The Pune Municipal Corporation’s showpiece e-learning academy brings a revolution in education to children from neighbouring slums

Parth Kakade, a Class V student of Rajiv Gandhi Academy of E-Learning at Sahakarnagar, Pune, persuaded his parents to buy him a computer earlier this year. His father Prakash bought a second hand machine worth Rs 5,000 and attached it to the LCD TV they already had.

“We couldn’t afford a laptop or a brand new desktop. But Parth has become obsessed with computers at school, so finally we decided to buy this. We cannot afford an internet connection now, but maybe in future we will,” says his mother Rohini. The Kakade family lives in a tiny, pucca house in Laxminagar, a slum pocket near Pune’s Parvati hills.

The Rajiv Gandhi E-Learning Academy is a showpiece for the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), which claims this school is the first such e-learning academy to be run by a city administration, and catering largely to children from informal settlements or slums who have little or no access to computers or modern teaching methods. The school is much sought after by parents in different slum pockets along Satara Road; children from Janata Vasahat, Dandekar Bridge, Shiv Darshan, Upper and Lower Indiranagar study here.

“Only three houses in our locality have desktop computers,” Parth grins. “A majority of my friends visit two net cafes to surf the internet or play computer games. I love Minesweeper and  GTA Vice City, in which I’m a thief and American police follow me till I cross the US border safely. If you cross the border safely before getting caught, you win!”

The two net cafes are not very far away but charge Rs 30-40 per hour of internet use. Parth visits them too, sometimes with his friends and sometimes alone. He recently read an entire story about Sachin Tendulkar online. Sometimes he researches something for a school assignment.

Parth can’t access the internet in school yet. Only students from Class VIII to XI are allowed to use the net at the computer lab. The younger children use the computers minus internet. Access to social networking sites is restricted in school. Students are familiar with Google and Wikipedia; they surf current affairs, science, history, geography and access images for their project work. They also use online dictionaries.

One of the students at the lab was reading the chronology of India’s independence movement online, downloading material for a PPT presentation. A couple of months ago, a group of Class VIII students worked on a project on disaster management, against the backdrop of the Uttaranchal tragedy. “We noted how the rains occurred, how people were killed and how there were food shortages at the disaster site, and prepared a detailed PPT presentation,” says Madhura Salve, a Class VIII student.

Vivek Badgu from Class IX explains, “We get 45-90 minutes of internet use every day.” He can do experiments online that he cannot do at his school laboratory. Huda Ansari, whose father works in a bakery at Ghorpade Peth, says she prefers doing homework in school rather than at home. “It’s easier. The server has all the text, diagrams and pictures loaded for your studies,” she says. And when the computer lab assistant is not around, the students sneak in G-chat and a game of solitaire or chess!

Autorickshaw driver Anil Kamble got admission for his son Mayan in Junior KG. “I had been hearing about the school’s computer and English education for three years or so. No one speaks English at home or in the vicinity, but my son can recite English poems,” Kamble adds proudly.

Indeed, even Class I students at the Rajiv Gandhi Academy speak the Queen’s English. “My mummy bought vegetables yesterday. I told her this is a potato, but mummy said it was batata and not potato,” says Yash Dixit. Yash lives with his parents and siblings in a small hutment in Upper Indiranagar. They speak Marathi at home. Even Class I student Murtuza Shaikh, son of a cab driver, can rattle off the various parts of the computer – CPU, keyboard, mouse – and can manage basic applications on a computer.

“At first, the children are hesitant. But they pick up very fast,” says Rebecca Magar, who joined the school three years ago after 16 years of teaching at a convent school in the Pune cantonment area.

According to school principal Arun Kamthe, the school lays stress on the English language and all subjects are taught in English. “English is a world language and computers can be operated with full perfection only if one has command over the language,” he says.

The school has two airconditioned computer labs. Each has 50 desktop computers that are internet connected. Every student is required to use the computer once a day, for at least 35 minutes. Students from Class I to II are taught the basics of computers, while those in Class III and above are allowed to use them. Students can surf the internet, under the strict vigil of teachers, from Class VIII onwards. Each student has a user ID and password.

The modern, four-storey school building houses around 1,300 students, studying from pre-primary to junior college (till Class XI). Only children of poor parents, whose annual income is less than Rs 100,000, are admitted. “The parents of a majority of students are not educated and do odd jobs in the city,” says local Congress corporator Aba Bagul, who envisioned the project and persuaded the PMC authorities to set it up in his electoral ward, three years ago.

Bagul says it was a conscious decision to choose the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) over the state education board syllabus, as the CBSE syllabus was available in audio-visual format. “Each classroom is provided with audio-visual facilities so the students can learn by seeing the diagrams, audio and visual clips,” he explains, adding that the teachers too have a separate e-room where they can prepare for classes with the help of computers and the internet.

According to Kamthe, the school has 100% attendance every day, something that other civic schools can only dream of, plagued as they are with the problem of dropouts. “This is because of the computers and the good meals provided by the school,” Kamthe says. “We want to teach computers to students at an early age because we want them to face the world with confidence. Secondly, we want our students to join IITs and IIMs in future, for which the computer, internet and English are a must.”

State school education director (primary) Mahavir Mane says the PMC-run school is a great example to follow. “The state education department has decided to computerise all schools in the state. The plan has been sanctioned by the state government. A syllabus with Information Communication Technology (ICT) has been prepared for secondary school students as well.”

Gitesh Shelke is a Pune-based reporter.