We Can. The Spirit of India

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“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.

And, yet…

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.

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