With schools and educational institutions forced to begin the academic year online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a novel experiment has been launched by the administration of Beed district in Maharashtra that seeks to reach out to students at the grassroots level.
‘V-School’, a free platform for online education, seeks to overcome problems of access and availability of resources for primary and secondary education in a district known for stories of drought and farmer suicide.
The platform, developed by a Pune-based non-government organisation named Vowels of the People’s Association (VOPA) that works on facilitation and teacher training to improve education quality in schools at the grass-root level, was launched on June 11, 2020 by the District Collector Rahul Rekhawar. The administration claims that the platform has registered over 3.2 million page views in less than two months.
Experimenting a grassroots collaboration
The developers of the platform say the design and implementation of the curriculum and the interface has been a product of collaboration between the NGO, the education department of Beed’s district administration and district school teachers of the district.
Akash Bhoar, a VOPA employee, who worked on the project said: “For the past two years, we have been working with rural schools in Marathwada region to improve education by imparting teachers training and improving management system. As the COVID lockdown was announced, all our work was stalled. Through ongoing discussions with the Beed administration, we came up with the concept of V-School.”
Bhoar said a committee of 12 experienced teachers from the district was set up by the education department to work with the NGO to design the interface and integrate the platform with the curriculum of the Maharashtra State Board of Secondary Education.
Beed district collector Rekhawar told this reporter that from the response received so far, he expected the platform to be beneficial over time. Apart from students, “it is also helping our teachers to improve and evolve,” he said.
The developers of the platform said their objective was to ensure ease of access and use for students and teachers through mobile phone browsers without the need for logging in, installation or registration. A simple click on the platform provides educational content in the form of complete lesson modules instead of random videos and links, they claimed.
Each lesson has balanced proportions of text, images, animated images, videos, audios, presentations, question papers, feedback forms, etc, and is made available on a single page, which reduces the required bandwidth.
The lessons are arranged class and subject-wise to make it easy for teachers and students to tap content via Whatsapp. The guidelines to do so are provided on the platform itself.
This reporter spoke to some students and teachers to find out if the claims made were real. Bhakti Yeole, a class X student from Patoda taluka, said: “My parents were worried about my education during the lockdown. The introduction of V-School has solved our problems. It is simple to use and helps us understand the concepts in pictorial form.”
As per the curriculum design, the text, animated photos and videos ensures off-screen time for students as it integrates it with the use of notebooks, pens, books, question papers and exercises outside the on-screen interface. At present, the platform covers the curriculum from class 1 to class IX.
To monitor the use of the platform and its benefits, there is a feedback facility for students, who can register their votes to evaluate the work of teachers.
Shirish Dhavade, a senior mathematics teacher, said: "We didn't know much about such technology but have learned new technical skills with guidance from the VOPA team."
Corroborating the benefits of such a platform in a scenario where there is lack of access to textbooks, one of the teachers in the committee, Shridhar Nagargoje, who teaches English in Ambajogai Taluka, said “We have always used the term ‘fair use’ of technology while working with Bal Bharati on book production, while building this platform.”
He claimed the platform was “customisable and replicable”, especially as it offers a scope and possibility to build “contextualised learning content modules” for each district or community, say, tribals or minorities, in their language.
"We want to transfer this platform to people, to government, to decentralise development and democratise knowledge. It can be run with similar principles like The Wikipedia", said Prafull Shashikant, founder director VOPA.
Narrowing the Digital Divide
As of now, a very limited section of the upper and middle class society, with access to smartphones and internet connectivity, can afford paid online education. For the vast sections of students who are struggling for basic needs, online education is a far cry. A sizeable proportion of the huge middle class, too, is finding it difficult to afford e-learning platforms and applications, which are very costly.
The problem of access to online education is greater for girl students in India, who are deprived of smartphones or paid education by our patriarchal society. V-School claims its offers them equal opportunity to online education by making it free and accessible and by encouraging peer and group learning, which reduces mobile/tablet requirement.
According to the Beed administration, over four lakh users have visited V-School till now. There are around 45,000 SSC students in the district but the platform is used by four lakh users, suggesting that students from other districts were also using it, they added.
Considering 20% of users have found it beneficial, V-School claims to have saved Rs 40 crore of parents' hard-earned money at the rate of Rs.5,000 per student. “Such technology is required for the underprivileged, especially in rural areas. If lectures can also be organised by experts and schools can be connected to this platform, it can be used to monitor student and teacher attendance by recording how many hours they have used it” Rohidas Ekad of the Pune Science and Teachers Association said.
So far, the platform developers say that it has been sustained by funds generated through crowd funding. Shashikant of VOPA said “With the help of experienced school teachers and an annual budget of Rs 9 lakh, we have such a system that is helping the students in Beed district. The project cost is kept minimal such that the per-student cost could reduce up to just Rs 2 per year with the education department's support. Currently, the project is supported by individual and private donors who support the cause.”
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.