Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Mar 24, 2004
Industry & Economy - Education
Satoli education experiment Exploding myths of rural expectations
The writing on the wall is clear.... Education is every child's first desire.
The institute has been able to explode two myths with its limited experimental education programme that it conducted in June 2003. These myths include rural India being opposed to English and the rural poor unwilling to pay for education.
The project earned the institute $10,000 Templeton Freedom Prize early this month and the institute's finding could also form the basis for evolving a more cogent and user-friendly educational programme for students by policy-makers and educators.
The institute decided to conduct a month-long IT education programme in rural India in 2003. It set out with the proposition that rural Indians were not resistant to English and that they would pay for value-for-money IT education in English. It chose Satoli in Uttaranchal as the venue for the experiment. Satoli is only 380 km from Delhi, but has retained its rural character. It is situated at a height of 2,000 metres in the Himalayas. Education, exposure and skill levels in this area are weak. The government-run school system is widespread in Uttaranchal. However, as with the rest of rural India, the quality of that education is poor. This is reflected in the high dropout and low graduation rates. English skills in the village were marginal.
The village has only a handful of telephone connections and Internet is comparatively unknown. Only about 25 per cent of the households have a television set which receive a few channels, though the people are conversant with the power of English as an empowering tool for communication, and IT read computers as a means of getting access to highly paid jobs.
The convenors of this project initially planned a month-long computer orientation programme in June 2003, with a segment reserved for demonstrating the power of the Internet. However, the latter part of the programme could not be implemented as the village had few telephone lines, and Internet via satellite could not be brought to the summer camp in time because of regulatory bottlenecks and procedural delays.
The institute brought in four teachers, two Indians and two foreigners and two computer instructors for its interactive course. It prescribed a fee of Rs 100 per child and Rs 200 per young adult for the month-long camp. The institute had planned the programme for 60 students, but ended up enrolling 120 and had to turn away many more.
None of the students, including the very poor ones, who enrolled for the programme sought a fee waiver. The course attracted students in the age group of eight to 48, clearly indicating that very young as well as adults hankered for skill enhancements, including English language speaking skills and access to computer literacy.
Today, the convenors believe that they could have easily charged twice as much in fees and they still would not have faced problems in enrolment, though their fee for a month was significantly higher than what the government-run schools charged students in the area for a full year. In spite of this, the course generated such interest in this rural community.
One of the insights that the institute gained which actually needs to be brought to the attention of our policy-makers and NGOs is that their camp was popular because it was the first of its kind in the area. Satoli dwellers were used to health camps, adult literacy and vocational training camps but nobody thus far had tried to teach them English and computers the two areas the people felt would open doors to better opportunities. This is possibly one reason why the very first students to enroll for the programme were the local NGOs.
The Liberty Institute's experiment is not unique in the sense it is patterned to an extent on the Horizon School model in Sri Lanka. The school runs a parallel evening school to impart functional IT education to children of a few villages located in remote, forested areas of the island nation. Under this project, the students have been very successful in adopting IT, in spite of their background, and the school is now well prepared to provide IT and Web solutions to commercial clients. The organisers of the Indian project say that at the end of the month, their students were able to demonstrate improvements in their ability to speak English the course was taught only in English. The older students also were able to make presentations on imaginary computers for want of real ones on account of resource constraints.
Policy-makers often tend to be dismissive of the private initiative but, perhaps, there are several pointers to what rural India needs in such experiments. An important message here is that even the very poor will pay for education, if they see a value for them in it. It is possible that our poor shun existing school system because it is unable to deliver the kind of education, which the rural population considers to be rewarding and empowering.
Experts have for long spoken of incentivising education, which has already worked well for some States, but experiments such as Satoli point to the fact that what was the right approach a decade ago may not be the right fit today.
The most popular, as well as tried and tested incentive for keeping children in school has been the mid-day meal scheme, which significantly helped Tamil Nadu on its road to becoming a fully literate State. The philosophy underlying this model is that to convince a parent to allow his child to go to school, he has to be compensated in some manner. Such compensation, apart from free schooling, is essential because even children in India are bread-earners. The compensation provided to a rural parent under the scheme is the meal that the student gets on all working days he attends school. The approach of food as an incentive worked well a decade ago when many Indians could not even provide two square meals to their families. Yet, a decade and a half of liberalisation and globalisation, the lot of the average Indian has changed. He is at least no longer that desperate about such basics though people do continue to die of starvation in pockets, but that is primarily because of the lopsided policies of the government.
Besides, if Satoli is any pointer, the aspirations of the rural Indian too have changed during this decade of explosive consumerism and development.
The government may like to impart candle-making and cane-weaving skills to the rural poor, but this population may now be dreaming of manning IBM computers and owning mansions. It is this aspiration that the government's education plan should try to meet.
And if it cannot do so, it is better to let those who can deliver such education do their job, instead of nit-picking on the pricing of education.
(The author, a freelance writer, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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