At last, multiplication and division are adding up for 13-year-old Simran Yakub. "I not only follow math now, but can also read and write Hindi," she says. "I used to make many mistakes, but after coming to the centre, I'm doing better." She is referring to the Mindspark Learning Centre in Govindpuri, New Delhi, where children like her from neighbouring slums come to supplement their school education with time spent at the centre learning on computers. It is one of two centres set up in the city by Educational Initiatives (EI). The centres have 20 computers each. Students come in three times a week for an hour each to learn Hindi, English and mathematics.
EI is an education research organisation started by a group of alumni of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. It conducts benchmarking tests and offers Mindspark, an Internetbased learning programme, to bridge students' learning gaps. It is personalised because it adapts to each user.
Half the traffic at meritnation.com is from small towns
EI's learning centres were established with the help of Central Square Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that aims to improve learning outcomes of children from disadvantaged communities. Services such as these, which use technology and online learning, could well be the silver-bullet solution for India's challenges in primary and secondary education.
There are 1.4 million schools that teach kindergarten through high school, or K-12. The government runs about 80 per cent of these. The penetration of information and communication technology (ICT) in schools is about 10 per cent, through programmes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and ICT@Schools. Some 689,000 positions for teachers are vacant, and 670,000 teachers are untrained.
While companies such as Educomp and IL&FS are making inroads with digital teaching systems, the potential is vast. India has relatively little in terms of online models of the likes of California, US-based Rocketship Education, that relies on technology to boost academic achievement in low-income neighbourhoods.
Meritnation.com is one of India's biggest online learning portals, with 3.7 million registered students across nine countries. About 10 per cent of the students are from outside the country. Despite its for-profit model - it charges each student Rs 3,500 a year for all subjects - it has found ready takers. "We find that at least half the traffic is from smaller towns," says Pavan Chouhan, Co-founder and Managing Director. The only thing that keeps Meritnation.com from spreading further in rural India, he adds, is the low level of Internet access.
There are other issues, too, especially at the primary education stage. "Technology surely holds the solution, but I am a great believer in human intervention when it comes to delivery of primary education," says Rajya Sabha member Anu Aga, who is involved in education initiatives for underprivileged children.Shamni Pande