I spent three weeks, from December 26, 2008, to January 12, 2009, assessing the quality and condition of computer education in the small village of Bijawar, Madhya Pradesh (M.P.), India, where my father grew up and some of my family still lives.

Background

Bijawar

According to the 2001 census, Bijawar has a population of 18,412 people, of which 53% are male and 47% are female. The literacy rate is 59%, which is a bit lower than the national average literacy rate of 59.5%. Males are 66% literate and females are 50% literate. To my knowledge, the economy is mostly agricultural. The advent of digital literacy in this small village would open up a new economic avenue for a great number of people.

Computer Penetration

The computer penetration in Bijawar was estimated by locals to be anywhere from 25-50%, a percentage that seems awfully high to me and is probably a function of the people with whom those locals are familiar. There are some well-off families who have desktops and/or laptops.

Rakesh, a permanent teacher at the Government Girls’ Higher Secondary School, seems to possess a lot of technical computer know-how about both hardware and software. Indeed, he managed to get the software for my mobile internet datacard working.

Schooling and Teachers

High school in M.P. is the ninth and tenth classes. There is one board exam given after class 10 to determine whether students go on higher secondary, which consists of the eleventh and twelfth classes. After the twelfth class, students take another board exam that determines their future higher education and career.

Students at government schools are taught in Hindi, and they begin learning English in the sixth class. Private schools are often English-medium, but of course, only the students who can afford the fees at these schools can reap the benefits.

Teachers start out as ‘guest’ teachers and are given appointments for one school year. Once they finish their qualifications, they are then eligible to move to permanent positions as they open up. Permanent teachers receive benefits and a higher salary, and it is additionally extremely difficult to fire them (which makes these positions highly desired, much like tenured professorships). This process is of course highly politicized and therefore subject to the vagaries of Indian government corruption. Once teachers become permanent, they seem to lose motivation to do the required work, while the underpaid guest teachers – who are often younger, more idealistic, and afraid of losing their jobs – are the ones doing the actual teaching. In order to supplement their salaries, most teachers tutor the kids who have money outside of school hours (“tuition”). For the last few years, the number of people who have the proper qualifications to become permanent teachers has been so low that schools were having trouble filling all of their positions; the government implemented a more extensive guest teacher program in which people with fewer qualifications could fill in the gaps.

The teachers barely have to do any prep work for their classes because the government supplies them with syllabi, textbooks (that come with exercises and exams), and day-by-day lesson plans. I would speculate that this scheme came about in order to standardize the curriculum and ensure that students in villages that traditionally offered a much poorer quality of education than wealthier cities were able to learn some basic knowledge. I would additionally speculate that the teachers in these villages often don’t have the education, experience, or training (through no fault of their own) to properly design and implement an effective curriculum, so the government decided to provide materials that basically anyone could teach.

The government also provides numerous schemes and incentives for female students and students from lower socioeconomic classes to stay in school and keep their grades up. They supply money for free lunches at all the elementary and middle schools in small villages.

Government Excellence Boys’ Higher Secondary School

The Government Excellence Boys’ Higher Secondary School has around 800 students, with approximately half of the students dropping out after they fail their board exams in the tenth class.

The boys’ HS school was sent ten computers, a Canon LBP 3200 printer, an HP ScanJet 5590, and a dot-matrix printer by the government in July 2007. Additionally, they were sent XP Pro, eTrust 7.1, PowerDVD 7.0, Nero 7, and drivers and utilities for each computer. Theoretically, there should have been ten copies of each CD, but we found varying quantities (always less than 10). When we arrived, the computers were mostly neglected (only two were in regular use by administrative assistants) and virus-ridden.

The school is currently in the middle of building a dedicated lab for storing and using these computers. Some people mentioned that they might receive an additional ten to fifteen machines in the near future, although no one knew the specifics of that possibility.

There were also two sets of books designed to teach computer skills, one in English and one in Hindi. We also found a color TV and a DVD player which don’t seem to be used. The school has an additional computer and HP printer/scanner which sit in a separate room and are only used for administrative purposes.

Government Girls’ Higher Secondary School

The Government Girls’ Higher Secondary School is expecting to get anywhere between ten and twenty-five computers in April – the number varied depending on the person we talked to. They currently have one computer with a dial-up Internet connection, which is in the principal’s office and is used for administrative purposes only.

Our Work

Going into these three weeks, my plans were by design vague and subject to change. I wanted to focus on finding a way to introduce computer literacy to middle- and high-school aged students, mostly because kids who grow up with technological fluency are most able to use their knowledge as adults. The most obvious way would be to simply step into schools and teach the students how to use computers.

The sustainability of this program, however, was perhaps the most important aspect. Three weeks was not enough time to teach an entirely new skill set to 12-17 year old students. I believed they would be better served if I focused on training teachers how to use computers to supplement their lessons, with the possible additional goal of helping to train people to be teachers themselves. We concentrated on women teachers because they traditionally have fewer opportunities.

Women Teachers

Over the course of our three weeks, we met with four women teachers, one from the boys’ HS school and three from elementary and middle schools at even smaller villages than Bijawar, on a regular basis to work with them on computer skills. Three of them are guest teachers, while one of women who teach in a smaller village has a permanent appointment. We introduced them to Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and the basics of the Internet, including email. Through this process, we learned a lot about the challenges of teaching computer literacy to beginners, especially where the English skills are limited.

The teachers struggled through Word because they were unable to see its utility in their daily lives, although it was an effective way for them to learn basic mousing and typing skills. Once we got to Excel, however, they realized how easy it would be to keep track of, calculate, and report their students’ grades, a process that normally takes them months.

Additionally, we had regular conversations with them about how best to bring computer education into the schools. The main point that came out of these discussions was that training teachers in computers must become compulsory, which will be necessarily accompanied by computer education becoming a part of the government school curriculum. The women believe that this effort will become fully actualized within the next few years. This effort will also solve the problem of there being too many students and too few computers, because there will likely be a dedicated school period and teacher that will be able to accommodate all of the students in an organized manner. The women also want to see the establishment of a computer center in order to provide computer access to people, especially teachers, who don’t have and can’t afford to buy one for themselves. The biggest obstacles they see themselves facing in continuing to develop their computer skills are time and money, as well as the social pressures exacted on young, unmarried women.

Schools

We worked with the boys’ HS school to get their computers set up and start a pilot program to begin teaching computer literacy to their students. We removed all the viruses (and resorted to reformatting a hard drive), uninstalled bloatware and other unnecessary programs, installed anti-virus software and all the appropriate drivers for their printers, and created limited-user accounts so that additional malware cannot accidentally be installed. One of the computers is not working (and, by all accounts, never did), so we’ve left information with the principal on who to call to get it repaired or replaced.

A few days before we left, broadband was extended to Bijawar, so we got a connection for the boys’ HS school. The principal had previously sent another teacher to fill out the broadband form, but we underestimated how intimidating signing up and picking out a plan is for people who haven’t had the opportunity to learn, for example, what a 1 GB download limit is. Since the computers don’t have WiFi, the school can only use broadband on two computers at a time (without a switch, anyway, which they don’t have), but we made sure that they can be any two computers at a time, providing that the wire reaches far enough.

We also created Excel templates for their marks sheets (report cards) that the teachers can use to easily calculate and print out their students’ final grades. They usually calculate the grades and percentages by hand, which takes them months. We originally made the templates in English, but the teachers reminded us that although they knew enough English to use them, the students’ parents wouldn’t be able to read their children’s grades. We then translated the English to Hindi using the Kruti Dev (Remington mapping) font.

Since the computers aren’t networked, we labeled five computers as “Class 9 Work,” “Class 10 Work,” “Class 11 Work,” “Class 12 Work,” and “Administrative Work” to ensure that any marks sheets and roll sheets that are filled out in Excel can always be found on the same computer (i.e., so that teachers don’t forget which computer they were working on and get confused about where their work is saved). We’ve also made instructions for beginners on how to turn on the computer, open and save files, and turn off the computer that we’re going to paste on each CPU.

The principal was initially reluctant to begin teaching students how to use computers as an extracurricular activity, but after some time and dialogue, he agreed to a program in which ten students would be introduced to computers before or after school. We have to follow through on this in order for anything to get done.

We worked with three of the teachers at the girls’ HS school for a few afternoons, using the laptops we brought with us, but our work was interrupted by a number of holidays and events. We weren’t able to work consistently or to achieve any appreciable results. Perhaps when the computers arrive at this school, we will be able to work together.

Issues

Education

One of the major issues with computer literacy in Bijawar is basic English literacy because the quality of English education in these schools is poor. Since the options for computing in Hindi are so limited, the students and other people with whom we’re working have to be able to read and understand at least some English. Context menus and dialogue boxes are intimidating because learning the ways in which Windows prompts users to take certain actions are difficult enough without the additional language barrier. Students and even teachers are additionally unable to generate significant content – letters, CVs, lesson plans, essays – in English, which makes it difficult to establish a connection between the skills they’re learning and their lives. Using the Internet is also a challenge without good English skills. While there are efforts being made to generate content in Hindi, the amount of information in Hindi is a fraction of that available in English.

Learning to type in Hindi, using a Hindi font like Kruti Dev, might help with this issue. The problem is that learning to type in English is currently a necessity for operating a computer and using the Internet. While this can be accomplished through the use of free typing software, there is no software to teach Hindi typing. There are books available for this purpose, but it is an imperfect solution that is largely untested at the high school level. Speculatively, I would venture that it requires significant time and effort to learn to type in Hindi, but it certainly bears further research.

Maintenance

The maintenance of these computers is also a huge problem. When we first arrived, the computers were in terrible shape – slowed down by viruses and bloatware, suffering from incomplete Windows installations, and physically gathering dust. Portable USB drives are becoming more common, especially among those who already have a computer, and these thumb drives are vectors of infection. Although we cleaned the computers up, I have no doubt that once the students and teachers begin to use them, especially while connected to the internet, the hardware and software will inevitable develop problems. Our time spent in Bijawar elucidated the clear need for a knowledgeable part-time IT person to maintain the workstations; without someone to keep them running, the computers will be used until something goes wrong (even if that something is truly minor from our perspective) and then they will be basically abandoned. The issue of who these IT personnel are and how they are funded remains to be seen.

Electricity

The electricity situation in India, and especially in Bijawar, is also major problem because there simply isn’t enough electricity to supply everyone at all times. While we were in Bijawar, the electricity was following a three hours on, three hours off scheme. We had power for about 12 hours a day – from 3 am to 6 am, 9 am to 12 pm, 3 pm to 6pm, and 9 pm to 12 am. Besides making life generally difficult, this scheme means that desktop computers can only be run at certain times, limiting their usefulness. Although desktops are cheaper, more powerful, and more reliable, they don’t make a lot of sense in Bijawar because of this issue. The hours for the boys’ high school, for example, are from 12-4:30 pm, so there’s no electricity to run their ten computers when they’re in session. They do have a separate power supply, but desktop computers drain that pretty quickly, and it cannot handle too much of a load at once.

Physical Resources

In the boys’ HS school, specifically, the computers are being kept in a temporary room, crowded together, with no regard to proper wiring or connectivity. The fuse which they’re using cannot handle the load of ten computers running at the same time and periodically smoldered while we were there. The new computer lab that is half-built is stuck at the moment because the funds haven’t been released at the district level, the details of which are fuzzy to me. The people in charge of building this lab additionally don’t have the knowledge about what kinds of things are important when constructing a computer lab. The concrete slabs on which the computers will rest, for example, are only deep enough for a monitor – there is no space for a keyboard. The government sent them official blueprints, but they were unable to understand the plans and so have ignored them.

The final issue is that there are too many students and too few computers. We’ve found that students learn best, at least initially when they’re learning to handle the mouse and type, with one computer per student. There simply are not enough computers to teach everyone, especially when you take into account school hours and the hours during which electricity is available.

Possible Future Plans and Ideas

We are looking into multiple avenues to continue this project in the future. Our first and most important goal is to follow through on the pilot project with one or two sets of ten students, taught before or after school by some of the teachers who are either already somewhat computer-savvy or with whom we worked over the last three weeks. The logistics and details of this plan have yet to be worked out. I also want to check in with the teachers when they’re preparing their students’ marks sheets in March and April, after board exams, to see whether the templates are being used.

The possibility of opening up the computer lab, under supervision, for students or teachers to use by signing up is also something I’m interested in. This extra, free-form time would give students the opportunity to either practice what they’ve learned in their extracurricular classes or to explore the medium by themselves and would give teachers a chance to enter their marks in Excel or to hone their computer skills. In a similar vein, the option of providing computers elsewhere in Bijawar for the teachers to use in their off time is something to explore.

I’d like to find a way to connect this computer literacy to the students’ other subjects or to their lives. Computer-aided education is an entirely different subject, but it would be interesting if students could use Excel to do some math and science exercises related to their coursework. Producing essays and papers is more difficult, because students would have to be fairly proficient at typing in Hindi first.

There is a teacher training camp held every summer for two weeks, in which master trainers go through the coming year’s curriculum and instruct the teachers on how to teach their students. Some of the teachers with whom we worked suggested that one teacher from each school be trained at this camp so that they can train others when they go back to their school. This avenue is worth investigating further.

We want to find a way of contacting the M.P. Board of Education to understand more thoroughly what their plans are regarding computer literacy in rural areas where they’ve sent computers but have not made any visible effort towards developing a sustainable infrastructure within which to actually teach students. If we have more information about the official plan, we’ll be better able to tailor our work to fit with theirs.

In the distant future, I would be interested in exploring computer literacy at the elementary and middle school levels as well, to expose students to technology as early as possible. I’m unaware of any current government scheme to send computers to these schools, however. Students also only begin learning English in the sixth grade, which is a possible stumbling block. They might be able to use drawing software or play games, which would at least teach them basic mouse and keyboard skills and allow them to become familiar with Windows at an intuitive level.

To combat the electricity problem, I’m going to look into public and private schemes to implement alternative energy sources, especially solar power, to run computers.