Innovative Smart Classroom Technologies Set To Standardise Education In Rural Maharashtra

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c127,000 Children in the Palghar District Now Have Access to World Class Education Thanks to ConnectEd Technologies

Education in rural India has seen many challenges arising out of many reasons. Skewed student-teacher ratio and lack of qualified and trained teachers are two of the major roadblocks in the impartation of education and achievement of the objectives. But now State governments are tying up with technology firms and aligning with funding partners to rectify the shortcomings. In one such effort, the Education Ministry of Maharashtra and ConnectEd Technologies, an emerging education-technology start-up, has started a rural education project which will make world class education accessible to over 27,000 school-going children in the Palghar district of Maharashtra.

c2The 24 schools that stand to benefit from this project are some of the most densely populated schools in the Palghar Taluka of the district. Most of them have skewed student-to-teacher ratios, particularly in the higher standards, which makes it difficult for teachers to impart quality education to the children using conventional means. Under this project, several classrooms in each school will be fitted with ConnectEd’s ‘Smart Classroom’ system, thereby allowing teachers to incorporate multimedia educational content in their lecture delivery, leading to naturally induced standardization and improvement in the quality of education delivered, and improved academic performance. This project has stood out for the Education Ministry of Maharashtra as it is one of the first rural-focused education projects using technology at this scale, in the State. Unlike conventional technology solutions installed in these schools in the past, these solutions are designed specifically for the rural market. The educational content is in coherence with the State Board curriculum, yet entirely focused towards rural students, and the hardware is better suited to rural conditions.

The project, which is supported by the Education Ministry of Maharashtra and funded by Dewan Housing Finance Corporation Ltd. (DHFL) and JSW Steel, will observe ConnectEd Technologies deploying more than 100 of its ‘Smart Classroom’ systems across 24 Government and Government-aided schools. These systems pair high-definition projectors with captivating multimedia educational content, which is tailor-made to improve understanding and academic performance amongst rural children.

c3Despite being advanced, ConnectEd’s ‘Smart Classroom’ systems are robust, easy-to-use, and accompanied by an internal battery, as well as an external solar-battery, making the solution well-suited for implementation in rural areas. CSR Mandate’s Archana Sinha spoke to the brains behind ConnectEd Technologies, Lehar Tawde, Lavin Mirchandani and Founding Partner,
Haren Paul Rao to find out more about the project and how it will be taken forward.

What kind of material do you provide to the schools? Are they only academic or skill-oriented too? 

At present, we are providing the schools with our ‘Smart Classroom’ systems, which pair high-definition projectors and audio systems with captivating multimedia educational content that is tailor-made to improve understanding and academic performance amongst rural children. The content pushed through these systems is academic in nature, and produced by ConnectEd Technologies by tailoring State-board curriculum for school children in rural areas; keeping in mind their surroundings and sensibilities.

Vocational training is another area of focus for ConnectEd and we will be coming out with products that will pair the most captivating and comprehensive vocational training content with robust, easy-to-use technology, thereby benefiting a wider section of underprivileged youth.

For which class is the curriculum used? Are you developing it only for high school or for the middle school children as well?

c4Presently, our Smart Classroom system is accompanied by content for classes ranging from the 5th Grade – 10th Grade; so we are essentially catering to students across the mid-schooling and higher-schooling category. As far as the rural schooling segment is concerned, our immediate objective is to cater to students across the entire K-12 education system in India.

How do you propose to connect it with life and employability?  Will children become capable enough to use this education in practical life?

Education plays a very important role in social transformation. At ConnectEd, it is our objective to reduce the gap in learning experience provided by urban/semi-urban schools and rural schools. Our Smart Classroom system exposes rural students to captivating, multimedia educational content that is tailored to their sensibilities and delivered into their classrooms through the use of new technology. (QUOTE) By doing so, we aim to improve understanding levels and academic performance, whilst also familiarising rural children with the use of new technology. Along with the direct impact on core competency of the child, exposure to new media and technology at a young age, which is typically experienced by urban students, is bound to build confidence within rural students and empower them towards social transformation.

Vocational training is another area of focus for ConnectEd and we plan to create products that will directly equip underprivileged youths to tap into better job opportunities through the use of new media and technology. This will not only lead to social transformation of rural and underprivileged youth, but also their families.

Student-teacher’s skewed ratio is definitely a challenge in India. However digitisation of school curriculum would not be able to replace the problems as you would still need a teacher to explain the complex concepts and bring in human interaction, which is must in school education. How do you see that void being filled?

c5Student-to-teacher ratios are skewed across a large number of schools in rural India. We have witnessed this first hand in so many schools where a single teacher is catering to over a hundred students at a time, in one classroom. In such a situation, it is extremely difficult for a teacher to provide quality education to all the students before her, and, generally, one observes only the children sitting on the first few benches paying attention to the teacher, whereas the rest are creating a ruckus. Now you can neither blame the teachers, nor the students, for the unhealthy learning environment because a teacher cannot discipline over a hundred students and teach effectively in the limited time she has; and so many students sitting in a room are bound to find conventional teaching techniques uninteresting.

We came up with the Smart Classroom system to assist institutions and educators in rural areas in their attempt to impart quality education. This system strengthens the teacher’s process and role to a great extent. Traditionally, a teacher would spend time delivering a lecture – which is, predominantly, a one-way form of communication. Now, with our Smart Classroom system doing that within half the duration of an average lecture, the teacher can use the rest of the time to conduct discussions, demonstrations and exercises, as suggested by our system, in order to lead to better understanding and doubt-free learning.

It is true that technology will never be able to make up for the lack of teaching resources in the country, but it is also true that technology can go a long way in equipping teachers, that are currently a part of our education system, to deliver quality education to the millions of students these teachers are responsible for.

Are the digital packs required to be operated by teachers or an instructor? Are you also looking into that aspect? Are you also developing programs that help the instructor as well in operating the curriculum and enhancing his own teaching skills?

The first step in the designing of our Smart Classroom Solution was to understand the difficulties and the shortcomings of the previously used e-learning concept. We spent a considerable amount of time interacting with rural teachers and realized that many teachers were apprehensive of using conventional e-learning systems because of their complexity and the fear of fumbling and losing control of the class.

Keeping this in mind, we have ensured that the hardware components of our Smart Classroom system are extremely lean and simple to operate. Additionally, we will be conducting a two-fold training for the teachers, to cover the operational as well as the lecture delivery aspects. Operational training will familiarize the teachers with the hardware and give them confidence to use it for lecture delivery. Lecture delivery training will help the teachers integrate the Smart Classroom system into their daily lecture delivery, whilst also demonstrating how they can use the free time at their disposal to conduct discussions, demonstrations and exercises, and improve the learning environment within their classrooms.

Have you seen some improvement in the way lessons are imparted? How has it benefited the children?

Our project in Palghar is our first full-fledged project using the Smart Classroom system. However, we have tested the solution quite a bit in the last eight to nine months in several classrooms and have gathered the following:

Amongst Teachers

  1. Teachers, once trained, are keen to try out a new format of lecture delivery
  2. On realizing the effectiveness of the system, teachers’ focus moves from lecture delivery
  3. Ensuring children have understood what is being taught becomes key
  4. Teachers are able to create an interactive learning experience due to the free time in hand
  5. More satisfying experience for the teachers

 Amongst Students

  1. Students pay attention to the content as it is animated, and tailored to appeal to them
  2. Audio-visual nature of the content provides a clearer picture than what is written in textbooks
  3. Concepts are understood better when linked to examples and visuals one has experienced
  4. Interactive learning environment created by the teachers ensures doubt-free learning

On a general level, we have seen an improvement in the learning environment and understanding levels.

How has partnering with JSW and DHFL helped you in developing and distributing the curriculum? Is it a one-time partnership or continuous interaction with them during the entire project?

Audiences in rural areas are quite price-sensitive. Despite creating a product that is cost-effective, we realised that a lot of schools were finding it difficult to pay for the upgrade from their own pockets. We began looking for corporates who could sponsor the developmental efforts targeted towards these schools, as part of their CSR activities. We were very fortunate to find willing partners in DHFL and JSW – two industry-leading corporates that believe strongly in inclusive growth. Their contributions have enabled us to extend the reach of our Smart Classroom Solution to 24 schools in the Palghar district that cater to over 27,000 children.

Our partnerships with DHFL and JSW are ongoing in nature, with more schools to be added to our network each academic year. We are also looking to implement other add-ons like educational tablets to improve to the learning experience in our network of schools.

Which are the other districts and States that you wish to cover under this system? How many children are being benefited by this project currently and what are the future plans.

c6Palghar is a crucial project for us not only because it is our maiden one, but also because we will be conducting an in-depth assessment to understand the impact of our Smart Classroom Solution on the students and figure if any modifications ought to be made. This assessment will pave the way for our expansion, here, in Maharashtra, as well as other States of India.

We will look to concentrate on Maharashtra next year as well, following which, we will look at expanding to other States. At present, our project in Maharashtra is going to cater to over 27,000 students, and our aim is to reach out to at least 100,000 students next year. Scalability is extremely important to us, and, hence, our solution is devised in a manner that will allow us to reach out to hundreds of schools every year, going forward.

QUOTES

Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri. Narendra Modi launched the Digital India programme with the vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. Education is one of the key focus areas of this programme, and I am proud to announce this innovative rural education project which will benefit thousands of children in the Palghar district of Maharashtra. The fact that this project is being spearheaded by a dynamic young team with the support of socially-responsible corporates is extremely heartening, and we hope to see more such collaborations in the future–Shri. Vinod Tawde, Hon’ble Education Minister of Maharashtra

A lot has been done to increase student enrolment in rural areas and these efforts have been successful. However, this has increased the burden on teachers and infrastructure. We at ConnectEd believe that private players like us can play a big role in aiding the Government to ease this burden on the schooling system. We are thankful to the Education Ministry of Maharashtra, DHFL and JSW Steel for seeing merit in our product and supporting its implementation in Palghar. We soon plan to take this solution to other areas of the State and the country as well, enabling underprivileged youth all across to contribute to the India growth story–Lehar Tawde, Co-Founder, ConnectEd Technologies

DHFL has been steadfast in its corporate commitment to enable common people to fulfill their aspiration to better living by giving access to affordable housing finance. Education is key to better living, which is why we have adopted it as a major objective under CSR. It is aligned to the Founder’s vision of enabling home ownership to every Indian; a commitment that has been our mission for over 30 years. It gives me immense pleasure to announce our support towards this innovative rural education project by ConnectEd Technologies, which will enlighten the minds of thousands of children in the Palghar district of Maharashtra–Kapil Wadhawan, CMD, DHFL

Access to quality education is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. At JSW Steel, we have always believed in inclusive growth and it has been our constant effort to make quality education accessible for underprivileged audiences, as they are the future of the ecosystem in which we exist. It gives me immense pleasure to announce our support towards this innovative rural education project by ConnectEd Technologies, which will benefit thousands of children in the Palghar district of Maharashtra–Mr. A S Dahiya, Unit Head – Tarapur, JSW Steel