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Spreading the word news
Philip Chacko
04 June 2002
Mumbai: Velimela Chandramma gets a big kick from being able to read bus boards. She considers the acquisition of this skill one of the greater achievements of her life, and it's an education to see why. Chandramma is a 30-something resident of Marxist Nagar Colony, a no-frills settlement of about 2,000 people in Bandalguda village of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh. Till a year ago Chandramma was one of about 350 millions Indians who cannot read or write.

Chandramma's life took a turn for the better after she became part of a path-breaking project aimed at reducing the number of adult illiterates in the country. Initiated and developed by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Asia's largest software enterprise, and operating under the aegis of the Tata Council for Community Initiatives, the programme uses computers, multimedia presentations and flash cards to slash the time it takes, by conventional means, to teach an illiterate person to read.

Today Chandramma does more than just read; she has become a teacher in the project and passes on what she has learnt to groups of 15 to 20 people while using the same methodology that lifted her out of illiteracy. ''I have so much more confidence now,'' she says. ''I can go out and meet local officials and other people, I am more aware of the world around me, and I can follow what my children are being taught at school. Before joining the programme I had never seen a computer in my life; now I take classes with these machines.''

Called the 'computer-based functional literacy' (CBFL) programme, the TCS project employs animated graphics and a voiceover to explain how individual alphabets combine to give structure and meaning to various words. The course has been designed from material developed by the National Literacy Mission, established by the Indian government in 1988 to eradicate adult illiteracy in the country. The Mission's lessons, outstandingly researched and formulated, use puppets as the motif in the teaching process, and the lessons are tailored to suit different languages and even dialects.

More than the components of the CBFL project, it's the thinking behind the programme that makes it unique. Standard adult literacy projects teach reading, writing and arithmetic, and they require trained teachers, classrooms, and anywhere between six months to two years to complete. The TCS programme focuses exclusively on reading, while drastically reducing the time it takes for an illiterate person to achieve the objective. By this technique a person can be taught to read within a span of 30 to 45 hours spread over a period of 10 to 12 weeks. Because the programme is multimedia-driven, it does not need trained teachers (Chandramma becoming an instructor illustrates the point).

Using technology to spread literacy
The original idea for a computerised programme to tackle India's illiteracy conundrum came from Fakir Chand Kohli, TCS's former deputy chairman and the man widely regarded as the father of India's software industry. He believed that modern technology could and should be used to speed up the propagation of literacy in India. He reckoned that if this were done effectively the country could be made literate in a much shorter time frame than the 20 to 30 years it is currently planned for.

The intention was not to supplant existing governmental efforts in the field, but to supplement them. The government needs all the help it can get on this front, and a brief look at the gigantic size of the illiteracy challenge India faces explains why. Official statistics say there has been a 13 per cent increase, from 52 per cent to 65 per cent, in the country's literacy rate between 1991 and 2001. But there's been a simultaneous increase of 200 million people in India's population during this period. It is in this context - the increase in the rate of literacy being offset by a burgeoning populace - that Kohli's emphasis on the speed factor in the programme becomes significant.

The concept that finally emerged was straightforward:
  • Rather than assume India's illiterates are a burden that has to be carried all the way, use technology to get them on the road to learning by themselves.
  • Focus on reading, because that is the fountainhead skill that leads to writing, arithmetic and the rest.
  • Hasten the entire procedure to ensure that an illiterate can be taught to read in about 30 hours, since that's about all the time an adult can afford to spare on a continuous basis.
  • Target people in the 15-to-30 age group (they are the most productive, economically and biologically).

Once the framework was in place, the teamwork that TCS is famous for came into play. Professor P N Murthy from the TCS office in Hyderabad decided on the course material to be used, and how to use it in actual classroom situations. Telegu was the first of the languages that the programme was readied in, but that was incidental. Professor Keshav V Nori from the organisation's Mumbai head office then worked with a group headed by Dr M V Ananthkrishnan, who is attached to the TCS facility in Borivli, Mumbai, on developing the computerised module for the project. Following this, Dr Sharada Ganesh and her colleagues at the Hyderabad TCS centre went out and field-tested the programme.

''The first few lessons we produced were painful in terms of the actual structure, content, technology we used,'' says Nori, ''but they proved to us that the idea would actually work.'' The TCS team made the most of the experience while eliminating the glitches in the system. Dr Ananthkrishnan and his team found a better technology, and Dr Ganesh and her colleagues undertook more field-testing and revisions of the scripts for the lessons, which went through five revisions before being finalised. All of this was voluntary work, done on weekends and at other times while juggling regular workplace responsibilities.

Once the technical side of the equation was sorted out, TCS approached the Andhra government with the programme. ''There is absolutely no way in which a project of this magnitude could have been carried out by anybody but the government,'' says Nori. ''It has the reach, the infrastructure and the decision-making capabilities. Government means the bureaucracy and the political structure, and it is necessary to win both.'' That's what TCS did in Andhra.

An initial experiment was conducted in Beerumguda village in Medak district in February 2000; it proved that the theory could be as effective as visualised. This was followed by an extended trial run in 80 centres spread across the districts of Medak, Guntur, Vijayawada and Visakhapatnam. The results were encouraging enough for TCS to pursue a full-fledged expansion of the project. Today the CBFL programme is operational in 211 centres in Andhra. It has helped more than 5,500 people learn the most basic of the three Rs, reading, and it has introduced them to the world of the written word.

Each centre has a computer and an instructor, or prerak, as they are called, to conduct a class. A typical class has between 15 and 20 people and is held in the evening hours. In the early phase of the project, most of the instructors were retired teachers or people involved with the adult literacy movement in the state. While the teachers and others continue to help out, many of the classes are now conducted by those the programme made literate. There are plans to establish 200 more centres in Andhra by the end of June 2002, which means a further 6,000 illiterates in the state will be able to read by the end of the year.

But the project's impact is not restricted to Andhra.

  • The Tamil language version of the programme is ready and running, in partnership with the Tamil Nadu government, in some centres on the outskirts of Chennai.
  • TCS has also completed the Hindi language module. This will be used at a centre in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) that belongs to the Ramakrishna Mission.
  • TCS is working with the Madhya Pradesh government to get some centres started in the Guna district of the state.
  • The Marathi and Bengali versions of the programme are almost through. The Maharashtra government will partner TCS in establishing about 20 centres outside Pune and in the Pimpri-Chinchwad area. The Gandhi National Memorial Organisation, a welfare organisation involving women, is also involved in the Maharashtra venture.
  • TCS will be starting work soon on developing a Kannada version of the programme.

TCS's initial proposal document for the project stated that, if implemented properly and to its full potential, it can make 90 per cent of India literate in three to five years. ''Theoretically, a million computers can make all of India literate in a year through this programme,'' says Nori, ''but the problem cannot be solved with machines alone. A million computers mean a million dedicated teachers, and people like that are not easy to find. There are so many things that can be done, even without technology, but there must be a passion, a will to make a difference.''

The governmental advantage
The entity that can make the greatest difference in a project such as this is the government, but getting it to respond requires hard work. TCS's own contribution to the programme has been substantial. It has thus far chipped in with more than 400 computers, and it has put in about four man-years of work on developing the multimedia programmes in different languages. (Four man-years means that if a single person were working on this project, it would have taken him four years to complete it.) But a lot more needs to be done for the CBFL programme to really make a mark. ''Ultimately it will come down to funding,'' says Nori, hitting the nail on the head.

TCS is now trying to get 10,000 computers from the United States for the project, and South Korea has promised 3,000 machines. That's heartening, but there's a huge logistics problem here that needs to be sorted out. Says Major General B G Shively, a consulting advisor with TCS, under whose charge the project operates: ''There are customs clearances required, octroi and similar tariffs to be paid. All of this requires money, and where will that come from?''

The resources barricade may have tripped TCS up, but it has learnt plenty already from overcoming other impediments that the project faced. ''Initially we didn't have the wherewithal to monitor how things were progressing,'' says Nori. ''We had spread ourselves too thin.'' TCS fixed that by employing some temporary hands. Then there was the obstacle posed by what Shively calls the ''social dynamics'' operating among people targeted by the project. ''If somebody dies in a village, nobody attends class for 13 days,'' he says. ''For a wedding it's two days, and three to four for a festival. Also, the monsoons are a hassle: leaking centres, flooded roads, etc.'' Add erratic electricity supply, uninterested instructors and badly located centres.

The biggest challenge, however, was - and remains, at least in Andhra - getting the villagers to come to class. ''Convincing these people that becoming literate is a good thing is very difficult,'' says Shively. If and when they do come to class, they cannot be treated like ordinary students. ''Adults have to dealt with differently. You cannot tick them off: Why are you late? Why are you lagging behind? So the teachers have to be trained to understand these nuances, and we do this to some extent: We tell them to be nice, to be polite.'' The regular classroom straightjacket is absent (for instance, women are allowed to bring their children along).

Where the programme has come up short is in attracting adult illiterates among men. The overwhelming majority of those attending the classes in Andhra are women. A shortage of male teachers is one reason, but Muthiyala Jayamma, an instructor with the project in Medak district, says this is because women see becoming literate as more important than do men. ''Also, men take being taught by women as an affront to their ego; they feel ashamed,'' she says. ''They won't even let their wives [who have come through the programme] teach them.''

While TCS is confident it can iron out these issues, it is the larger picture that concerns the organisation. With the project well past the experimental stage, the time for scaling it up has arrived. ''I think this business of acceleration is not appreciated as yet by the bureaucracy,'' says Nori. ''The greatest need is to get the government to endorse the programme. We have gone to the collectors and so on, but maybe we should go to the chief ministers. We have to get a collaboration going with the IT ministries and the literacy departments. If we put a network or a portal in place, it would be so much easier to monitor the project, share information and get feedback.''

Nori sees the CBFL project as essentially a partnership venture involving the government and other agencies, with TCS providing the technical and technological support. ''I don't know whether TCS has the wherewithal to oversee this project. Maybe a foundation has to be set up, something that looks at this project more holistically.'' Does he think this will happen? ''In all these things there is the hope that things will be different. We have to have the drive to evangelise, to articulate and push it as much as we can. The problem is huge, and we need everybody's help to solve it.''

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Spreading the word