DE Exposure Trip Part 1: Where Books Come to Life

The AIF Fellowship heartily invests in the professional growth of Fellows by integrating with AIF’s other verticals like education, livelihoods and health. Gratefully, as the AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellow I undertook an exposure trip to their Digital Equalizer (DE) site in Ganjam district of Odisha, to understand how this project on education is implemented on the ground. During my visit, I facilitated a needs assessment with the school children. Amid working with the indigenous people from the hilly areas of Kalahandi where my Host Organization, Seba Jagat is located, it was time to embrace more diversity – the Telugu-speaking coastal communities of Odisha!

Prepare for a visual treat from my visit to the government schools where Digital Equalizer is in action! In the three-part series, we will first experience DE’s innovative working model, STEM-oriented pedagogy and feedback from stakeholders about the project. In the second part, we will meet the teachers, tutors and the talented children. We will see how I built a rapport with them over a game of Kabaddi, leading them to share their dreams and confide in their favourite film stars from Tollywood*! The third part will glance at the outstanding state government curriculum, acknowledge the National Award Winning Teacher I met in one of DE’s partner schools, then we shall delve into a comparative study of Education Models in Delhi and Odisha with a focus on Ganjam.

In Perspective: The ‘Digital Equalizer’ 

The Digital Equalizer (DE) recognized the need for ICT-based educational initiatives much before, which is iterated in The New Education Policy, 2020 as a focus area. DE aims to reduce the digital and education divide in India by supporting under-resourced government schools with the latest technological innovations in education and capacity building of teachers, to transform the way of teaching and learning. At the ground level, these key stakeholders make the project a success – the school children, community tutors, the teaching staff at school and Project Coordinators under AIF.

In Odisha, DE began operations from December 2020 in 18 government schools for students in classes 5th to 8th. It is creating one smart classroom in each school, equipped with audio-visual facilities. To make learning fun and interesting, DE provides students with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) kits from Butterfield Edutech. In the smart class, I could see how the STEM kits kept the students engaged; they collectively read instructions to match and fit different parts with another to make working models of rainwater-harvesting, periscope, geometric figures, kaleidoscopic patterns and much more.

Digital Equalizer site in Ganjam
My visit with AIF Project Coordinators to the DE smart classrooms, STEM Kits, meeting the students and faculty, and children working on STEM models. Photos by Anushri Saxena.

DE has integrated empowering coursework with the existing state curriculum. The teachers are trained to use technology and given Teacher Learning Material (TLM) for reference. They are part of a WhatsApp group in which they can contact the AIF team for technical support whenever they face any hurdle. The students get study notes with concepts explained in simple language and a higher number of well-labelled diagrams along with umpteen 3-D models.

Students get STEM Kits by Butterfield EduTech under DE. Photo by Anushri Saxena.

Due to the lockdown, the schools were closed and the DE Tutors took classes within the community. These Tutors come from the community, and speak the local language, in this case, Telugu. I visited schools where students showed up following COVID-19 appropriate behaviour. As the STEM kits were unpacked, the students sat in small groups and began making their masterpieces. When any group struggled, the teachers were quick to lend a helping hand and nudged them back on track.

Thoughts of Different Stakeholders

I prepared an interview guide to conduct semi-structured interviews with different stakeholders to get their thoughts about the project. The tutors praised the study material TLM provided by DE. I asked them to show me samples of both the DE material as well the textbooks and compared how similar concepts were explained in both. The differences were stark and validated the feedback by teachers and students.

Comparing same concept in DE material and prescribed text books.
Comparison of same concept in DE study material and school textbook. Conceptualized by Anushri Saxena.

Regarding the DE worksheets, the teachers said the questions are non-traditional, thought-provoking and framed in an easy to understand manner. The questions involving puzzles and games, easily appeal to the students. Most students are able to do well. Some teachers observed that the test duration for sixth to eighth class students can be extended from 45 minutes to 90 minutes.  The students were happy to play with the 3-D kits, which improves retention, infuses creativity and promotes innovation. The children looked forward to learning in the smart class when schools reopen. As for the ‘Training of trainers’, the tutors suggested longer sessions in a discussion mode. 

Digital Equalizer is laying a solid foundation in government schools to make STEM learning accessible to underprivileged students from remote parts of India. It is reassuring that the students of Ganjam have the opportunity to explore and hone their skills. Hopefully, the DE model gets replicated in other schools as well.

In part 2 of this blog series, we will meet the students, assess their needs, become friends with them and look at the drawing activity, career coaching, and the kabaddi match with the children. Following this, in Part 3, we will get a comparative study of schools in Delhi and Ganjam.

Anushri is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Seba Jagat in Kalahandi, Odisha. For her fellowship project, she is developing a case study to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the community by identifying innovative practices and traditional health related practices, documenting processes, analyzing qualitative and quantitative data, and measuring indicators. Anushri is a passionate development professional who has completed her double Masters in Social Work and Political Science from the University of Delhi. She is excited to serve as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Seba Jagat in one of the most underdeveloped districts of India - Kalahandi, Odisha. For her fellowship project, she will be engaging in project management of their ongoing effort to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the community and in the implementation of the Sampurna and rural sanitation programme aiming to reduce infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate in the area. Anushri has interned at the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Plastic Waste Management Programme where she worked on the Financial Inclusion of the waste picker community. During the COVID-19 lockdown, she registered domestic workers in the Public Distribution System to receive rations guaranteed by the government. She also made video-stories for Delhi-based and Rajasthan-based Community based Organisations to generate awareness about their work and to raise resources to continue their work. As an AIF Clinton Fellow, she will be venturing into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of working at a place with immense scope to learn and bring about change. She hopes to be an asset to her host organization and achieve their objectives through dedicated efforts. She envisions building skills in project planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation by the completion of her fellowship.

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