The Famous Brazilian educator Paulo Freire opined that education in developing countries is conceived and practiced as a form of ‘banking’. Herein, the teacher, as the communicator, makes deposits that the students patiently receive, memorize and repeat. The latter, he believed, serves to increase the recipients’ dependence on the educator. He, thus, advocated a more liberating approach in which engagement with education functioned as a dialogue. Herein, the educator participated and generated access for students to imbibe knowledge that was truly self- fulfilling.
Teaching in India’s government primary schools in rural areas has often been argued to be in the bind of such ‘banking education’. In addition, since the country’s independence in 1947, these schools have faced institutional constraints pertaining to infrastructure, maintenance, teacher recruitment, curriculum capacity and training. Educational expenditure as a percentage of GDP rose from 3% in 2004-05 to over 4% in 2011-12. In the 11th Five Year Plan period, 43% of the public expenditure was incurred for primary education (elementary stage from Grade I-V and upper primary from Grade VI-VIII).The modest gains of Operation Blackboard  and the National Education Policy , of the late 80’s, have been carried forward under the more ambitious flagship program Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA). Besides, the Right to Education Act (RTE) has also been invoked. Against an estimated child population of 192 million in the 6-14 age group, 195 million children have been enrolled at the elementary stage in 2009-10. In addition to enhancing learning levels, SSA also intends to fill infrastructural gaps and bridge gender differences in rural schools.
Despite enrolment increasing to near universal levels, critical grassroots issues still continue to stare us in the face. These include teacher absenteeism, lack of quality teaching, deficit of parent-teacher interaction and, more importantly, lack of access for marginalized rural communities (women, minorities, scheduled castes & tribes) at the elementary school stage.
Interactive information and communication technologies were envisioned to be amongst other panaceas to overcome these limitations. After decade-long deliberations in the post economic reform period of the 1990’s, EDUSAT  was launched in 2004 by the Indian Space Research Organization  (ISRO) in collaboration with the Ministry of Human Resource Development and Indira Gandhi National Open University  (IGNOU) exclusively for the education sector. EDUSAT is an acronym for Educational Satellite- a satellite dedicated to education with multiple channels. It is a technology network of uplink stations in selected national and state locations (to act as teaching ends) and downlink stations or facilities in various educational institutions (as learning ends) supported by satellite.
The class room in government primary schools (as also in secondary schools) is supposed to be provided either with a large 29 inch television, a camera and audio equipment or a computer with an LCD projector. When a learner asks questions, the audio and visual signals get beamed to the satellite which in turn sends it back to the teaching end. The network has the facility to record the lessons taught as well the questions asked and store the same in a digitized form to enable running of a virtual classroom. Lessons, thus, can be stored and retrieved by anyone with access to the computer. As a result, it is possible for a student to revisit and relive the classroom experience.
States like Tamil Naidu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have made early pioneering efforts to generate rich experiences using virtual classrooms for strengthening EDUSAT. While ‘receive only’ terminals have been established at the primary school stage, ‘interactive’ terminals have largely served secondary schools and higher institutions. The states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have benefited from the satellite supported networking of rural schools (RGPEEE Project ) to connect remote and inaccessible areas. Haryana launched a full network comprising of five EDUSAT channels in 2007 covering the entire gamut of education from primary to technical.
The Primary School Channel in Haryana, that intended to cover more than a million children between the age group of 6-14 in 9080 schools, is a DTH (Direct to Home) receive only terminal with provision for 29 inch color TVs. The latter system was installed to strengthen curriculum aimed at English and Maths broadcast teaching for I to V Grades. In 2008, I had visited and examined an EDUSAT project running in the remote primary school of village Aminabad (located in the backward District of Mewat - Southern Haryana). The study unearthed a host of backward-forward linkage concerns that are still relevant in today’s intensely interconnected world.
First, the logic of setting up a ‘receive only terminal’ at the elementary school stage is an issue that needs to be revisited. This, in fact, is the stage when core foundational ideas and the problem solving abilities of children in the age group of 6-14 are being gradually nurtured. This is especially crucial for children from rural areas who participate in school activities in the face of tremendous socio-cultural odds at the elementary school stage. Therefore, there is a dire need at this stage for interactive learning in real time to build children’s skills sets. More so, if they are to be empowered to participate effectively in EDUSAT projects later at the secondary school stage that opens a skill/vocational stream, too.
Second, with a ‘receive only terminal’ the role of the class teacher becomes extremely pertinent. While the learning outcome achieved by audio-visual image on television (broadcasting of a video recorded lecture that is not interactive) is a step better than repetitive teaching by rote, a class teacher’s capacity to be able to create an environment of dialogic participation with the taught is a must. Hence, the ‘receive only’ EDUSAT intervention at the elementary school stage has to be supplemented with intensive training for teachers to be effective communicators. Civil society-led workshops on capacity enhancement (in a public private partnership mode) at the block and district level have proved to be a boon in states such as Tamil Naidu.
Third, a major constraint in the regular functioning of the EDUSAT project is electricity-related failures due to frequent power cuts. Hence, the need to strengthen the provision of, for example, solar powered batteries. Due to insufficient power supply, the structured video lesson schedules cannot be followed up for days at a stretch. This, infact, defeats the inculcation of a sustained virtual learning culture at the elementary school stage in the village. Besides, there often is prolonged delay in availability of technical help, since private service providers are available only at distant locations from the village or group of villages.
Last, but not the least, there is a need to devolve and decentralize the management, operation and ownership of the EDUSAT project at the primary school stage to the constitutionally backed third tier of rural local self-governance, i.e. empowered Gram Panchayats. The latter, in partnership (through functional linkages) with dedicated grassroots nongovernmental organizations, should stringently monitor two crucial parameters at the local level. One, impact evaluation by targeting of female girl children in the elementary classes who belong to marginalized communities and two, timely response mechanisms for technical solutions at call for equipment related service provision.
Reputed nongovernmental organizations such as Pratham (First)  have enabled several state governments to make changes in their rural development program strategies to increase scheme/project efficacy. Pratham’s ASER (meaning impact) is an intensive household survey that measures the reading and arithmetic levels of children in the age group of 4-16 years. Surveys such as the above should be utilized to procure feedback on access and participation issues in EDUSAT projects, specifically at the elementary school stage (in low income states such as Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh).
At the same time, the government needs to aggressively push the fiber based broadband connectivity along with associated infrastructure that is proposed to be given to over 260,000 Gram Panchayats in the ensuing 12th Plan Period (2012-2017). This would enable the Panchayats to electronically track SSA funds, improve internal management processes and supervise converged flow of funds efficiently at the elementary school stage. Especially, multiple funds that are meant for strengthening building/ICT infrastructure development and measuring learning outcomes in rural areas.
Finally, the Union government led National Innovation Council  (NIC) should fast track the setting up of the India Inclusive Innovation Fund that will invest in innovative ICT enterprises engaged in providing solutions for the ‘bottom of the pyramid’. In fact, such a fund should back up and scale synergies between the EDUSAT network and a host of private sector initiatives such as the One Laptop Per Child  (OLPC) that aim at creating a digitally literate generation in the hardscrabble class rooms of rural areas in emerging markets.
Photo by Curt Carnemark via the World Bank's Photo Collection, available here .
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