My experience these past four months have been filled with many firsts: working and navigating the cultural nuances of an Indian workplace in the context of a rapidly growing team; feeling a sense of helplessness at the fundamental challenges that prevent the program I serve, from creating sustainable impact; and writing this, my first and belated blog post! So, let me tell you a little about my organization, my role, and my experiences in the field.
First, the program and my role: I am serving in American India Foundation’s Digital Equalizer Program in the state of Odisha. Digital Equalizer (DE) is an education program which works in under-resourced public schools across ten states in India. Our goal is to bridge the digital equity divide in India’s government schools. Meaning: equip schools with technology. Within this scheme, we work with public and private sector entities who provide the funds and computers. DE’s role is to train teachers in basic computer fundamentals, so that teachers can then integrate this technology for learning in the classroom. Each week, DE field staff visit teachers on a one-on-one basis to provide this support. The intended result is an empowered teacher who creates a dynamic and engaging classroom.
Where do I fit in? My role is in Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). This role operates on the guiding questions of: is the program reaching its necessary outputs at these school, and are these outputs creating sustained impact? My work involves supporting current processes that help us track our outputs and then eventually, provide capacity building recommendations for the program, and if time permits, assist with facilitating any needed change.
In the four months that I’ve served at my organization, I’ve had the opportunity to visit schools across different regions of Odisha. The most noteworthy was an extended stay in Bileipada, Keonjhar District, Odisha. It was here that I saw the challenges DE can have when operating in what is formally called a “backward” region.
A seven-hour train ride or five-hour car ride away, Bileipada and the surrounding area is home to rural communities and well-established mining companies. One road cuts through Bileipada. On either side of the road are small shops made with thatched walls and corrugated roofs. Deep orange, dust — presumably a result of all the mining going on — coats the environment. Large trucks from the mining sites frequently travel through this road to transport raw material to a processing facility. Any vegetation close to the road is caked in dust. And behind this center of economic activity, is the local mining company’s township — a gated living community for the company’s skilled workers. For ten days I would operate from this township for exposure visits to conduct qualitative research to understand DE’s challenges on the ground.
Three observations consistently came up during my visits: the number of available teachers, poor technology infrastructure, and cultural differences.
The demand of teachers and the available supply of teachers is clearly disproportionate. Initially in my visits, I would ask the school headmaster about the strength of students and teachers. Their answers were jaw-dropping. For example, one school had four teachers with 150+ students across seven grades. In another school, there were nine teachers with about 600 students across seven grades. One grade could have 100 students. In both schools, a teacher more often that not, would simultaneously have to teach two grades. How is a teacher supposed to effectively teach in this context? And how is a student supposed to learn? This narrative is quite common in schools in Odisha. Where this affects our program’s implementation, is available time. Properly training teachers and integrating technology in the classroom during the school day is difficult for both schools and program stakeholders. The effect of this numbers problem creates a lot of challenges. Our program, however, is not designed to alleviate this. It is the simply the context that we operate in.
A quick reminder: DE partners with private and public institutions who provide the technology in schools. We install the equipment and train and support teachers to use this equipment. The challenge then, becomes the type of equipment that is provided. While DE can make suggestions as to the number of computers and the type given per school, we are at the whim of the provider. In the context of schools within Bileipada, two set-ups exist: a laptop and a projector, or four computers. A school only has one or the other. While neither option pushes the needle on bridging the digital equity divide — especially with respect to students becoming computer literate — functionally, the first is better than the second. The projector option allows all students to clearly see and learn from digital content. On the other hand, 50 students straining their eyes and huddling over one 17-inch monitor to watch a video about photosynthesis, becomes a futile activity.
Culture came into play in the schools I visited as well. Two school visits in particular illustrated fundamental issues in communication. Ironically, teachers who work in these schools are not from the community. Teachers can be from communities 60 to 300 kilometers away. Odiya — the state language — can have different dialects from village to village. A teacher coming from a far off community will speak differently. The enunciation of words and their consonants will vary, or words for things can be entirely different. For example, in standard Odiya “what is your name?” is “Tume na kauno?” — in the local language it might be “To na ki?”. Another example. an orange can either be called “kadali” or “santra”. These subtle differences in communication adds to the challenges for teachers, where attempting to explain and use analogies can result in blank stares.
The culmination of these visits contributed to this feeling of helplessness I alluded to earlier. As the visits went on, I constantly wondered about our impact and its sustainability. Despite the intentions of our model, its application within the context of Beleipada is difficult. And so far, I’ve yet to come up with ways to help alleviate some of these structural issues. The unfortunate reality is that the success of our current program in Bileipada is dependent on numerous factors, many of which, are frustratingly out of DE Odisha’s control.
Development is hard work.