theindialog

December 7, 2009

Technology In Education

Filed under: Education,Tamil Nadu,Technology — loggers @ 10:50 pm

Building a strong knowledge economy is a very important aspect of a developing nation. Hence, visiting educational institutions has been an important and frequent agenda of our travels. We have been attempting to understand some characteristics of the education (predominantly school) system across various states and identify shortfalls/possible lessons, if any. From Assam to Mizoram to UP, we have interacted with educators at institutions from a variety of backgrounds. The southern states have historically led the way in reducing illiteracy and providing quality schooling, and we embarked to try and find out why.

The use of technology in education is part of an explicit effort by the government to encourage schools to introduce such teaching methods. Educomp, one of the leading educational service providers in the country, identified this potential early and has experienced exponential growth as a result of schools increasing adopting these technologies. Adwaith Secondary School in Coimbatore is one such school that has taken this step, and reaped the rewards. Even though the equipment and maintenance costs are relatively expensive, the principal unequivocally pushed for its use in some of her classrooms. This was mainly due to the agreement of the management (trustees) of the school, who were willing to provide additional funding for this purpose. This was done without increasing student fees significantly since the students were mostly from lower to middle income families.

The setup itself consists of a central server that needs to be housed within the school premises, which is then connected to individual operating systems in each of the equipped classrooms. Each classroom has its own CPU, mouse, keyboard and LCD TV, with the help of which teachers can conduct lessons. The digitization of content and conversion into presentation material is done by Educomp, by sending them the relevant course material prior to the start of the academic year.

Equipment in the classroom

Initiatives such as these can go a long way in improving the quality of education at our schools. It is important to note here that this should be utilized as a compliment to teachers and not a substitute where students can simply learn from the material presented visually. To this end, teachers should also be adequately trained in these new technologies in order to make the delivery even more efficient.

November 13, 2009

Sporting Ambitions

Filed under: Education,Maharashtra — loggers @ 2:27 pm

Amravati is home to one of India’s largest sports institutes, the Hanuman Vyayam Prasarak Mandal (HVPM). Founded in 1914 as a sports club, it initially served the dual purpose of uplifting the traditional system of exercise and instilling in the youth the spirit of the national freedom movement. It is now run as a public trust by members of the founding Vaidya family.

hvpm

Swimming pool at HVPM

Today spread over an area of 50 acres, the institute houses everything from an Olympic sized swimming pool to football grounds to a running track. Students from all over the country, including states as far away as Assam and Arunachal, come here to train and complete their studies. Currently supporting close to 5000 students, they are in the midst of expanding the campus to increase this figure. Over the years, the institute has produced a number of great athletes who have represented both state and country, across various disciplines such as badminton, track & field and wrestling. With regards to education opportunities, there is a degree college of physical education, college of engineering and technology and additional degree programs related to sports training available for the students.

Our parting thought: if scores of initiatives such as these spring up all over the country, where sports training and quality education are provided simultaneously, only then will we be capable of reaching the top rungs of an Olympics medals table.

October 23, 2009

Meeting the Bihar Government

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Economics,Education,NREGS,Politics — loggers @ 12:09 am

RCP Singh

Mr. Singh is the Principal Secretary of Bihar. He has immense responsibility on his shoulders as he is responsible for executing the state government’s plans. We met him at his chamber which is located next to the chief minister’s office.

When we walked into his office, Mr. Singh was sitting with members of a tribal group who had come in with a list of demands. The CM is due to visit their village in a month and is likely to announce a set of steps aimed at economically empowering the community. Listening to the conversation, we learnt about various interesting facets of the state and got a sense of the precepts of the Bihar government.

Cash Transfers

The government of Bihar believes in direct cash transfers to the beneficiaries of a proposed scheme. It trusts the people more than the bureaucracy and believes that leakage is minimized as a result of this practice. According to Mr. Singh, there is a 10-15% chance of misuse of funds when such transfers take place and this outcome is better than relying on governmental agencies for procurement or dissemination of goods. He highlighted the success of 2 schemes as a testament to his mantra – the ‘Bicycles for Girls’ scheme and the ‘Uniforms for Girls’ scheme. Girls aged 11 and upwards are given money for procurement of a bicycle and school uniforms. This has, apparently, reduced dropout rates among girls by alleviating the financial burden on their families.

How Footballs Are Changing Lives

According to the villagers and Mr. Singh, football has had a transformational impact on certain youngsters in the state. In Mr. Singh’s words, “1 football keeps 2 dozen young men busy.” In the absence of a recreational activity that keeps them gainfully occupied, these men would have been vulnerable to Naxalism – an epidemic in this part of the country. The game does a world of good to their stamina and induces them to apply for positions in the Indian Army and other security forces. A number of young tribals in the region have chosen law enforcement over agriculture as their profession. In fact, while we were in Kashmir, we had met a young tribal jawaan from Jharkhand. The government is planning to endow a number of villages with the necessary equipment for them to enjoy the game.

This, we think, is an amazing story of a small investment having a tremendous impact.   

NREGS

While in Punjab, we had heard industrialists lamenting the loss of cheap labor from states like Bihar and UP. They blamed NREGS for their loss. Accordingly, we were hoping to find NREGS eulogies in Bihar. To our surprise, we were told that NREGS has, in fact, not been as effective as it is made out to be, due to leakages in the elusive ‘system.’ Wage rates in Bihar are as high as INR 150, corroborated by our conversation with Chotey, our mason friend. Demand for labor – both skilled and unskilled – has risen in the recent past due to the infrastructural work in progress. Thus, the migrant labor pool has shrunk.

Law & Order

Mr. Singh also informed us about the CM’s Durbar, which has been a cornerstone initiative of the government led by Nitish Kumar. Every Monday, the chief minister meets citizens of his state and listens to their complaints. Each Monday has a different theme ranging from law and order to health to infrastructure. Officials from the concerned departments are encouraged to attend the durbar so that the process of resolution of matters is kick-started. It appears that this been a great learning exercise for the administration since it notifies the officials of the systemic issues that need attention.

According to Mr. Singh, the greatest numbers of grievances come in on the first Monday of every month when law and order problems are entertained. Hence, the government has focused on resolving issues related to law order ever since it came into power. It boasts of a robust speedy trial system which has convicted wrongdoers at a record pace. This seemed like a reasonable way to address the multifaceted problems of Bihar as sound law and order is a prerequisite to any sort of economic activity.

Nitish Kumar

We got a chance to meet the chief minister himself, albeit briefly. He beamed with avuncular pride as we explained our travels. He appreciated the initiative and spoke about the cultural affinity that Indians tend to have with the railways. As opposed to the ex-chief minister, Laloo Yadav, Mr. Kumar was genuinely interested in our story and gave us his undivided attention. He was very approving of our idea to blog our experiences. Here he cited the example of Xuanzang who recorded his visit to Nalanda. That account has been extremely helpful in understanding one of the world’s oldest universities. The chief minister urged us to visit the Patna museum and the Khuda Bakhsh library, 2 stellar monuments.

After meeting the 2 most important figures of the Bihar government, we certainly felt that they are sincere about fixing the state. It is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of their actions. For that we’ll have to wait till the assembly elections which will be held next year.

October 22, 2009

Abhayanand- Bihar’s Supercop

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Education — loggers @ 12:07 am

Background

Abhayanand is a senior IPS (Indian Police Service) officer based in Patna, Bihar. He serves as a policeman from 9am – 5pm, and spends the rest of his time teaching. At the age of 40, he decided that after having taken everything from Bihar, it was time to give back. So he started his version of the Super 30’s…the road to IIT for poor teenagers who can’t otherwise afford coaching.

Abhayanand

courtesy of abhay-anand.blogspot.com

Super 30’s

Through Super 30’s, Abhayanand provides coaching to underprivileged IIT aspirants in Bihar. Students are taught via video conference in classes of 30 or less, and Abhayanand has maintained a ~90% success rate in getting his students into IIT (which has an acceptance rate of ~2%). The programs, which after starting in Bihar have now expanded to new locations in Uttar Pradesh, are completely funded by the communities themselves. Formal social audit is conducted regularly to keep track of the students’ accounts, and the program sustains itself as long as the community sees it as a worthy investment.

Targeting the Poor

Abhayanand shared his thoughts with us as just after wrapping up an evening lesson at 6pm. An integral aspect of his philosophy is to target poor Muslim communities, which approached him some time ago saying that their education conditions were worse than those of shunned Dalit societies in Bihar. He finds that Muslim students are the most vulnerable to social evils, as misled youth have ample channels of fundamentalism and terrorist groups to turn to when deprived of opportunity. Abhayanand brushed off questions of social backlash due to segregation, stating that he will continue to do his work for the Muslim community and that people can criticize his philosophy all they want.

When asked how he manages to restrict admission to the poor, Abhayanand said that it is impractical and inefficient to use family income as part of his admission criteria. However, he also mentioned that the housing that he provides under the community-funding scheme serves as an effective weed-out mechanism. Rich kids in the area would find it near impossible to share a common toilet and put up with the living conditions, even if it gets them into IIT. This social segmentation, in addition to a highly competitive entrance exam, decides who gets a seat in Abhayanand’s Super 30.

Wrap-up

Abhayanand is a modern-day super hero. A senior police officer-by-day, he starts teaching as soon as he is off-duty to help underprivileged children, from a different social background than his own, get into IIT. It’s not every day that we find stories like this, but when we do find them, they are an important reminder of the innate goodness in people. We maintain that this upright minority is what can bring about the justice and development that India desperately needs at the moment.

October 5, 2009

Musings on Mizoram

Filed under: Education,Mizoram,Politics — loggers @ 8:26 pm

Our travels in the northeast could not have been complete sans a visit to the most literate[i] state in the country, Mizoram. Connectivity to Aizawl is limited to road and air, and we chose the latter on account of travel time. Similar to Arunachal Pradesh, we had to obtain an inner-line permit upon arrival at the airport, which was a lot less painful since we had come by air. Had we crossed the state border from Assam, obtaining this permit would have taken a day. Aizawl is nestled among the Lushai hills and seems to have grown beyond its means – narrow, windy roads with houses packed next to each other and a distinct air of smog held over the city during the day. Often referred to as the Switzerland of India, we, however were not able to observe any tangible development taking place in the city, which is home to more than 40% of the state’s population.

view from Hotel Royale in Aizawl

View from Hotel Royale in Aizawl

Predominantly a Christian society, Mizoram is a cultural anomaly compared to the other northeast states and the rest of India. Heavily influenced by western cultures, Mizo society is more liberal and egalitarian, with a particular emphasis on women empowerment. Due to the rocky relationship between the army and locals during the 2 decades of insurgency until statehood in 1987, Mizos did not identify themselves with the rest of the country. Having realized the political and economic dependence the state has on the center, this view is changing and more people now see themselves as Indian, and not just Mizo.

Congested street near Millenuim Mall, central Aizawl

Congested street near Millenuim Mall, downtown Aizawl

During our visit we met with Pu[ii] Silo, the principal at one of the best private schools in the state, who shared with us his thoughts on the education sector and Mizo society in general. The provision of basic literacy notwithstanding, [quality] higher educational institutions are lacking in this part of the country. As a result, students who have the financial means (25-30%) move out for further studies and tend to stay back in cities such as Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai to attain jobs. We were also able to interact with a few students (10th and 12th graders) from his school, who shared with us their ambitions. Interestingly, these ranged from becoming a doctor to a principal to an animation designer in Japan to becoming a hotel manager in Korea.

Fun fact: Korean drama (translated into Mizo) is the most popular form of entertainment in the state.

Korean dvds displayed on the sidewalk

Korean and American DVDs displayed on the sidewalk


[i] Officially this figure is slightly lower, because of migrant laborers from other states who now live in Mizoram. For locals, however, this is 100%

[ii] Pu is a prefix used for respect in Mizo, similar to ‘Mr.’ in English, ‘Pak’ in Bahasa and ‘Khun’ in Thai

October 2, 2009

IIM-Shillong

Filed under: Education,Meghalaya — loggers @ 12:49 am

While in Shillong, we visited the Indian Institute of Management (IIM-S) – a new addition to India’s top breed of business schools, only recently started in March ‘08. The campus is located on what used to be Raja (King) Mayurbhanj’s palace area, with the main building furnished with rare and expensive Burmese teak. There are 2 classrooms, a learning resource center (sponsored by EXIM Bank) and administrative offices in the main wing. This area is currently on lease, and keeping in mind future expansion plans, IIM-S has already acquired land a few kilometers outside of Shillong for the construction of its new campus. The current establishment is apparently the technologically most advanced IIM due to the last mover advantage it had over its peers. It boasts of campus wide Wi-Fi connectivity and also offers classes via videoconferencing conducted by foreign faculty, such as from Drexel University.

The class of 2010 will be the first batch to graduate from this institution, with major banks and marketing companies expected to recruit in December. Each of the current batches has 60 students (note: sex ratio for first batch was 50:10) and there are a total of 15 full-time faculty members. With a student:faculty ratio of 8:1, IIM-S is comparable to the top global business schools. Two current students gave us a guided tour of the campus. The dorms were spacious and clean and located within comfortable walking distance. They seemed content with the setup and didn’t mind being in Shillong, often considered a remote location, as academic and extra-curricular commitments keep them busy. The location also has other advantages due to the surrounding hills for activities such as nature trails, hikes and a tranquil environment to work in.

The critical component for IIMs such as Shillong, which have a more remote location, going forward will be the ability to attract good quality permanent faculty members to be affiliated with this institution. Financial autonomy at the IIMs is one of the most important factors that could address this, something that was also highlighted during our conversation with Mr. Bakul Dholakia.

September 28, 2009

Tezpur Government School

Filed under: Assam,Education — loggers @ 8:30 pm

As part of the 2nd leg of our tour, we have decided to visit educational institutions (public and private), wherever possible. While in Tezpur, we dropped in at the Dulabari lower primary school (Kindergarten – Grade 4) in village teen mile. This Assamese medium school has 456 students and 7 teachers, putting the faculty-to-student ratio at 65:1, a depressing statistic. We learnt that a government school cannot specify its own admission criteria as it must admit every applicant under SSA (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) – a central government scheme geared towards free and compulsory education for children upto the age of 14.

Lower Primary School, Teen Mile, Tezpur

Lower Primary School, Teen Mile, Tezpur

The faculty was convivial and responded enthusiastically to all of our queries – often synchronizing complaints with reactions. They were especially critical of the additional responsibilities that have been imposed on them, such as cooking for the mid-day meal scheme, as their resources were already stretched. The provision for a meal per child was just increased from INR2 to INR2.09, but this does not sufficiently cover costs in light of increasing input prices. When asked about the impact of the well-advertised SSA, the headmaster seemed to be pleased with the monetary assistance the school was receiving, with regards to infrastructure and maintenance expenses. However, we were also shown a big, locked steel box with TLMs (Teacher Learning Materials), whose contents seemed to be unused, thereby suggesting that the teachers were not properly trained on their use

The school had no boundary wall or playground and sanitation facilities were rudimentary. There was no electricity till the teachers decided to shell out the requisite amount for obtaining a connection, which took 6 months to get started. They had to charge the students INR10 per annum to cover these electricity costs, since the government did not agree to provide them with it. Most families in the district belong to a minority group and believe that the government is treating them like a “stepchild”. Thus, the government’s inaction is perpetuating an unfortunate confirmation bias in that a minority is feeling discriminated against when schools in many districts, irrespective of demographics, face similar problems.

After the recommendations of the 6th Pay Commission, public school teachers are among the best paid government employees. Yet attracting, and cultivating, good teachers remains a major problem for government (and private) schools. This, combined with implementation gaps and woefully inadequate infrastructure in most government schools leaves much to be desired and suggests that more work needs to be done.

August 30, 2009

Conversation with Dr. Bakul Dholakia, Ex-director, IIM-A

Filed under: Conversation,Education,Gujarat — loggers @ 12:45 am

We were fortunate to get an appointment with Dr. Bakul Dholakia, ex-director of IIM Ahmedabad, at his office in Adani House. He is currently a senior advisor on education to the Adani Group. We learned that during its inception, IIM-A entered a 5-year tie-up with Harvard Business School to formulate its case-oriented curriculum. It did not make a big deal out of this in order to invest in the longevity of its own brand, avoiding any short-term association with HBS.

Dholakia believes that the IIM model would be scalable if the institution had the autonomy it deserved. Since IIMs were first established as government-sponsored institutions, they face the shackles of governmental control till date. The government interferes in matters ranging from faculty pay-scales to admission criteria. As faculty must be PhDs with published research, industry expertise and international exposure, there is a miniscule population of capable professors in the country that fit the profile. Furthermore, consulting/corporate houses would stop at nothing to get their hands on these superstars – luring them with plush offices and packages. The only weapon an IIM has in the fight for faculty is money, and here the government places it in a chokehold. Since the institutions do not have control over how much faculty is paid, there is limited scope to expand to the size of top-tier business schools in the US.

Dholakia spent years fighting for IIM’s freedom from the government, but to no avail. He ultimately devised ways to expand under the conditions set by the authorities, i.e. by establishing foreign exchange programs and the exclusive 1-year course. However, this still does not allow IIM to achieve a fraction of its potential.

Our Solution: The government should provide assistance to educational institutes during their nascent stages, and then gradually provide autonomy as the institutions prove their success both economically and administratively. This would not only incentivize efficiency and independence on the part of these institutes, but it would also allow them to be competitive on a global scale.

In closing, we asked Dholakia to share his thoughts on the future of the Indian education sector. He stated that in management studies, the days of simple finance or marketing degrees are over, and that increased specialization will be the future of higher education in India.

Ahmedabad at the Forefront of India’s Education Story

Filed under: Education,Gujarat,National Security — loggers @ 12:33 am

The Gujarat Forensic Sciences University, the first of its kind in the world, was inaugurated on August 25, 2009. Narendra Modi (Chief Minister of Gujarat) and K.S. Radhakrishnan (Chief Justice of the High Court of Gujarat), along with other dignitaries, presided over the ceremony. The institution is a milestone for the Indian judicial system, where lack of evidence is cited as a critical issue impeding justice delivery. The crowd of 500+ students, parents, journalists and forensic scientists rose in unison and observed pin-drop silence as Modi entered the auditorium. After numerous eulogies, he was invited to address the audience.

Modi described the event as equally significant to Gujarat as the establishment of the Narmada dam. His excitement for putting Gujarat at the forefront of education and research in forensic science was evident. The one international (German) student was bombarded with cameramen, as this institution also aims to attract those looking for entries into foreign agencies such as the CIA, FBI, etc.

Modi swarmed by students and journalists after the ceremony

Modi swarmed by students and journalists after the ceremony

After witnessing history in the making, we left for the National Institute of Design (NID). We were welcomed by the post-modern architecture and displays of students’ 3D car models (Renault recently sponsored a competition to design an Indian coupe). The artsy student body strut the campus knowing they are the best of the best (think the MIT of design in India). There was arrogance in the air, and we loved it. The head of PR explained that as designing becomes an increasingly acceptable profession in India, the acceptance rate of <10% will only go lower. We are unanimously long on this institution.

August 21, 2009

Kota: The Cram Capital of India

Filed under: Economics,Education,Rajasthan — loggers @ 1:52 am

Because of its history as an industrial town with prominent factories, like JK Synthetics, Kota was an ideal breeding ground for IIT coaching classes. Engineering aspirants have always been abundant, and the city itself is conducive to study due to the lack of distractions relative to the metros. The market for IIT coaching classes thus developed and one Prof. Bansal soon began administering mathematics tuitions for the IIT-JEE. Soon after, Pramod Maheshwari of Career Point started physics coaching classes. In a matter of a few years, test training centers sprang up all over Kota. Bansal and Maheshwari had the first mover advantage and developed a brand which attracted IIT hopefuls from across the country because they maintained a robust success rate. Since the criteria for admission into these classes were strict, they attracted the best of the best and a sample selection bias perpetuated their distinction.

We met Mr. Pramod Maheshwari and Mr. Pramod Bansal, CEOs of Career Point and Bansal Classes respectively and sought their thoughts on the history and prospects of the test training industry.  Mr. Maheshwari explained to us that education cannot be tested like a product; as a result ‘believability’ drives a customer’s decision to enroll in coaching classes. According to him, it is an industry that runs on trust. Coaching centers in Kota have managed to build and retain this trust but the city faces the risk of losing its charm if other educationalists build similar ‘believability’ elsewhere.

For both promoters their selection policy of admitting the best performing applicants (on their own entrance tests) into their academies justifies their success rate. As both firms began growing their capacity, they automatically lowered the bar for admissions, resulting in lower success rates. This strategy helped them prevent their competitors from becoming cash rich. Surplus cash would enable competitors to poach faculty members, the firms’ most valuable assets. Therefore, it seems that this model is not very scalable. As larger number of admissions will lower performance rates and plateau the growth of these firms, their reputation for excellence will also diminish.

Our conclusion: Kota is not a knowledge-development center. It is a site for test-prep and assistance in gaining admission into top-tier engineering colleges. In most cases, IIT aspirants do not need to enroll in the coaching classes because the Bansals and Career Points only admit applicants who they believe would get into IIT anyway. To their advantage, they exploit the rigid Indian parental tendency towards pushing their children into engineering/medicine colleges.

August 19, 2009

Comment of the Day

Filed under: Education,Rajasthan,Tidbits — loggers @ 12:50 am

[Going forward] the education sector will be about survival of the fittest. However, until we reach a 1:1 ratio of students to available seats, there will be opportunity.

-Pramod Maheshwari, CEO Career Point Infosystems Ltd.

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