Faster, Please: Breaking Barriers to Access the World

Faster, Please: Breaking Down Barriers to Access the World

By Michelle C

Learning to speak Korean is a new passion for the three sisters who are ardent K-pop fans. They know all there is to know about the Korean pop bands such as BTS and their mother watches in awe as the three of them try to converse in Korean. They also enjoy the video game Minetest where they join an online server, hang out with their friends, collectively build houses & towers and play around in each other’s digital spaces. 



Meet the Gond sisters, belonging to the tribal community of Warlis living in Dahanu, which is considered a “remote and backward” region of Western Maharashtra. Studying in classes 5, 7 and 8 the girls are as integrated to the modern digital world as their peers in the cities. Though their cultural and economic realities may be vastly different, digitisation has opened up new possibilities and imagination for rural children. 

Between the three sisters, they share a laptop and their mother’s smart phone to enjoy the content rich internet world as well as take their classes online.  They have a dog and a cat, enjoy going fishing in the creek outside, cooking up a meal and looking after their little niece.  

They remain dependent on private phone companies for data and struggle for stable and reliable internet. The government’s promised dream of broadband in every village remains on paper.  But they can’t wait to hear the next K-pop song. So they grab their phone and tune in to youtube.

The pandemic has thrown open various debates on children’s right to access online education.  Mainstream media continues to offer us a standard rhetoric of rural areas being resource starved and gadget poor in comparison with their urban counterparts. 

While the struggle for better infrastructure continues, it’s important that the changing ground realities be acknowledged. This will help in building a new narrative of the use of technologies in shaping children’s lives. It will also change perceptions and binaries that are being presented to us.  So how have the ground realities changed?

 

Last Mile Connectivity

To start with, last mile connectivity has  reached most villages. Though it is often unstable and not at high speeds, it is definitely accessible in many rural areas. As students of the  Tamarind Tree School, in rural Dahanu Taluka,  the Gond sisters participate in the online classes scheduled by the school.

In fact, the school finds that of the total strength of around 100 children, around 60 to 70 tribal children  are able to regularly access online course content and classes on the school’s Learning  management platform on My Big Campus.  Moreover, the school has organised learning  for the students  in a manner that a lot can be done asynchronously. For example,  students  learn Math online on Khan Academy and do not need to come to a live online session but can learn at their own pace and time.

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Mobile Gaming

The reality is that video consumption and gaming are entertaining. How these have taken the remote rural areas by storm would also help changing our assumptions about access. 

PUBG – Playerunknown’s BattleGrounds is a massive multiplayer synchronous game that is 2GB in size (!)  and requires 200 – 500 MB worth of updates every month. Nobody thought that bandwidth in India would ever support such a game, but it took the country by storm. 

Not very surprisingly, many of the tribal children in Tamarind Tree became avid players of the game and sessions discussing the pitfalls of a shooting game had to be taken up in school! Obviously these children had both gadgets and bandwidth to participate in online gaming.

Willingness to buy Digital Devices

Parents from marginalised backgrounds are also willing and eager to ensure that their child does not lose out and is able to access the school’s online classes. 

Most of the students in classes 9 and 10 have invested in their own personal smartphones. They use this to take their classes online as well as shop, play games and enrol for their NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) board exams. In fact, without a phone, they are unable to register or enrol in the open schooling exam being conducted by the Central Government. 

Many parents of even young children in classes 5 to 8 have invested in laptops, raspberry pis and phones for their wards.

Conclusion

It cannot be denied that access to the internet is as critical to the holistic development of tribal children as their right to proper nutrition. Unfortunately, due to structural inequities regions like Dahanu struggle equally for both. Despite this, communities living in the hinterland are working hard to access and participate in this global world. The least we can do is acknowledge this participation and not push a typical narrative that online education cannot be a reality for rural folks. 

 

Michelle C is part of the team that runs Tamarind Tree, an Open Education model with tribal children in Dahanu.

Pics courtesy: Sourav Dutta and Michelle

The Thinking Lab at Tamarind Tree

By Usma Dhammei

It’s a 7-member team in the thinking lab. They are experimenting on an alternate model in pre-primary and upper-primary education. They believe that the learning outcome from the current education model is quite abstract without any concrete skills that can be of help later in life. Although NCERT has reiterated its content over the past decade, the question is if it really caters to the learners’ needs.

Why spend 12 years in school when you are not gaining any life or work skills? Education is a crucial space. It has the power to shape the mind and body of a child. Hence, it is necessary that we, as educationists, question how we are shaping the children’s lives.

The team is a significant part of Tamarind Tree School located in a remote village of Sogve, about 120 km away from Mumbai. Nobody comes from the educational background that can be of advantage or disadvantage here. This might have made the team more efficient and at the same time, opens up the room for creativity.

As of 2018, there were 116 learners. The eldest group is between 14-15 years old and has been integrated with the education model since when they were at the kindergarten level. One of the unique facilitation at this school is the student-centric approachwhere the focus is on an individual’s pace of learning without any age barrier. Students have learning levels instead of classes- Lower primary, Beginner and Independent.

The core aim is to push the kid to become a responsible independent learner where they wouldn’t require supervision from the facilitator. Hopefully, the child would imbibe this practice in her/his life as well. The team follows the guideline of NCERT while recreating, contextualizing and integrating it into their Learning Management System (LMS), which is an online learning forum designed to facilitate independent engagement for the learners.

Life of the Thinking Lab team at Tamarind tree

The team reports at 9 am. It is responsible for facilitating the upper primary learners (12 to 5 pm). The mornings are usually for debates, discussions on tools, generating new ideas or structuring the courses. There can be fixed roles or changes in responsibilities of team members based on the outcome of the discussion. One needs to be flexible and adapt quickly to changes. On most days, the unfinished discussion/debate continues in the post-school session till 6 or 7 pm.

Most of the topics are decided spontaneously based on the learners’ behavior. For instance, “How do we know if the coding course would help the learner apply logical thinking in practical problems of everyday life?” or “How might we create interesting ways to comprehend the English language?”. If some of the kids are engrossed in games like Pub-G or Minecraft, how might we integrate significant learning from that?

There is no concept of break or weekends in this team. When at home, they are either working to create an upcoming course or experimenting with new interactive content. The team is also heavily engaged in the process of strengthening its education model.

Producers of Knowledge

One of the core philosophies of the school is to learn and produce knowledge, rather than consuming it blindly. The team has recently set up their own studio to produce their course content. While creating any course content, the members make sure that it is contextualized for the students. To learn more about the school model, you may check out this video:

The Assembly session: Space to incorporate meaningful takeaways

This session is usually held for half an hour before the other sessions start. The role of the facilitators here is to moderate the key concepts – sharing, reflecting and learning about things that would make sense in the life of learners. Some of the activities that take place are reading aloud the powerful stories, debates, Karaoke to improve English Vocabulary, Pictionary, Riddling or simply sharing experiences. To stimulate critical thinking among learners, there have been days where facilitators have moderated movie screening and debate on topics like “Should men also take part in household chores?” or “Should there be uniforms in School?” 

Most of the students here are from Warli tribe, who have a long history of being subjugated by the people in power. A lot of them haven’t had the opportunity to experience the world outside, not even Mumbai in spite of living so close to it. Their world view is largely limited to the Sogve Village.

There is hardly any scope for aspirations other than those of farming, working in the balloon factories or getting married at a young age. The school intends to expand their world view critically by opening the doors to at least have dreams of their own like other children in privileged positions.

Not colleagues, but a family

One can definitely expect intense arguments almost every day. There would be an argument or laughter over the silliest statement. Since all team members come from diverse backgrounds and ideologies, at times the discussions get extended to a point where the mind and body saturate but the enthusiasm stays alive. A newbie in the team would be specially hosted with Toddy (locally harvested palm wine) or locally available beverages and yummy food. For refreshment, the team takes out time for hiking and/or trekking the nearby hills, boat rides in the sea or simply hanging out by the riverside.

The team is responsible for every mistake and learning in the education model. The experimentation continues while new discoveries get unfolded alongside.

This blog first appeared on the India Fellow portal.