Leveling the playing field for children in Indian government schools

Swecha, meaning freedom in Telegu - the language spoken in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, is a chapter of the Free Software Movement of India in those two states. Swecha’s mission is to cultivate widespread understanding of the importance of free and open source software.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Swecha partnered with ThoughtWorks and a volunteer network of students, academics and IT professionals to develop BalaSwecha, meaning “freedom for students”, a software tool to help students learn more effectively in government secondary schools. These schools, unlike their private school counterparts, often experience electricity outages, have limited infrastructure and are understaffed. This limits the ability to empower students with technology and to give them a good education. 

BalaSwecha addresses 18 core competencies identified by teachers to foster students’ development, including critical thinking, analysis and interpretation. Since science supplies are expensive and difficult to purchase, the development team also built virtual labs that allow students to run science experiments. 

Initially, teachers were concerned that they would lose their jobs to robotic computer learning. BalaSwecha involved the teachers, who guided the process from software design to classroom lesson plan delivery, such that it reassured them that the software tool would only complement their work. The team trained over 350 teachers in just the first year to use the tool in the classroom.

The pilot project was launched with just four applications on a GNU/Linux operating system, just enough to showcase to students for feedback, most of whom were seeing a computer for the first time.

Hardware Challenge

While many government schools had computers they were outdated and shackled by expired proprietary software. Since renewing the software licenses was expensive for the school, the computers sat idle. Luckily, BalaSwecha runs on Linux, so schools didn’t have to worry about their hardware being sidelined by unpaid license fees. Shelved devices were put back to use.

Education Delivered

BalaSwecha's platform is built on top of Ubuntu and packaged with multimedia content and GPL applications that create an interactive virtual lab environment. Students are exposed to interactive applications that provide them with an opportunity to learn and explore beyond their books, and give them access to technology previously only available in private schools.

Students’ test scores after using BalaSwecha have more than doubled. 

BalaSwecha has helped my students visualize and understand science concepts like how the moon orbits the earth or what a solar eclipse means. Thanks to BalaSwecha, the attention span of my students has improved as the tool provides an intuitive and fun-filled way of learning.
— Teacher

Students are now using BalaSwecha to document Indian Independence Day stories after interviewing their grandparents. Students’ written stories, photos, and audio recordings go into an online repository.

There are around 2,200 schools in the state of Telangana and 2,800 schools in the state of Andhra Pradesh that qualify under the BalaSwecha project, impacting over 1,500,000 students. Additionally, the Free Software Movement of India is exploring a larger distribution of BalaSwecha to make it a comprehensive school operating system across India.

While over 1,000 volunteers have helped make BalaSwecha possible in Andhra Pradesh, the task will be harder in other states whose fledgeling chapters of Swecha are still growing. BalaSwecha will be available in multiple languages in the near future, expanding beyond English, and has a potential to be replicated in other underprivileged communities across nations which face similar challenges.

Please contact the BalaSwecha Core Team if you would like to get involved or follow BalaSwecha on Facebook