A two-classroom village school with colourful pictures painted on the walls. Children come to school unburdened by school bags on their backs. Inside, each learner works on her or his own tablet device. One student is solving a maths problem on her tablet, while two others watch a video on how a tsunami happens, and the precautions to be taken if one occurs. Here, a girl is playing an English nursery rhyme, to which she and her friend hum along. There, a little fellow poses, using his tab to take a selfie. Soon the teacher walks in, and begins the session at the interactive board. Needing no chalk or duster, he traces lines on the board with his fingers and letters and numbers appear.
After some time, the class takes a maths test. Each student comes up to the board, receives a problem and solves it for the others to see. It is amazing how rapidly the teacher records everything that the students do, along with their names. There is no question paper or answer sheet nor any pens or pencils, not even a red pen! The teacher will now check the answers online, and send the marks to each child’s personal mail account.
This might sound like a description of a school in another country, or of some expensive private school. But no, it is in fact a Zilla Parishad school in a tribal area – the Pashtepada Digital School in Shahpur Taluka of Thane District in Maharashtra. A large part of the credit for the complete makeover of an ordinary school with a red-tiled roof into this techno-savvy wonder goes to Sandeep Gund, teacher at this very school.
The journey of the school from what it was some years ago to its present state is very interesting. When Sandeep Gund first arrived in this hamlet in 2009, the school was in an appalling condition. The roof needed urgent repairs, the walls were discoloured and the student body comprised 8 to 10 children who looked as if they had been forced to sit in class.
Gund ‘sir’, who had been appointed as a shikshan sevak (education worker, an associate teacher’s position, of a probationary nature) recalls, “As a teacher I had come here with a certain dream, but the truth is that I was very disappointed after seeing the school. I desired to do good work, for which I needed a good school. The state of this school, in a tiny village so far from the city of Thane, made me begin to feel my dream would never be fulfilled. I was so dismayed that I met the District Education Officer (DEO) and said, ‘Can you send me to another school? I want to do good work and that is not possible here.’ The DEO asked me thrice, ‘Are you sure you want to do a good job?’ My answer every time was, ‘Yes, that is what I want to do.’ Then he said, ‘If you really want to do something worthwhile, you won’t find a school that’s better than the Pashtepada School. Why do you need a “good” school for good results? Take the school you’ve got and make it into a good school!’ This conversation really opened my eyes.
“Besides the DEO, the Kendrapramukh (Cluster Head) Mahendra Dhimate also inspired me. He himself taught at a school on an island, and there were no boats, so he swam to work each day. He had also greatly improved the school’s physical condition. I was really inspired by this example set by Dhimate ‘sir’.”
Sandeep Gund returned to Pashtepada determined to try to change the state of the school. He began teaching with all his heart and tried to make the lessons as interesting as he could, but he could see that the children didn’t care for school. Many were frequently absent. His first challenge, then, was to get them to come to school! To find out why the students were staying away, Gund ‘sir’ started walking through the village, and getting to know the parents – something that the villagers found rather novel. Sandeep Gund determined to win the trust of the children’s guardians and tried to befriend the villagers. It was unheard of for a schoolmaster from outside to roam about chatting and asking everyone what was new and whether all was well.
Gradually, Sandeep Gund realised that the children avoided school because they loved watching TV. A number of them would gather every day at the only house in the village with a TV – the house of the Patil (village chief). It mattered little what was on, or whether they understood the language and contents or not – they were glued to everything that happened on the TV screen. Songs in Tamil and Telugu, the news in English, everything was watched with total concentration. The other major attraction, he found, was mobile phones! At the time Gund ‘sir’ had a basic phone, not like the smart phones of today. But the children thoroughly enjoyed being able to hold a mobile phone in their hands, to take photos on it,to pore over the photos, and to play games on it. Sandeep Gund realised that this attraction to images on screens could be used as a means to draw the children back to school. And this was what led to Pashtepada School acquiring its first computer.
The strategy worked well. The computer drew the children back to school and its continued presence ensured that attendance picked up. Gund allowed students the free run of the computer so they could try doing various things on it. He downloaded simple software for drawing and painting, a number of educational games, and popular children’s songs in Marathi and English. The children loved their hands-on experiences with the computer. However, Gund was aware that the exercise needed to move beyond this stage. The initial enthusiastic response whetted his desire to do more. A bit of a technology geek himself, he was always thinking about ways in which to build upon children’s fascination for technology. He started browsing the Internet, looking for resources to help strengthen their knowledge base, and for ideas on how to use the internet to make education for children as absorbing and effective as possible. He began by analysing the textbooks of the first to fifth standards to understand the contents. Then he started mapping the syllabus with components like videos, games, songs, and interactive software. He kept downloading such materials and built up a collection that he incorporated into his classroom teaching. He also started giving out these resources to the students.
”The children responded well to learning in a new way. They handled the computer with ease and came up with their own imaginative ideas. It became apparent that it was important to develop the entire teaching and learning process in the school in an integrated way. In this context, I was constantly interacting with the villagers. The parents seemed aware that something new was happening at the school. They knew that their children were handling computers and taking a new interest in their studies, which reassured them. I called a meeting of the entire village. I told the community that I was ready to try out a plan for the school. I explained how, in the times ahead, computers would play a crucial role, and how the parents could come together to ensure a brighter future for their children.
“As I finished speaking, an old lady stood up and said, ‘Son, you are talking about making the school digital or something like that. I don’t understand all this stuff, but I know that you are doing something good and it will benefit our village. Our girls and boys will be able to go far in life. So I am contributing one thousand rupees to help take your work forward.’ She took out a bundle of crushed 100 and 50 rupee notes from the waistband of her sari and put down the money on my desk.”
Sandeep Gund recalls being amazed by this gesture because no children from the old lady’s family were actually enrolled in the school at the time. Yet this daily wage labourer gave a thousand rupees of her hard-earned money for the good of the village. Her action had a great impact on everyone. They felt that they too should do something for the school. Even those who could not afford cash contributions helped in whatever way they could. Sandeep, too, donated something from his savings. He says, “We made an estimate of what it would cost to repair and paint the school building. It came to around fifty thousand rupees. A group of house painters spoke up. They said, ‘Sir, do not worry, we will give you a fully painted school and we will not charge for our labour, that is our donation to the school.’ These painters would work at their contract jobs in Mumbai and Thane by day and return at night to paint the Pashtepada school. Within a week the school was transformed beyond our imagination. The children loved the pictures of the underwater world with fish and octopus on the walls, and the cartoons, poetry, and letters of the alphabet with which the painters decorated the school.”
However, Sandeep Gund did not want to stop there, as a lot more needed to be done. He had some brochures printed, and got active on social media in order to appeal to a wider group of citizens for aid. “I opened a Facebook account in the school’s name and uploaded pictures of how the school looked before, and after. I also uploaded short videos of the students, and other information about the school. Gradually, with the publicity, we started receiving donations from a number of people.”
Shraddha Shah from Pune donated the entire amount of four lakhs of rupees set aside for her wedding reception. Sandeep Gund used this money to purchase an independent tablet for every student. With other donations from across the state they bought an interactive touch-screen board. They draw and write with their fingers on this board and it also has the capacity to record what is done on it. The board has also been connected to the internet so that any additional information related to the syllabus can be shown to the students directly on the board. Sandeep Gund says, “In addition, the students have all their textbooks loaded as e-books on their individual tablets. We have also loaded relevant videos, songs, English rhymes, mathematical puzzles as well as stories on the tabs. The children in our school are no longer bogged down by heavy school bags. All they carry with them to school are their water bottles and lunch boxes. Once they arrive at school, they pick up their tablets, switch them on and start learning.”
A significant challenge was the erratic power supply. Like other nearby villages, Pashtepada faces power cuts that sometimes last for hours. The technology adopted for the school was low in its consumption of power but it did require an unbroken supply of electricity. Once again, Sandeep Gund turned to his friend the internet for help. He figured out that an alternative power supply, using solar panels, could solve the problem. He says, “The children wanted to build their own solar panels. After some trial and error, with assistance from Google, they started making the panels. I am really happy to say that today we do not depend on the government for electricity, as all the tablets and computers in the school run on solar power.”
Sandeep Gund received the President’s Medal from then President APJ Abdul Kalam for this unique initiative. Later, the Pashtepada School won fame as the first successful digital school in Maharashtra, and Gund received his second President’s Medal, this time from President Pranab Mukherjee.
The Pashtepada School in Thane district is the leading digital school in Maharashtra. However, Sandeep Gund did not stop at this. He wanted schools throughout Maharashtra to go digital, and for the world to open up to all schoolchildren by way of the internet. Since 2013 he has been visiting other schools in the vicinity and narrating the Pashtepada success story through public lectures to communities. While he trains teachers in different parts of the state to bring digital learning to their schools, he explains to parents why it is important for schools to go digital. Alongside, he appeals to communities for financial assistance to enable schools to embark on this process.
His appeals are accompanied by persuasive examples of schools where students have been able to make rapid progress because of community participation. He also suggests ways in which communities could raise funds – by speaking with elected representatives and through the medium of donations by way of Corporate Social Responsibility funding from industries in the area. He refers to these community interactions as “Inspiration and cooperative thought meetings”.
Sandeep Gund has conducted teachers’ workshops across almost the entire state of Maharashtra. He has held community meetings in countless villages. Not only has he made the school in a small adivasi hamlet such as Pashtepada self-sustaining, but on account of his guidance 11,200 schools in the state now have digital learning programmes.
This initiative throughout Maharashtra, estimated to be worth around 110 crore rupees, has been made possible entirely through the efforts of teachers and the participation of local communities. Sandeep Gund’s work demonstrates that if the will exists, all manner of difficulties may be surmounted, and fundamental transformations achieved.