It is eerily quiet for a school. Even in the corridors, the usual buzz is missing. Enter a class via the back door, no child turns to look at you. But reach the front of the class and face them, inquiring looks and hesitant smiles greet you. As the teacher’s fingers move rapidly to explain your presence, the smiles get broader and the enthusiasm spreads through the classroom. Soon enough you barely notice that these students can neither hear nor speak.
Despite communication issues, these special children have been eager to learn. Even more so now, after their lessons have been turned into colourful, vibrant and user-friendly visuals.
Sharad Jadav, Principal of Devasi Mukhbadir Vidyalaya Bhor School of the Hearing Impaired, says that in the 33 years of the school’s existence, never have children been so happy to attend class. So much so that hardly have the 2,200 children studying in the 24 government-recognised schools for the hearing impaired in Pune district missed a day of school.
The rich, vibrant visuals retain children’s attention. Each lesson ends with a revision module, and all components are attractively animated.
Turning dreary, endless words into bright, telling visuals has been the work of Saksham (empowerment) — a uniquely designed e-learning project of The Rotary Foundation. It leverages IT to create a user-friendly software that has dramatically expanded the scope and range of learning for these children. According to Rohini, an auditory trainer, as the modules start from the pre-kindergarten level, the children take to it quickly and are quite adept by the time they are in Class 1.
In 2010–11, SumConcepts Technologies, which developed the software, first experimented with it through Rotary’s Distance Education Programme. RI District 3131 was the first district in India, and RC Pune Katraj one of the first clubs to initiate and successfully execute the e-learning project on a mass scale. The District has completed over 3,000 installations with the help of a Global Grant of $98,000, and a dozen corporate donors.
When he was DG, Deepak Shikarpur wanted to extend the project to special children. A pilot was tried in 2013–14 in a special school headed by Dr Kalyani Mandker in the District. Soon, the trial was expanded to four schools. One unit of the e-learning package was given to each school. It was a hit from the word go. Children were excited by the visual learning and never tired of using it, even after school.
Encouraged by the initial success, DG Vivek Aranha (2014–15) convinced industrialist Krishankumar B Jindal to fund the digitisation of all the schools for the hearing impaired in the District. A part of his AKS funds of $250,000 was used for this project. The project continued under the present DG Prashant Deshmukh and was implemented by RC Pune Katraj under the leadership of its President Ajit Kulkarni.
Under this project, every class was given one unit of the e-learning kit, a monitor with contents pertaining to that class. Project head Meena Ghalsasi ensured focus was given to schools with residential programmes for hearing impaired and mentally challenged children. She says the e-learning system has also been tried on mentally-challenged children at the Sevadham School in Koregaon Bhima, and the results have been encouraging with the children taking well to it.
Meena visited all the 24 government schools for the hearing impared in the district to understand their specific needs and made changes to suit these needs. Teachers were first sensitised to the idea of visual learning and later trained in technology and with speedy implementation of the project, Pune became the first in the country to have all the 24 schools for the hearing impaired completely digitised.
These schools have now got a full set of e-learning infrastructure — including a couple of tablets for teachers to access the Internet and develop their presentations.
On January 1, 110 sets of e-learning package were formally handed over to the representatives of the 24 schools by eminent scientist Dr Raghunath Mashelkar in the presence of AKS member and project donor Krishankumar Jindal, DG Prashant Deshmukh, President Ajit Kulkarni, DRFC Deepak Shikarpur and PDG Vivek Aranha.
Mashelkar said, “Disability need not stifle opportunities in life.” Making a strong case for the use of technology for the benefit of the underprivileged, he emphasised that innovations that meet the criteria of ‘Affordable Excellence’ will make India a world leader and Saksham was a step in that direction.
Rtn Biren Dharamsi, a social entrepreneur, who heads SumConcepts Technologies that developed the software for this e-learning project, said TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee was so impressed with this project during his first visit in 2010 that he termed it “Rotary’s next big initiative, after polio eradication.”
While the Maharashtra State syllabus is the base, the content goes far beyond it. The rich, vibrant visuals retain children’s attention. And to help in effective learning, each lesson ends with a revision module. This has a set of questions with multiple answer options, all attractively animated. The scoring has been made interesting, taking a cue from ever-popular cricket: Every right answer means you have hit a sixer (an umpire appears on the screen with both his hands raised) and every wrong response, a duck (a bird appears on the screen, laying an egg). Alternatively, there is Ganesha awarding correct answers with ‘laddus’, while an incorrect click leaves you the mouse. The children, unable to talk or hear, are visibly exited to hit a six or a get a laddu. And this is infectious.
Says Prashanth, Principal of Ayodhya Charitable Trust Residential School for the Deaf: “Earlier, it was very challenging for teachers to communicate with students abstract mathematical and science concepts, or to develop their vocabulary and phonetics skills. Even more difficult was to retain their attention and keep them motivated. All that has changed now.”
Moreover, the opportunity for students to revise on their own after class has raised their confidence levels.
The metamorphosis of these children is amazing. “In a short time, they have transformed to become extroverts from being shy and withdrawn,” says Pradeep Garatkar, charter member of RC Indapur.
Project Saksham is as beneficial to teachers as it is for students. Says Gowri, a teacher in Ayodhya Charitable Trust Residential School for the Deaf: “First, the conventional sign language is used. The same lesson is then taught through visuals via the e-learning module. The animation is so attractive and interesting that concepts are understood quickly.”
According to Ganesh Jadav, a teacher in Mukhbadir Niwasi School in Indapur, this e-learning tool has reduced teaching time by a third, and learning time by half, apart from being a more effective and joyful way of teaching and learning. The pressure on teachers has also eased considerably.
To make the project sustainable for lasting impact, it lays stress on sustainability; there is a robust system for regular monitoring and course corrections.
To ensure quality, a mentor is appointed for each school. RC Pune Katraj is developing tools to document the progress of these children for the next three years under the guidance of experienced teachers in special education. Training programmes are conducted for select teachers in education, psychology, science and mathematics, and the latest in audio-visual technology for the hearing impaired. A search is already on for like-minded Rotarians and corporate donors to make this a sustainable, measurable and scalable model.
Donors play an important role in such projects; Jindal is thrilled to be part of Saksham and says: “While making money is wonderful, serving humanity takes man a notch higher. My main regret is that I did not become an AKS member earlier.”
The cost of an e-learning kit is Rs 40,000. With each school getting six kits, Rs 2,40,000 is spent per school. This includes the annual maintenance fee and the cost of software upgrades for three years.
Saksham has raised the happiness quotient all round. Teachers are happy as they now do not have to spend long hours preparing visuals; parents are happy that their children are coming out of the shell and looking ahead to a bright future; and, most of all, the children are happy with the attractive, user-friendly visuals that make learning a delight.
This joy is palpable when you go into a class and the students, unable to voice their happiness, spontaneously raise their hands and flap their palms, leaving you teary-eyed and choked for words.
“After seeing the way a car works in my animated lessons, I want to become a mechanic.”
Narender, Class IV, Mukhbadir Niwasi School, Indapur
“I have an ambition now. I want to study the human body.”
Rahul, Class V, Ayodhya Charitable Trust Residential School for the Deaf
“I like history and poems. The evolution of humans from monkey to man is so fascinating.”
Vaishnavi, Class V, Ayodhya Charitable Trust Residential School for the Deaf
“ I used to hate math. Now, I love it. I want to become a math teacher”
Prithiviraj, Class VII, Mukhbadir Niwasi School, Indapur
“I am so happy to come to school. I love science experiments. The rotation and revolution of the earth around the sun is so fascinating. I learnt it in a day.”
Amrutha, Class III, Mukhbadir Niwasi School, Indapur