Access to information strongly depends on people’s socio-economic status. Although this seems to be a worldwide problem, it's even more pronounced in the Global South (GS). Underprivileged communities in this particular region of the world continue to be denied equal access to information, because of their poor socio-economic conditions.
Swecha, with its volunteer network of students, academics and IT professionals, also works on initiatives in the education space and provides access through free and open source software to students from underprivileged communities. BalaSwecha, a Swecha initiative, focuses on bridging the digital divide at the school level.
Learn more in this short video highlighting the program.
The primary objective of BalaSwecha is to bridge the growing digital divide in education between privileged and underprivileged in India. Schools for the underprivileged in India, for example the government schools, face a lot of problems including lack of continuous electricity, infrastructure and personnel. However, the government has invested in providing computers and other infrastructure to some of these schools. Proprietary software have been installed on these computers, the licenses for which have expired a long time ago. Teachers in corporate schools are equipped with digital resources to teach students, while the teachers in the schools for the underprivileged do not have access to such resources and the students from government schools do not have access to computer-aided-education which enables an experiential approach to learning.
BalaSwecha's platform is built on top of Ubuntu and packaged with multimedia content and GPL applications which create an interactive virtual lab environment. Students are exposed to interactive applications which provide them with an opportunity to learn and explore beyond their books.
Swecha has done an incredible job in providing BalaSwecha as a platform and get it in a stage where students and teachers can interact with and learn through the applications. Swecha also acknowledges all existing challenges and therefore expresses the need to improve the platform. The constant and key feedback so far has been the need for new applications to cover and better reflect school curriculum. Thoughtworkers have actively contributed to improving the platform by working on the feedback, along with the larger developer community. In the past few months, we have been working for the development of three new applications namely Density, Free-Fall-Tower, Weight & Mass and Human Atlas, which provide a number of interactive tutorials and quizzes. They cover important topics in Biology and Physics. We’re also working for the improvement of the UI for all existing applications and the OS itself. Many Thoughtworkers have contributed to this during their spare-time.
Introducing and running BalaSwecha in schools has been an interesting learning experience for many of us.
“BalaSwecha has been a very different experience for me. Using computers, I was able to understand concepts like the Solar Eclipse and Lunar Eclipse easily. Kgeography also helped me in learning map pointing. The science fair conducted by Swecha helped me in learning about satellite communications." - Student
“When I volunteered for BalaSwecha, I understood the meaning of “Digital Divide” because students had no knowledge of computers. When we started teaching them they were really excited and they were able catch up quickly. And when we did a workshop for school teachers, even they didn’t know simple things about computers like how to move the cursor, how to close the application etc.. Working with them and educating them is a whole new experience for me. As an engineer I felt that the technology that we develop is reaching the masses and helping them.” - Swecha volunteer
"BalaSwecha had helped my students to visualize and understand science concepts in a better way relative to what was achieved using traditional classroom resources. Thanks to Bala Swecha, the attention span of my students has improved as the in-built applications provide an intuitive and fun-filled way of learning." - Teacher
We now look at each school through three different perspectives:
Existing infrastructure in the school
BalaSwecha is (and will be) mainly installed in government schools where computer labs are equipped with systems that have a RAM of 128MB (or less). Most of these systems run on a proprietary platform called Ncomputing, which can run only Ubuntu 10.04.
Specific challenges the students face
The main and common challenge that students face is related to their low computer literacy and the language barrier.
Support teachers need to leverage BalaSwecha
Although teachers are more familiar with computers than their students, it's important to help them build more confidence so that they can freely guide the students.
[Students exploring the applications]
School Visits and Workshops
After visiting schools, we talk about BalaSwecha and look at the existing infrastructure. Once BalaSwecha is installed, volunteers provide basic tutorials to students to play with and explore the applications based on their curriculum.
Teacher Training Workshops
We conducted two teacher training workshops covering 200 teachers from 180 schools. During these workshops, we conduct tutorials and gather their input to subsequently enhance the platform. Many more such training workshops are in the pipeline. In addition to being a useful learning tool for students, BalaSwecha is primarily designed to be a teaching aid in the classroom.
[A volunteer helping students to set up a computer]
BalaSwecha is a great collaborative initiative in the education space. There's increasing interest from Thoughtworkers to make a difference in this space and grow the platform by contributing to design, development, content and distribution.
[Teacher training workshop]
We organised a Triathlon at the recent Thoughtworks India Away Day (Sept 19-20, 2014). A lot of passionate Swecha volunteers and Thoughtworkers from various roles - Developers, BAs, QAs and Designers - came together to collaborate across three parallel tracks. People worked on a predefined list of stories, and in a few hours we were able to add features to improve the platform. The output from this event has already been incorporated into the platform.
[Triathalon at Thoughtworks India's Away Day 2014]
Leveraging existing Swecha connections (MPLADS and MLC Guntur), BalaSwecha presents great opportunities to make an impact in underprivileged communities. There are around 2200 schools in the Telangana state and 2800 schools in the Andhra Pradesh state in India, which qualify to get BalaSwecha installed, impacting around 15,00,000 students, considering an average of 300 students per school.
We will continue testing BalaSwecha and learning from our experiences. Going forward, our aim is to make BalaSwecha a comprehensive school OS that will be a successful initiative in India. It has a potential to be replicated across GS countries, which face similar challenges as described above.
In addition to improving BalaSwecha, adding new applications and functionalities, we also need to come up with a new BalaSwecha version which will be platform independent, i.e. working both on NComputing devices and BBB (Beagle Bone Black /Open hardware).
Our aim over the next six months is to consolidate necessary resources for the project and have a dedicated team to take this initiative forward. This will help us better plan for future activities and associations.
The Road Ahead
Each of the three applications that we are working on, constitutes a project, which has a separate branch on the BalaSwecha Git repository. You can clone each of the three projects on the following Git links.
- Density: firstname.lastname@example.org:balaswecha/density.git
- Free Fall Tower: email@example.com:balaswecha/free-fall-tower.git
- Human Atlas: firstname.lastname@example.org:balaswecha/human-atlas.git
Please contact the BalaSwecha Core Team to request access if you would like to contribute to one of the above projects or to get involved at email@example.com.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.