How An IT Worker, A Journalist, And A 78-Year-Old Homemaker Found A Calling In Teaching

What can be common across Avni, an LLB student in Delhi, Manju Sengupta, a 78-year-old home-maker in Navi Mumbai, Zeel Patel, a software professional in California, Swapnil, an IT professional in Pune, and Chitra Phadnis, a journalist freelancer based in Bangalore? Interestingly, all of them are driven by a common passion – promoting education for children in rural India, and are all online volunteer teachers with eVidyaloka, a Bangalore based NGO bringing urban volunteers together with village children through a Digital Classroom model, using remote connectivity.

Zeel is a post graduate in computer science from a leading US university, now a software engineer with a leading technology firm in California. He was among the thousands of the Indian diaspora wanting to do something back for the country, and discovered his joy of teaching, even while he does that from his living room in the wee hours of US time, just when the school bell rings in a Chachgura school in the state of Jharkhand in India.

Take the context of Chitra, a senior journalist, who has a natural flair for the English and enjoys teaching the language, and sees the joy of reaching to faces that are, in her own words, “smiling, chattering and waiting to start learning.” She reaches out to the children in Jharkhand every week, from her home, which is at Bangalore.

Even more interesting is the inspiration of Manju, a homemaker, who has learnt all about dealing with Skype and computers at the age of 78, so that she can teach the rural children in their digital classroom, and is quite popular with the children for her exciting stories and narratives with children of the Government school in Podlara village of West Bengal, where she teaches remotely, online.

All of the above are real-life examples of what volunteer teaching can do to lift the quality of rural education in India, and potentially attempt to bridge a small fraction of the million-teacher gap that the country desperately needs to fill. 70% of India’s population is in villages, and notwithstanding the mid-day meals, uniforms, books and the school infrastructure, the drop-out rates in rural schools are more than 50%. A principal cause for this is the shortage of teachers that the country suffers from. And that is where these positive stories of volunteer teachers look to make a serious difference, in creating an empowered and educated India.

At the core of eVidyaloka’s 6-year journey are 800+ volunteer teachers who have been participating in this cause of educating rural Indian children from across 280 cities around the world. Each volunteer teacher commits to spending two hours a week, which is then channelized by eVidyaloka to a village school, based on the time-slots, language preference and subject that is being taught.

The impact those two hours a week make in the child’s world is immense. This digital classroom model of eVidyaloka has positively helped more than 7000 children, with almost 500,000 digital child-learning hours delivered in the last six years. This educational movement has grown from a single centre experiment in 2011 to more than 130 village centres today, across the states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The classes are extended from grade 6 to 8, and focused on the subjects of Science, Maths and English.

The model is quite simple. eVidyaloka connects the urban teacher to the Government school in the remote village through a digital classroom. A computer with a microphone, wide-angle camera, good quality speaker, a TV to project and a broadband connectivity is all that it takes to get the digital classroom up and running!

But there is more to it than meets the eye. An entire operational machinery works behind the scenes to measure the learning outcome of the children, monitoring class delivery and student attendance, reviewing adherence to standards and quality measures. However, those are but predicates, in this context. What matters here, is that from a child’s standpoint, the teacher appears on the TV screen when the bell rings (instead of her walking in physically into the classroom) to bring in a new world of learning, and the magic unfolds, quite literally!

For the volunteer teacher, there could be nothing more gratifying than giving it back to the “roots”. The joy of teaching can be quite addictive too! Talk to any of them, and it is always fascinating to see what excites them about this experience. While it is a matter of giving back to the society for some, it is quite about using time productively for the more matter-of-fact, and for many others, this is another world that they look forward to, week after week. After all, here you are teaching to the rural child in her vernacular, and the very charm of speaking, teaching and connecting in one’s own mother-tongue is an experience that cannot be traded for any dessert.

From university students, part-time professionals, graduate home-makers, retired teachers, freelancers, sabbatical leave holders, ex-servicemen, and just regular working professionals – the list of teachers in this voluntary world is quite exciting and long! Sustenance of the committed time of volunteers is a key factor here. eVidyaloka invests a fair bit of its team’s bandwidth to screen and orient volunteers on their roles, as it is also important to sustain continuity of the same teacher with a given classroom at least for a 3 to 4 month period.

A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instil a love of learning, it is said. And teachers influence the life of a child, more than anyone. To quote Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, “True teachers are those who help us think of ourselves!” Here is a cause that beckons the teacher in every Indian, to spare just two hours a week, that may go a long way in grooming, mentoring and shaping the future of the rural child, and more importantly, the future of our country.

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