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START SMART - Different Approaches To Basic Education In Developing Countries

R. S. Ayyar

The Social Entreprenuership SIG of TiE-Boston organized a panel discussion on "Different Approaches to Basic Education in Developing Countires" at the Tang Center, MIT on July 21, 2006  The panel consisted of Ram Nehra from Ekal Vidyalaya, Vikram Taneja from Pratham, Samuel Klein from One Laptop Per Child, and Raman Sivasubramanyam, Financial Adviser, Merrill  Lynch, who acted as the moderator. The discussion was attended by over 70 members and invitees.

"There are 771 million people in the world who can't read out of which 2/3 are women and it is our duty to help alleviate the problem," said Raman. Quoting a Tamil poet he also said that "what left and right eye to the body, literacy and numeracy is to humanity."

"Ekal Vidyalaya provides nonformal education to 546,750 children in India's remote tribal villages (which lack many basic amenities like roads, clean drinking water, electricity etc.) through 18,225 schools working in improvised premises like huts, sheds, and sometimes even under the shade of a tree. The low cost program costs just one dollar a day to make 30 to 40 children literate with a single teacher only for each school," said Ram Nehra, coordinator of the New England Chapter of Ekal Vidyalaya.

'Every child goes to school and learns well' is the mission of Pratham, according to Vikram Taneja who leads Pratham's Boston Chapter. Pratham's activities are concentrated mostly in urban and semi urban areas with focus on children living in slums. The program aims at enhancing educational facilities for such children through pre- and after school programs, libraries, health centers and women empowerment. He mentioned that the program has helped in improving the educational facilities for over one million children in 13 Indian states.

According to Samuel Klein of 'One Laptop Per Child', the mission of his association is to provide internet enabled laptop computer to school children in the developing world with the object of capitalizingon three human traits: the capacity to learn, the ability to express and the need to socialize. Laptops are both a window and a tool: window in to a different world and a tool with which to think. He demonstrated a small laptop computer costing $100 with versatality to incorporate a wide range  of teaching aids in different languages.

The talks was followed by a very enlightening questions and answer session puntuated by several valuable comments and suggestions. It was observed that poor parents both in rural and urban areas are reluctant ot send their children to school as they feel that such education (formal or informal) is not going to add to the family's income through additional earning by the children. Even the midday meals schemes in schools in some Indian states have not helped to solve this problem. As a corollary, child labor is still rampant everywhere. A suggestion was made that his could be overcome if the children are simultaneously trained in profitable crafts and trades along with literacy program. Ram Nehra responded by saying that this is being attempted on a limited scale trough training in vermiculture, horticulture, village crafts etc. along side with schooling. Health and hygiene also form part of the program both for children and their parents. Community projects are also encouraged to inculcate value systems like parental respect, harmony at home, neighborhood friendship, and clean environment.

While laptops per se are effective tools of learning, doubts were expressed about their utility in villages lacking even basic amenities. However, it was generally agreed that to begin with these may be used to train the teachers through standardized teaching programs in different languages and give them the neceesary know how to innovate, improvise and improve as they gain more experience.

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