Friends of Kashmir – An integrated approach to solving Kashmir’s Education Challenges

Honestly, I don’t know a word that can truly describe the beauty of Kashmir. I had taken the picture below during one of my recent work trips and ever since, I have been mesmerised.

Of course, this was not my first trip to the valley, but the last time I had visited in winters. It was the mid of February and very cold.

The reason I am talking about Kashmir today is because the place is literally a heaven on earth and yet look at where we are in terms of quality of life, which people experience there. And delivering quality education to every child equally in the state is a matter very close to my heart and is also a huge challenge. At places because of difficult terrain, at some other because of severe weather and at some because of the insurgency situation.

Last time when I had gone to Kashmir, we were setting up an interactive learning lab for 2 government schools in Pulwama, about 80 Kms from the main city. I had the chance to speak to teachers and students. The reality on the ground really hits you hard on the face and you feel so helpless. As an educator, we feel strongly and passionately about delivering quality education to every last mile learner, but then how do we really do it for these children. For a good time in the year, the schools are closed due to extreme cold and even when they are open, the insurgency situation makes the days on which the schools are functional so random that no one is able to bring continuity and structure to learning.

Result. Students continue to lag behind academically, acquire little or no skills and while at home, are exposed to messages that only creates unrest. And with little academic knowledge, close to zero skills, they find it hard to get decent employment, which further fuels the situation of unrest.

Big question now is, can we solve this?

Let me share a small story.

At iDream Education, we work with underserved learners to deliver enjoyable and personalised digital learning via mobile and tablets. So, by default there is always a tablet in my bag just in case anyone wants to see our solution at any point of time. I am always ready.

When I was in Kashmir setting up the learning lab with my team, a girl from the school saw the tablet in my bag, asked me if she could take it out and see it. I was busy with other children and I casually responded in affirmative. I captured a photo of what I saw a few moments later.

She had easily logged onto the tablet and was browsing through the content from her class. One video caught her attention, she was watching it while a bunch of her friends had also gathered around her.

I was intrigued, so I asked them a couple of questions and recorded their response. Watch it in the video below:

Even in such an area, it was good to see strong affinity towards smartphones. Because, from my perspective, this insight opens up the doors to solving the education challenge in Kashmir.

Here’s another video of a young boy sharing how he uses Google to search for anything he wants:

So, if we can leverage this familiarity which even children from the valley have towards touch based devices, we can offer to them an enjoyable and a personalised way to learn. At a very basic level, all we need to do is preload these devices with play way learning content and customise the same in the language children are comfortable in.

While a desktop computer or even a laptop may find it difficult to enter into the schools and homes of people in J&K, an educational tablet can easily penetrate even into the most difficult of terrains and at much lower cost.

Please do not get swayed away so easily. Be cautious of the fact that a tablet is just one key to the lock. The content, delivery platform, how do we record and access progress reports are other keys to the same lock. Pre Loaded Content across different categories including curriculum aligned multimedia, teacher videos, DIY experiment videos, inspiring digital books and practice assessments with feedback, the structure and integration of content needs to be deeply planned to happily engage the students.

Our solutions and projects also need to be given a very deep thought and planning to complement and align with the psychology of the teachers, the parents and the other members of the ecosystem.

Giving clear and deeper focus on every aspect of hardware, content, platform, data and child’s proactive acceptance is the make or break key!

And yes, a very finely designed, and precise solution can indeed break open the access & growth barriers for these learners in Kashmir.

The Big Question

Now let us assume for a while that we have finely stitched the right digital solution for them.

It brings us to an even more important question. How do we do this? How do we make such an educational tablets reach all the children, the government schools and how do we monitor, track and review on a regular basis?

Can I do this alone? The more I think, my answer is a big NO.

Friends of Kashmir

In my view, collaboration is the best way forward. Let me share why.

Reach is one of the biggest challenge in J&K. As a technology organisation, how do you think I can access the remotest government schools in areas like Leh, Ladakh, Kargil etc. If I start doing it on my own, it will not only take me a lot of time but huge cost as well. Instead it makes more sense for me to collaborate with a NGO or a social enterprise which already has the reach and is working with those children. May be on a different project but the organisation is touching base with the stakeholders there very regularly.

Another area of concern is the out of school children. How do we excite them and their parents to join a formal school and attend regularly? How do we build their knowledge gaps so that they can comfortably join the school at their age appropriate grade level? There are organisations who specialise exclusively at working with the out of school children and it makes perfect sense to have them on the collaborative platform. Such organisations can ensure more children in the school where they can experience learning through solution like ours and many other organisations who specialise in setting up libraries, activity based learning, experiential learning etc.

Teachers are an important part of the ecosystem too. While we are focussing on student centric solutions, we cannot forget our teachers and the school leadership. Their capacity building, giving them exposure to latest pedagogies and making their life easier also needs to be a priority area. We must make such organisations a part of the consortium and then let them transform our teachers into 21st century facilitators.

Piecemeal and Me Too Approach is affecting scalability

A major issue that is impacting social innovation and social scalability is that everyone is working in isolation. Piecemeal or me too approach to working in social education has unfortunately not resulted in any scalable solution.

The need of the hour really is for organisations to identify and understand their core strengths and then stick to it. Wherever you see a gap, bring in a reliable partner who can plug it.

Here’s an example to understand this better. We at iDream Education are a social ed-tech organisation and we specialise in building student centric tablet based solutions for government schools. But, I cannot serve the schools in Pulwama directly. It is too costly and time consuming for me that it will distract me from my core strength, which is to build student centric learning products. However, there is a local organisation, which is running activity based learning program in schools in Pulwama. These guys are already there. They have the reach and the connect with local students and teachers. All I need to do is partner with this organisation, build their capacity to monitor and if needed provide basic support to the schools to use the digital solution delivered to them by us.

For such a collaboration to however work, it is critical for both me and the partner organisation to understand each other’s core strengths, appreciate each other’s value and what we bring to the table. If any of us approach with a mindset of either we do all or nothing, it will eventually prove to be suicidal. And I won’t feel bad for the organisations but for the children who will be deprived with the best of growth oriented learning.

Review Meeting – NGO Partnerships for J&K by Ministry of Human Resource & Development (MHRD)

Last month in April, I had the privilege to be a part of a review meeting organised by MHRD.

While we also presented about the idea of tablet based student centric digital learning, it was also very interesting to hear from organisations who work in complementary areas. Each has over the years built their own unique value proposition and have been trying multiple interventions for teachers, out of school children and for children in the schools.

And I was sitting there and wondering what if all these organisations can come together, form a consortium, create a common goal and then jointly work together towards the same. Each will bring in their core competency, their area of expertise and will be in sync with what the other organisation is doing. With such a 360 degree approach, I feel that we can be much closer to the dream of transforming education ecosystem for the underserved learners.

You may argue that the logic presented above is valid for all states and not just J&K. Yes, you are right. J&K just brings some additional challenges as shared above like that of reach, extreme weather and insurgency. And still there are organisations who are working in such an environment.

At iDream Education, we are open to collaborating with any like minded organisation who can strongly align with our vision. If you would like to open up a discussion, please feel free to write to me at rp@idreameducation.org.

If you are working in J&K on any aspect of education, please tell us about it in the comments section below, leave your email ID and we shall reach out to you soon.

Finally, if you have been a part of a successful partnership which has helped you to scale your solution, please do share with our friends and fellow readers in the comments section below.

Generations of kashmir have been misguided with distorted content being thrown to their eyes and ears for long.

Let us all get together and re-connect them to life shaping, positive content and growth.

Jai Hind.

the above post has been written by our co-founder as a reflection of his personal experience of working with the government schools in Kashmir

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