The Azim Premji Foundation introduced computer-aided learning centres in government-run schools in Karnataka in 2001. This article recounts the stages of the programme, the challenges faced, and ways to make computer-aided learning programmes community-driven and sustainable.
The Azim Premji Foundation (APF) began its work on improving the quality of education in Karnataka with an initiative to enroll out-of-school children in schools. The programme covered 1,300 villages in the state. As part of this initiative, 400 habitations were surveyed to understand the aspirations of people in rural areas. The findings revealed that people had two major expectations of education: (a) knowledge of English for their children, and (b) knowledge of computers. The respondents saw both these as pathways to upward mobility. To meet these aspirations, the foundation launched computer learning centres in 35 government-run primary schools across four districts (Bangalore South and North, Kolar and Mandya) in 2001. APF provided computers, UPS and batteries, furniture and computer tables to all 35 schools. Young local people with computer knowledge were recruited to facilitate the computer-based education. These computer teachers, called Young India Fellows, received an honorarium from the foundation. The place where the computers were installed was initially called the Community Learning Centre, keeping in view the involvement of the community. Since this was misinterpreted by most people to mean adult education centres, they were renamed Computer Aided Learning Centres (CALC).
This paper is based on my experiences of implementing the CALC programme in Karnataka. My responsibilities included visiting the computer aided learning schools, monitoring activities, addressing technical problems, sharing experiences through monthly reports, and working for the sustainability of the programme by interacting with the School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC), community and school teachers. This paper traces the journey of the programme through three phases, showcasing the lessons learnt and the challenges in implementing computer aided learning. The journey also represents the evolution of our understanding of technology, because implementation is often tied to our understanding of learning and technology.
Phase 1: Initiating the programme
Once the computers were installed, the question was what should children do with them? At the time, various companies were providing computers to schools or students, or providing computer literacy trainings. Departing from this trend, the foundation focused on curriculum. The assumption was that learning curricular concepts through digital technology would be a joyful experience for children, motivating them to come to school regularly. Several interactions with teachers were held to identify the concepts they felt were critical to more complex learning at the elementary level. Thus, the topics for digital content were identified for Classes 1 to 8, and this included some non-curricular concepts. The digital content was developed in three languages—English, Hindi and Kannada. The digital content was designed to let children learn by themselves, navigating through the content, understanding concepts through stories, songs, puzzles, exercises, and a variety of learning materials. It was developed as self-learning resources and the expectation was that children would use them after they had learnt the concept in their classrooms. This digital content, in the form of CDs, was kept at the computer learning centres.
In the first year, there were only four digital multimedia content packages (Brainstorm, Magic Potion-1 & 2, and Discover Karnataka), covering basic mathematical concepts and historical places in different districts of Karnataka. Gradually the digital content increased. At the end of the programme, APF had developed digital learning resources in 14 regional languages and four tribal languages (Ranjekar and Amencherla 2008). To encourage local content development, groups of students were asked to identify topics relevant for their village, conduct studies to collect data, and make presentations based on their analysis. Teachers helped students analyse and present the data. This proved to be an enriching experience for students and technology was used to leverage their experience.
As an add-on, the computer facility was extended to young people in the village. They could use the computers during non-school hours. The Young India Fellows taught them computer literacy for a nominal fee. The money so earned was used to pay the fellows and for electricity costs and computer maintenance.
The students watched the digital content repeatedly and enjoyed the puzzles and games. But it was difficult to say whether the enjoyment translated into learning.
Teachers also saw value in the digital resources because they were based on the curriculum, in the local language, convenient to use since the internet was not available in most schools, and distributed free of cost. Teachers had no role in how children used the digital content, however, and there was no strategy in place on how the digital content ought to be used. Both these raised questions on the use of digital technology for learning.
APF had signed an agreement with schools for financial support for one year. At the end of the year, the schools were in no position to sustain the centres independently, and requested support for another year. This period was used to strategise sustainability. The involvement of the community was considered essential for sustaining such initiatives. The coordinator of the programme and head teacher went door to door, inviting members of the family for a meeting to formulate a sustainable plan. Community meetings were held in all 35 schools. Although SDMC presidents, parents and local leaders promised to contribute to the programme, none of the contributions materialised despite follow-up. Requests for contributions were sent to the chief minister and to several multinational companies. ABB adopted two schools in Bengaluru. Contributions to a few other schools came from the village panchayat, milk dairy and local organisations. Finally, the teachers of the schools worked out the cost of running the programme and reached out to parents requesting them to pay Rs 10 per child studying in the school. Parents who had more than one child studying in the school found this difficult. Ultimately, teachers also contributed some amount and the pooled resources took care of electricity, minor maintenance and honorariums to the Young India Fellows.
Phase 2: Ownership and sustainability
In this phase, the computer aided learning programme was expanded. However, the expansion was strategised to highlight ownership and sustainability. In 2002, the Government of Karnataka extended the model to 55 schools across 11 districts.
The lessons from the 35 schools covered in the first phase prompted several important changes in the programme:
Specific roles and responsibilities: Earlier, the foundation took all the responsibility. Recognising that this was not viable, the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders were defined. The education department of the state would suggest districts, and provide funds for the hardware (six to eight computers/UPS with batteries), tables and chairs and a one-year honorarium to the Young India Fellows under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. The Azim Premji Foundation was to identify schools and Young India Fellows, train teachers and monitor the programme. The community was expected to prepare the room for the computers and support the school in sustaining the programme. APF and block education functionaries identified the schools. The criteria for school identification were school strength (250 students and more), availability of an extra room, legal power availability (or procurement of power by the community), and the readiness of parents/community members to support the programme. Fifteen schools in each block were identified thus.
Training for Young India Fellows and coordinators: The personnel were recruited after a written test and interview. The selected candidates had to undergo a 12-day training programme, which consisted of personality development activities such as problem-solving, risk-taking, confidence, effective communication, body language, and structure and functions of the education system.
Use of digital content: While digital resources on CDs continued to be distributed free of cost to the schools, certain conditions were laid down for their use. The State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) had to understand the principles of education used in preparing the digital resources, and the resources had to be reviewed by the pedagogues for suitability, relevance, context, culture and language. Modifications, if any, were to be carried out by APF, with the state bearing the cost. The state was required to ensure that the schools where the digital learning resources were being used would schedule their time-table such that each child was exposed to the resources at least twice a week. Despite underlining the significance of these conditions, however, the digital resources were deployed with very little understanding of the resources or of the conditions of deployment.
The involvement of the community turned out to be beneficial for the sustainability of the programme in many schools. For instance, in Holenarasiupura taluka, Hassan district, the community agreed to prepare a room in a school. As they sought contributions, they found out that the gram panchayat had some funds for building roads under the village development head. The community members volunteered to do the road-work in exchange for funds for the computer room. In South Canara, SDMC members and parents made door-to-door visits to collect funds for the maintenance of computers and payment of honorarium to Young India Fellows. The head teacher of the Government Higher Primary School, Attibele, Anekal taluka, Bengaluru, approached the community, donors and parents along with SDMC members and collected Rs 50,000 for the maintenance of computers. Impressed with the effort on a visit to the school, the CEO of Hutch added Rs 50,000 from their company.
In a school in Kadur taluka, Chikkamagalore, where there was no power for almost six months, APF installed solar energy on an experimental basis. The foundation also experimented with solar power at a school in Shimoga. This was partially successful. The major problem was in the storage of solar energy and maintenance of batteries and UPS.
Phase 3: Focus on teachers
Somewhere along the line, the original purpose of the digital resources—to increase enrollment and attendance—was sidetracked and replaced by learning of students. In the third phase, the programme was expanded to 135 schools across one block in each district. Schools were selected collaboratively, but only after a one-day orientation programme for the block education officers of the identified blocks. APF had to resist a lot of political pressure for inclusion of schools that did not meet the selection criteria. In Siraguppa block of Bellary, the block education officer insisted on selecting a school that had no infrastructure and poor community response just because the leader of the teachers’ union was from that village. When the school was not selected, he refused to sign the school selection document, relenting only when he realised that the matter would be taken to a higher authority, the Deputy Director for Public Instruction (DDPI). Similarly, in Pandavapura, Mandya district, the local member of legislative assembly (MLA) participated in the community meeting and insisted on the selection of a school where the community was non-responsive. Political interference also affected selection of the Young India Fellows. In addition, the selection of these fellows became a tedious task. As the number of schools with computers increased, the number of fellows required also increased. Getting appropriate candidates with a background in education was challenging, particularly in difficult terrains like northeast Karnataka. The duration of their training had to be reduced from 12 to seven days.
Thus far, the programme had been focused on children. In this phase, the focus shifted to teachers. They were considered critical to students’ learning with digital resources. A two-day training was conducted for 226 CALP teachers. A cascade model was followed: area coordinators responsible for the programme were trained to instruct teachers on issues related to learning, education and use of technology. This team, in turn, trained teachers.
The teacher training programme allowed teachers to share their experiences of the programme, revealing several insights about the use of technology for learning:
- Head teachers did not allow all teachers to enter the computer lab, saying there was already a computer teacher whom they were paying.
- Head teachers feared that teachers might damage the computers.
- Young India Fellows in some schools were anxious about losing their jobs if the teachers became adept at computers, so they were reluctant to support teachers and shared the system’s password only with some teachers.
- Teachers were also intimidated by technology and scared that if something went wrong they would be blamed.
- Teachers also felt that learning about computers would burden them with additional responsibilities that they were not ready to take.
- Some teachers, who were enthused by technology and trying to integrate it in classroom, were discouraged and isolated by other teachers.
Digital technology and learning achievement
Six years after the initiation of the programme, the concern for learning of students was raised by the foundation and the academic community. The nature of digital content also came in for some criticism. It was largely considered to have a behaviourist orientation. While this was true of the earlier content, the later content allowed more space to children to construct their own knowledge. By this time, the programme had covered 16,000 schools across 14 states in the country. An independent study on the impact of the programme was commissioned, covering four states—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand (Vidya Bhawan and Azim Premji Foundation 2008). Another study was conducted by Mythili (2009). They reported that the CALPs were not functional in more than 50% of the schools sampled. Various infrastructure-related problems were identified. Even where the digital resources were functioning, teachers did not use them or have much clarity of purpose. This again was attributed to teacher-related issues (motivation, lack of confidence, inadequate training, inadequate content knowledge of teachers, inadequate explanations in digital resources and so on). The few teachers who used digital resources did so only for reinforcement. Mythili also reported that students enjoyed the digital resources, but generally engaged with resources much below their cognitive or grade levels. For example, a Class 5 student would look at Akshara Bandi, meant for Class 2. Overall, the findings showed several implementation-level problems and indicated that digital resources do not seem to change the learning of students. These studies, however, report several influences of digital resources on personality, confidence levels and other non-cognitive factors among students. The broad findings and the experiential insights suggest that the relationship between digital technology and learning remains to be established.
S Santhosh worked on technology deployment and teachers’ training at Azim Premji Foundation before moving to Azim Premji University.
Mythili, R (2009): “Draft Report: Evaluation of the Computer-assisted Learning Programme,” Quest Alliance, http://www.questalliance.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/CAL-evaluation_Report.pdf
Ranjekar, D K and S Amencherla (2008): “Short Discussion Paper: ICT Policy Recommendations from Computer-Aided Learning Experience for Six Years Spread Across 14 States,” Azim Premji Foundation, https://www.itforchange.net/sites/default/files/ITfC/Computer_Aided_Learning.pdf
Vidya Bhawan Society and Azim Premji Foundation (2008): “A Study of the Computer-Assisted Learning Programme (CALP),” www.azimpremjifoundation.org