creators. Children loved watching these videos because they understood the language. Over the last four years, I have developed a large digital resource bank in Marathi.

Photo by Ranjitsinh Disale

To ensure that the digital resources created are effectively used I decided to get the parents involved. Every house has a TV. I started an “Alarm On, TV Off” campaign. An alarm was installed in the school, and it would go off at 7 pm every evening. Every home would switch off the TV and the family members would stop whatever they were doing and participate in the children’s study time for an hour. At 2 pm every day, parents would receive an SMS on what their children should be doing and how the parents could support them. Parents were able to plan their activities accordingly. As parents began to realise their responsibilities, children also began studying with a great deal of responsibility.

This initiative has been going on for the last nine years, and is now a movement. An SMS through a mobile phone is such a simple use of technology, but so effective.

To enable everyone to access the digital resource bank I had created anytime and anywhere, helping children learn at their own pace, I introduced QR codes for each lesson in the children’s book. This code provides a link to the digital resources (video and audio), including poetry, songs and papers related to the lessons. The system required parents to scan the digital resources related to the specific activities. Of course, access to a smart phone and internet is essential for this. In June 2014, only eight parents in the village had smart phones, and the resource was tested with eight children of Class 1. So, for instance, the children could listen to or watch a reading of the poem they were studying on the mobile phone.
Twenty-nine QR codes were thus written in the children’s book. The next thing was to train the parents on using them. A two-hour training programme was organised for parents and children. I also created a video tutorial to guide parents. The tutorial was saved on their mobile phones, so parents could watch it and troubleshoot.

Photo courtesy Ranjitsinh Disale

The QR codes were more popular than expected. Students started having fun in the process of learning. The objective was to help children learn joyfully. Seeing this, other parents started buying and bringing in smart phones, and by the end of the year, 19 parents had smart phones and were using them to access the digital resources. I felt that I had successfully helped my children begin their journey of learning. I also felt that it had been worth investing in developing the QR codes.

The QR codes reached another school in the region, and other parents began to come to my school to get the code. Gradually, the concept covered more parents and children. In 2015, the QR-coded books were introduced in 297 schools in Madha taluka. Finally, the Government of Maharashtra started using QR codes in all the books in the state. Today, more than 6 million children in Maharashtra are using QR coded books. Microsoft honoured the initiative with the Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert award. At the World Education Council meeting in March 2017 in Canada, a memorandum of understanding was signed with 11 countries to implement this project. This speaks for the effectiveness of this innovative venture. Today, most of my students are able to handle mobile phones for educational purposes. Children also use the English language with a fair amount of confidence, particularly spoken English.

Effective education should take into consideration the world outside the school, the village, and the children’s textbooks. Therefore, I started the “Skype in the Classroom” initiative to help students experience the world outside. By then, there was a computer at the school and the gram panchayat had made a solar system available. With the help of the villagers, I also bought a projector. Now the children were ready to interact with strangers and find information they need independently. We took the first step in this direction by communicating with schools in the neighbouring village, beginning with a 10-minute interactive session. The purpose of this interaction was to develop situational conversation skills. I focused on the idea that they should be prepared to communicate freely, without fear.

Through the Skype sessions, children also began to absorb their lessons better. For example, when learning about Shivaji’s fort in the history book for Class 4, students not only see the fort on video, but also use Skype to speak to locals who know more about its history. This helps the children develop skills of communication, questioning, and verifying information. After collecting the information, they discuss it amongst themselves, strengthening their discussion skills. Our virtual field trips have taken us to Kansas City in America, Cape Town in South Africa, and even to the depths of the ocean from the Aquarius Base Centre. In schools without a well-equipped laboratory, students can study scientific concepts through virtual experiments. The experiment is repeated until children understand it thoroughly. At the end of the sessions, children ask questions, strengthening their understanding further.

Over the past two years, we have interacted through Skype with teachers from 152 schools in 87 countries. The effectiveness of using technology in this way is evident when one sees children discussing, asking questions, and talking about their motivations. Since 2017, virtual field trips have been initiated as a worldwide experiment for promoting learning of children through technology. In five months in 2018, 9,034 children from 253 schools in 42 countries have benefitted from this. About 100,000 children will participate in these virtual trips next year.

In the future, technology will give students and teachers the freedom to choose what they want to learn and from whom they want to learn with an emphasis on getting a variety of learning experiences. Teachers will have the freedom to teach children in any country. But to do this, teachers must be willing to constantly learn new technologies and new ways of using technology.

Ranjitsinh Disale teaches at the Zilla Parishad Primary School, Paritewadi village, Solapur taluka, Maharashtra.