Pictures and articles about the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots of India do not prepare you for the irl experience—the poverty in Old Delhi versus modern architectural structures in high-tech Bangalor. However, the most significant contrast is in opportunity. Research on the U.S. economy has shown that few people are able to improve on the economic class into which they were born. In India, the challenges of moving upwards look insurmountable. This is especially true regarding the status of girls where attitudes about girl child infanticide, not just access to education, are being combated. In this context the Rabea Girls Public School is nothing but extraordinary. Established in 1974 by Hakeem Abdul Hameed (the school is named after his mother) it is now run by Principal Dr. Naheed Usmani. It is a unique school for Muslim girls, where their education includes working with electrical circuits and writing business plans. What’s notable about the school leader is that she didn’t talk about changing the world. Dr. Usmani talked about helping individual students become good human beings, about giving girls the “right values and confidence” so they would not falter, in whatever path they followed. Recognizing that many of her students get married by the 12th grade, Dr. Usmani talked about increasing the number of her students going on to university (20 last year compared to just 2 students in 2011, when she started as the school’s principal). Though many education leaders look to take on new challenges after a few years of a successful program, Dr. Usmani did not talk about what she planned to do next. “There is no exit strategy,” was a statement made by another school leader, Geetha Narayanan, founder of the Srishti Institute. Both women, like so many of the eduction leaders we met on this trip, have a commitment to providing opportunity that focuses on the individual student. Though I was surprised to see John F. Kennedy quoted in the Rabea School Magazine, I was not surprised by the sentiment—“…those who look only to the past and present are certain to miss the future.”
Our visit to Agastya was on the second leg of the delegation tour. It started with another early morning rise and a 4-hour bus ride that took us past Kuppam and other small villages. Along the way both sides of the road had mostly farm land and country side with mountains in the distance. This part of India is much more green and lush compared to the area surrounding Delhi and Agra.
Background on Agastya
Agastya International Foundation (Agastya) is an Indian education trust and non-profit organization based in Bangalore, India whose mission is to spark curiosity, nurture creativity and build confidence among economically disadvantaged children and teachers in rural India. Agastya was founded in 1999 by entrepreneurs including Mr. Ramji Raghavan. Agastya runs hands-on science education programs in rural and peri-urban regions across 14 Indian states, as of January 2015. It is one of the largest science education programs that caters to economically disadvantaged children and teachers in the world.
By making practical, hands-on science education accessible to rural government schools, Agastya aims to transform and stimulate the thinking of underprivileged children and teachers. Agastya has a Creativity Lab located on a 172-acre campus in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh, and over 100 Mobile Labs and 45 Science Centers all over India. As of January 2015, Agastya has implemented programs for over 5 million children (50% girls) and 200,000 teachers, from vulnerable and economically disadvantaged communities.
Agastya Bangalore campus
Our schedule consisted of a brief presentation by Agastya host, leaders and educators, then visits around the campus to the various learning centers. These Centers are housed in beautifully designed buildings spread across the campus. Each building has amazing vistas of the surrounding landscape.
At each center we got a chance to do hands-on demonstrations of tools/games used in helping learners discover science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics through experience. The Agastya research and development staff have put tremendous amount of talent and effort into creating educational kits that are well thought out and extremely portable. With these kits they can reach learners in the most remote areas.
Through mobile classrooms Agastya has been reaching a significant number of learners and educators in rural areas around the country. Now with the Agastya campus and park their new model of training “teachers” or learning coaches they have and ambitious goal of reaching 50 million students and 2 million teachers by 2020. Keep in mind, there are at present 400 million students in India. Their impact would be tremendous in how STEAM is taught in India and internationally in the coming years.
The data they have reported shows their approach works. They have educated many children and teachers that would otherwise have been left behind.
Visit to after school activities in the village
We made two late evening visits at a nearby village. Our first visit was to an elementary school that had after school maker space. Children of various ages were making crafts out of paper, banana leaves, popsicle sticks, etc…
The second visit was to an afterschool program utilizing one of Agastya’s Mobile classrooms. This particular mobile classroom was a van equipped with equipment like laptops, tablets, and other technology to help deliver digital education. Class was being held outside someone home. Students were seated on the ground at tables arranged outside. Each student had a laptop/tablet. The van provided light and power to conduct class both of which are unreliable in areas where Agastya provides services. Vans are also being upgraded to provide internet access for the mobile devices.
We observed innovative uses of information technology by the Agastya team. Two of the more unique findings were the use of Raspberry Pi computers and mobile computer labs. To reach their goal of 50 million students the team at Agastya have to solutions that can scale to those kinds of numbers. A cheap computer like the Raspberry Pi is a scalable solution. Additionally, the machines are small and housed in clear plastic housing allowing students to experience both the hardware and software.
Like their mobile classrooms the mobile computer labs allow Agastya to bring classroom technology to rural areas. In this case it’s a but set up with multiple computer stations that can accommodate 18 students and on instructor. Each station has set up for two students to foster collaborative learning.
We finished our day at the Agastya auditorium immersed in the Arts. It is a beautiful building with unique architecture befitting their country setting. Another creed at Agastya is to foster and nourish creativity holistically. One of the many ways they do this through performance art. Experiencing STEM through performance art. This approach necessitates participation. So, the delegation sang and danced the songs and dances native to Tamil Nadu. True to form, their staff of engineers and scientists also sang and performed. Some of their staff show exceptional talent.
Unlike the visits in Delhi where we observed the use of technology addressing concerns in urban India. Classroom technology concerns in rural India are a few layers removed from the more basic needs of literacy and STEAM. But, I think Agastya has the correct formula.
We left there extremely inspired and full of hope.
As I met with family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday there were always questions about my recent trip to India as a member of the CoSN Senior Delegation. Many times I felt that the slogan on our tour bus – “Incredible India” – gave a good broad-brush description of a wonderfully diverse country.
However, I found that whenever I really got down to telling the story of what we learned and experienced my comments usually revolved around three “P’s”: People, Passion, and Purpose.
PEOPLE – There is no question that the people of India are truly its greatest asset. Their graciousness and sense of hospitality cannot be overstated. We experienced sincere warm welcomes wherever we went. It did not matter if we were simply chatting with people we met in the street, shops and hotels, or if we were conversing with our hosts – both adults and students – at the schools and non-profit organizations we were fortunate enough to visit. Everyone expressed an eagerness to share their stories as well as a curiosity about us, why we were visiting their community, and what we might share with them.
PASSION – The people of India are passionate about their families, their history and their culture. Whether visiting with people living in the crowded cities or those in the more affluent communities, dedication to family is a strong priority. That sense of family extends to their neighborhoods and community at large. The historic temples and shrines as well as the magnificent colors in the fabrics of saris worn by women throughout India conveyed the rich sense of culture that permeates so much of India’s way of life. As magnificent as the historic treasures are, it is the eyes and smiles of the children that illuminate the passion of the people of India and give a glimpse of what the future holds.
PURPOSE – It is a given that India faces enormous challenges in multiple arenas including basic infrastructure for housing, refuse, water, transportation, technology, education and more. The school directors and non-profit leaders we met with never shied away from the struggles they face. Rather they meet them head-on with a determination to invest in the people of India as a way to solve India’s current problems. Whether looking at teacher education as a way to reach more students, as demonstrated by the Learning Links Foundation and the Agastya Center, or emphasizing the importance of STEM education for both boys and girls at every school we visited, the unifying trend is to invest in human capital as a means for growing India into a strong, self-reliant, powerhouse nation. Other common threads inherent in the sense of purpose is an emphasis on educating the whole child, an infusion of the arts along with STEM curricula, and a laser like focus on student learning projects that support the “greater good”.
In my conversations with students at each school we visited I always asked what they hope to do when they finish with their schooling. A young 8th grade girl told me she aspired to be an aeronautical engineer. I responded by telling her that I live in Southern California which is home to several aerospace industries and said that perhaps she might end up working at one of them. She did not miss a beat when she asked me if she might share another of her aspirations with me. I said, “Certainly”. Her reply: “I was born in India, I live in India, and I want to stay in India”. With that sense of determination, pride and purpose it will be a thrill for the rest of the world to watch “Incredible India” grow and develop over the next few decades.
The very long trip home was a good opportunity to reflect upon our experiences.
How can we capture the sights, sounds and vibrancy of India in words?
Our delegation was extraordinary – the members bonded quickly and part of the experience was learning from each other and sharing differing perspectives.
What we saw and witnessed and learned was even more extraordinary. We witnessed the joy of learning in small rural village school and in after school centers in impoverished urban neighborhoods. Imagine walking down a dark alley outside of Kumpam , meeting cows wandering about – and then at the end of the passage a group of students sitting in the dark on tablets learning excel. The only light visible was from the screens. We learned that students came here from 7- 8:30 each evening to enrich their education and achieve some of the skills that will lift them out of rural poverty and provide an opportunity for advancement. Imagine also well resourced private schools in Ambur and Chennai where we were greeted by signs proclaiming the visit of the CoSN Delegation and by traditional music welcoming us . What impressed us in each case was the joy of learning reflected in the face of the students.
We also were privileged to meet with visionary leaders who are helping to shape and implement education programs in India. Learning Links , Agastya and Sristi , Pratham ,and EK Steps – the vision and dedication of these groups are remarkable , exciting and certainly a step forward in improving education in India.
There is so much more to say – so many more tidbits and exciting moments that occurred – our stay at Agastya Foundation campus in rural India – an oasis of learning and quiet; the Moslem Girls School in Old Delhi and the sign that they created honoring Paris , our special Diwali celebration in Chennai organized by the Surana families; the hospit6atliy and gifts that we received in so many places; and most of all that spirit of doing more with so much less. As another member of the delegation noted
Namste – now our challenge is to capture the experiences in a report for US educators and policymakers based on what we learned in India. In this Thanksgiving season, I am thankful for the CoSN Delegation and our hosts in India for helping us see a path for learning in the midst of tremendous challenges.
From the moment the glass doors slid open at the Delhi airport and we emerged from 20+ hours of travel, it was clear we arrived in a land vastly different than what we left. The first sensation to hit was the heat and humidity that smacked our faces as we stepped from the sterile airport environment to the smoky darkness lit with a sea of humanity bustling to and from the airport. In addition to people, the streets were teeming with all forms of life—roaming dogs, cows and oxen. To say we felt overwhelmed would be an understatement.
The first couple of days were spent visiting Indian national heritage sites that date back as early as the 13th century–Qutub Minar, Fatehpur Sikri, and the Taj Mahal. These visits reinforced the concept of a shared human heritage and provided us with perspectives on our own place and time in history. However, as we walked around these national treasures, it only cemented the fact we were in a foreign land. We were clearly the minority that stood out upon a sea of Indian women dressed in brightly colored, traditional sarees and Indian men in a mix of traditional and Western attire. As we drove around the city and spent more hours in traffic than at our actual visits, we peered through the bus windows at this incredibly different landscape and experience. The feeling of being a foreigner in a foreign land was settling in.
Then something unexpected happened…as we began our school visits, we were transported home. The passion to serve students and provide an education to all children transcended the more than 8,000 miles that separate India and the US. Principals welcomed us with open arms and blessings. They spoke to us about their student assemblies that day and the core message of purity of the heart – this message was in response to the Paris terrorist attacks that had just occurred.
It became crystal clear through multiple school visits throughout the week that we are the same. School administrators are passionate about empowering students with knowledge and preparing them for successful lives. They speak of engagement, service learning, design thinking, digital citizenship and safety. Families care deeply about their children and their futures. Parent concerns were reflected in comments around internet safety, the appropriate amount of screen time for children, and the desire to have skills such as collaboration and creativity embedded within schools. And the faces and smiles of children melted our hearts. Children were excited and proud to share with us their projects and their time. Full of endless potential, children are a glimpse into the future.
Many of the same challenges we face in the US were expressed:
- Digital divide (although the scale in India is unlike anything we can imagine)
- Teacher recruitment and retention
- The need to help parents understand the world is changing and so are the educational needs of children
In addition to the challenges above, India has other significant infrastructure and cultural issues related to poverty, sanitation, electricity blackouts, gender divide, and 22 official languages complicate the education of its population.
Despite its challenges, the education leaders are undeterred. When asked how one implements blended learning or technology in the classroom given electricity outages and lack of reliable internet service, the response was, “There is always a Plan B.” And we witnessed this as we visited classroom after classroom.
We left India feeling inspired, hopeful and more aware of our shared humanity.
As I reflect on my time in India, I have an overwhelming sense that my empathy bucket has runneth over. It is not that I don’t care, I do deeply. It is that after a 10 days being immersed in the culture, I no longer am able to fully categorize and process what I saw in the days leading up to my departure. Blogging stopped from all delegates, including me — we simply were tired and overwhelmed with all that we had taken in.
The last few days were spent at private schools where more resources were available. Students wore neatly pressed, brightly colored uniforms and had tech from robotics to PCs to Raspberry Pies (single chip computer).
I’m feeling fortunate to have had this experience and opportunity to learn about India’s educational system from the public schools to private schools.
I also feel honored to have been able to address 200+ educators on the digital divide at a conference. A key take away for me is that the digital divide, although far greater in India than America, is the same for any individual child caught it in. It does not matter if you are in India, America, or someplace else in the world — if you don’t have access to the internet then you are at an educational disadvantage leading to many not fully participating in the digital/online economy. This has profound implications for any nation that has a portion of its population not engage in the economy.
I’ll leave this blog by saying, with all the challenges we saw in India, the students are resilient, engaged, and want to learn. Plan B for when tech failed was always on the educators minds, not using it as an excuse but for a way to be creative when internet or power dropped. The human spirit and soul are alive, strong, and will take India’s next generation into the future with new skills and techniques. It may take a couple generations but India is on the way to having a mostly educated society like much of the developed world.
Here’s to India and the strides they have made to educate their people.
“If we waited until we solved all the problems around use of technology before beginning, we would never get started,” said Anjlee Prakash, CEO and Founder of the impressive Learning Links nonprofit.
To me, that “can do” spirit is the essence of India. Everywhere we have gone on our delegation, we see an optimism that life can get better, and that education is at the heart of making that happen.
The challenges of education and society in India are almost unimaginable. Poverty, lack of quality education, teacher absenteeism, low literacy levels, dozens of languages, historic ignoring of girls in education, a legacy caste system that allowed too many to be forgotten — all challenges at a scale that would make most ask “how can we even start to address these problems”.
For those of us who focus on technology in education, the challenges of doing it in India layer ontop of the above problems. Lack of connectivity, lack of devices, little teacher training on how to use technology and assuming that technology is a magic bullet. In other words, all the same problems we have in the West, expect on steroids.
We have seen incredible, innovative uses of technology. We have seen schools – and I don’t mean simply the schools that serve the wealthy elite – who are forging a path in India to leverage technology as a catalyst for new learning. We have seen where technology has been a bridge to the community and is building 21st century learners who solve real problems.
Certainly the great classrooms we are seeing are not the average classroom, but we have seen how they could scale even with low or no bandwidth and little technology. For example, we saw how one school is doing what they call Snap Homework which the teacher takes a picture of the child’s homework and emails or sends via SMS a copy. Yes, there are more elegant, high tech parent portals in the U.S., but taking a picture of homework is simple, the technology is readily available and it does the job since most parents now have a smart phone.
I particularly loved hearing about the way that Learning Links defines its role in developing leadership around use of technology:
- Year I – Learning Links staff is put onsite at the school to show how students and teachers can use the technology
- Year 2 –Learning Links staff mentors a building teacher to become the champion for the effort.
- Year 3 – Learning Links staff sets back to allow the teacher champion to lead, but are there if support is needed. (And then they are gone by the 4th year.)
Last night we met with Shankar Maruwada, Co-founder and CEO of EkStep, a massive social investment effort founded to solve major societal problems. He and other billionaire industrialists like Narayana Murthy (founder of Infosyss), are committed to solving big, important challenges at scale. They have now set their sights on education. They have set a big audacious goal of dramatically improving the literacy and math of 200 million children (ages 5-10) in five years. After a year of investigation, these corporate leaders believe that mobile devices and engaging apps offer new ways to engage parents, upgrade teachers and support student learning. Most impressively, they are doing it in a way that the will not “own” the process, but rather create a platform for government, industry and nonprofits to leverage the platform they are providing. Shankar points to Uber where the company leveraged the Internet and GPS, and built a new platform on top that has transformed the taxi industry worldwide. They are no less ambitious to do that in education.
I don’t know if all of these efforts will be successful. But I am totally impressed with the desire of Indian parents, students, government, entrepreneurs and nonprofits to make life better, and the route to that is education.
I worry that in too many in the U.S. education system start with a fundamental pessimism that things can’t change. India starts with the premise that things can and must change.