Rural education in India

Creating Edu-leaders to educate the rural children of India

In an exclusive conversation, Ravi Dhanuka talks about I-Saksham’s journey and how it is creating an eco-system that can help increase access to education in rural India.

“Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”- John Dewey

Everyone needs education. An educated person can tell the difference between right and wrong and has a better chance of achieving success in life. Education empowers people to prepare for the future while making a living in the present. Despite its significance, however, several people remain uneducated, especially children living in rural segments.

In India, which is home to over 1.38 billion people, the literacy rate in 2021 stands at 77.7 percent, according to a National Statistical Office (NSO) report. While the percentage is still higher in urban areas at 87.7 percent, the rural population continues to lag at 73.5 percent. Many constraints such as the dearth of teachers, lack of infrastructure and right mentors prevent the youths from getting a quality education, especially in rural areas. Thankfully, a few individuals noticed these barriers to education and decided to do something about them.

In 2015, three ex-Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows—Ravi Dhanuka, Shravan Kumar Jha and Aditya Tyagi—established i-Saksham Education and Learning Foundation. “Legally, the organisation got incorporated in 2015. But we started full-fledged operations by late 2016,” the co-founder and board member of i-Saksham, Dhanuka recalls. The organisation aims to remove the barriers to education by transforming local youths into Edu-leaders. “An Edu-leader is the one willing to make knowledge and learning a powerful medium to enable and empower themselves and others in the community,” according to their website.

So far, the organisation has impacted the lives of close to 7000 children through education. They have built a cadre of 200 Edu-leaders and attempting to make education accessible in 100-120 villages. “We always believed in the power of community to solve their problems,” says Dhanuka.

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Ravi Dhanuka talks about i-Saksham’s journey and how it is creating an eco-system that can help increase access to education in rural areas.

i-Saksham brings learning opportunities to some of the remotest corners of India. What inspired you to start this initiative?

The idea of i-Saksham was simple. We wanted to encourage people from the community itself to solve their problems. We wanted to enhance their self-efficacy and self-belief so that they can take charge of the problems in their communities. Through their own contribution and participation, they can solve a social problem. So, the model is built around the manifestation of two purposes—how people can solve their problems for their community and how they can leverage education for their empowerment.

So, based on the realisation that people need to become self-reliant, they need to know that the government initiatives become limited in inaccessible geographies of the country. To strengthen those initiatives, it is important for people to participate and support.

What are the challenges of education in rural India?

The challenge I would say is heavily on the supply side of it. Though we have experienced a huge uptick in terms of access to schooling and enrolment many of these schools are small in size with two or three classrooms and teachers, catering to five grades in a small hamlet. So, it becomes resource-constrained. One teacher is reaching out to 40-50 kids. Then you see that the actual time that goes into teaching is very limited. Because of a small number of teachers in under-capacity schools, they are also getting utilised in administrative tasks and other responsibilities. So, the nature of learning that children get and their exposure to instruction time is very low. Then there is also the lack of learning stimulus in the community. Not having a vibrant learning atmosphere is not very encouraging for kids. Even when you look at the demand side, our experiences have been that people do want to get educated. It is all about how we can deliver it efficiently and effectively.

In rural areas, how do you enable children to continue their education despite the social obstacles and obligations in their lives?

The problem is when you look at the enrolment to attendance ratio. That could differ from place to place. There are cases of seasonal dropouts. There are cases of children dropping out because of the migration of parents. Young girls not being able to come to school because they are supposed to take care of their younger siblings. But along with that, the bigger problem is how do you win the trust of kids. That they are in safe hands and giving them the belief that they can learn. We try to make the learning process enjoyable rather than using coercing measures to teach. So, if you see that classes are friendly, they are inclusive.

Can you tell us how you turn a local youth into an Edu-leader?

We run a two-year fellowship program that marks the beginning of their journey. The fellowship program focuses heavily on three core competencies. The first is developing their self-awareness and belief in their ability to make decisions. And at the same time, seeing evidence of success in people from their age group, who are satisfied and happy in pursuing what they want to do. This is more on the personal transformation side of it. The second is the educational pathway where we build them different pedagogy skills including early grade Hindi, English, Math teaching skills, using various learning resources. And the third is, we create structured action-research projects for them in which they go to their community, pick up a community issue that they want to solve and work with the community. This enhances their people leadership and facilitation skills. Based on these domains, the fellowship program is structured that nurtures them as community leaders.

Teaching children of different learning abilities can be difficult. What can be done to address the issue?

We provide high-tech hand-holding support. We have more than 200 hours of training in a year. That is followed by small learning circles, on-site classroom visits, regular interactions with school teachers, parents of Edu-leaders, parents of children. We create an eco-system around what we are doing, and that improves the efficiency of our Edu-leaders. Plus, there is a lot of emphasis on practice, understanding of concepts, demonstrating it in classrooms, and connecting with your peers who have demonstrated success on the ground. Having a peer-mentor who is always there to guide you along is always helpful.

During the pandemic, virtual classes became the new normal. Tell us how your organisation adapted to the change and how effective is online learning?

It is challenging for the remote geographies of the country. More than 50 percent of parents do not have access to smartphones. For those who have, giving smartphones to children at a specific time for a class is very difficult. What we did as an organisation was not to focus on online content dissemination. Online learning is not only about how you distribute content; it is also about creating modes of engagement with children. So, we tried different stuff. For example, we used phone-based teaching. We used to call children. We would take five to seven children on a small conference line, do storytelling, ask them questions related to stories, encourage kids to narrate stories to each other. We also worked with their parents. Telling them how they can teach their kids using objects in their household, their existing knowledge, and how they can narrate their stories. Another step we took was distributing worksheets and books. With the help of their siblings, parents, children learned from their homes. The idea was to build an eco-system rather than depending only on technology to solve this problem.

Creating an initiative like this is not an easy feat, especially in rural India. How do you stay motivated?

More than us, it’s about the successes and persistence of our Edu-leaders who remain resilient despite all the difficulties like travelling long-distance to train children every week. Along with their other responsibilities such as household chores, they remain committed to learning and spreading learning in their community. The credit goes to them rather than to us.

  • Ravi Dhanuka is a development professional and an entrepreneur with more than a decade of experience across government, NGOs, and multilateral institutions in education, poverty alleviation schemes, financial inclusion, and livelihoods. He co-founded i-Saksham to solve educational and other developmental problems in underprivileged areas of India.

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