Thursday, October 13, 2005

Learning Curve... a newsletter from the Azim Premji Foundation

'Learning Curve' is a newsletter from the Azim Premji Foundation. You can find out more about it by writing to them. The interesting thing is that these guys aren't pushing IT into schools, but actually trying to improve the quality of education itself. In one recent issue (Issue V, March 2005), a number of interesting topics and writers were covered. Ssomeone at APF probably sent me a copy, because we met up recently at the Asiasource camp in Bangalore, and one continues to show an interest in their work -- ITforDevelopment, and education itself. It's nice to see India's best IT brains being applied to local real-world concerns back home (rather than for the export dollar alone... no offence meant, but we all need to get more relevant in terms of where Indian talent gets deployed). Azim Premji Foundation head for advocacy and research S Giridhar argues: "Teachers, the Parent Teacher Association (or the School Development Monitoring Committee) and the parents are three gears of a school system that must mesh smoothly... Systemic accountability requires the alignment of forces -- not just the school but the other two key arms of the system: academic wing and the 'senior management'." J Shankar, head of the foundation's technology initiatives, says: "Today, there is a dire need for us to cut down time spent on satisfying material needs and devote more time for developing abilities, gifts and talents." Civil servant Amarjeet Sinha says in an article on 'education for life': "India has been very successful in allowing individual excellence to grow. It has produced some world class managers and IT experts. As a mass education, however, we do not achieve as much as we ought to, as we do not sufficiently address the issue of relevance and education for life. Three other writers -- Sridhar Rajagopalan, Vyjayanthi Sankar and Mili Chandraker -- from the Ahmedabad-based Educational Initiatives Pvt Ltd -- have a guest column on measuring learning. They say: "Learning is intrinsic and subjective; it is not neat, linear or simple even to understand, let alone measure. Yet efforts to systematically understand it better do yield positive results." They give practical examples to evaluate how children from different school systems perform on the same item -- rural government schools; urban, English-medium schools; private, urban, regional-medium schools; and urban municipal schools. THERE'S ALSO A report on the Child Friendly School Initiative. It involves "a holistic intervention for the all round development of a child through head teachers (school management and leadership in both administrative and academic sides), teachers (subject matter expertise, motivation, higher orientation to child-centric practices), parent body (demanding accountability, relevance of education, and playing an effective role in school management), education officers (effective as change agents), and a focus on issues of sanitation, health and gender." APF says it has a reach of 580 schools in Andhra and Karnataka. TECHNOLOGY INITIATIVES: Think of a single PC with three display terminals, three keyboards and three 'mouses', which can be simultaneously used as if they are three independent computers. This innovative idea from the Azim Premji Foundation is being deployed in the computer aided learnign centre at the Byatarayanapura Higher Primary School in Bangalore South District and in another school. Cost of installation is lower; with a single CPU (central processing unit), the maintainence cost is less. Total cost of ownership -- including power consumption, UPS capacity and battery backup -- is reported as "substantially lower". Five new titles of CDs have also been produced for children in schools. They are: Friendly Animals and Journey on the Clouds (English), Swatantra Divas, Fun with Chinchoo in Mathematics and Khel-Mel (Hindi), released in February 2005. This makes the total number of master titles available at 70. There are now 68 titles in Karnataka, 42 for Andhra, 35 for Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, 18 for Urdu medium schools, six for Orissa, 14 for Gujarat, three for Punjab and one for Kerala. As an aside, one might add that if this material was made copyright-free, copylefted, creativecommons.org or under a similar license, the good work of the APF could spread in ways it never perhaps anticipated! Other reports come in about computer-based assessment in Andhra Pradesh (50,000 students took part); a learning guarantee programme; and info on the policy planning unit in Karnataka. K Subramaniam argues explains about mathematics education research in an article "What Is It and Why It Is Important?" He argues: "Many different players need to contribute to substantially enahance the general level of learning of mathematics in our (Indian) schools: policy makers, curriculum designers, textbook writers, teacher trainers, researchers and, above all, teachers. It would probably be correct to say that among all these groups in the country, the smallest and least developed is the community of researchers in mathematics education." Foundation research consultant Sujata Reddy writes on the social context of elementary education in rural India. There is a report by Rishikesh BS on an observation study of school practices under the Learning Guarantee Programme-2004. This study found that a school's good performance could be "linked to three broad aspects" -- a head-teacher in command of the situation and leading by example; professionally-behaved teachers who are punctual and create an interactive learning environment; and an active and 'understanding' School Development Monitoring Committee. Gurumurthy Kasinathan of APF closes the issue with a focus on an initiative between Karnataka's (the IT giant firm's home state) and the Azim Premji Foundation. Called Pramata, this is an acronym for the Kannada name for 'Process Reengineering and Officers' Training'. Sounds quite corporate! Finally, this 16-page bulletin ends with very brief but useful one-para reviews of 'Child Labour and the Right to Education in Sought Asia: Needs versus Rights' (Naila Kabeer, et al, Sage India 2003); 'The Emerging Mind, BBC The Reigh Lectures (Vilayanur Ramachandran, MacGuru 2004); 'Shiksha Aur Samajh' (Education and Society, Hindi, Rohit Dhankar, Aadhar Prakashan, Panchkula 2004); Language Disadvantage; The Learning Challenge in Primary Education (Dhir Jhingran, APH, 2005). For this unusual bio -- "Azim Premji (born July 24, 1945) is an Indian businessman, and the richest person in the country (from 1999 to 2005 according to Forbes). He is a graduate in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University, USA. At the age of 21, Premji joined Wipro, his father's vegetable oil business (then) (in 1966) after the sudden demise of his father" -- see the Wikipedia. [8] Wikipedia adds: "In 2000, he was voted among the 20 most powerful men in the world by Asiaweek. He was also among the 50 richest people in the world from 2001 to 2003 according to Forbes." But it's probably unfair to call him the Indian Bill Gates. At least Mr Premji didn't rewrite the rules for as critical a tool as software, which was once freely shared like books and knowledge, but one generation ago began to be treated like "property"! Undeniably, the Indian IT model has gained hugely from proprietorial software, even if that has meant that this crucial tool is mostly too unaffordably-priced for the vast majority in the country itself to afford! Anyway, this job on education deserves to be appreciated for what it is. And if you'd like to join in online discussions about education, do sign-up here. -- Frederick "FN" Noronha, October 13, 2005