A non-profit organization founded in 1996 by technology entrepreneur Kamran Elahian, SOL addresses the growing problem of global digital divide. Its mission is to ensure that all schools have equal access to the communication and information resources of the Internet. The organization’s work was initially focused on the U.S., where it provided Internet access to over 5,000 underserved schools in Native American reservations, rural Appalachia, Alaska, and the inner cities. Now its work has spread to 19 countries. In India, SOL’s work covers 56 schools—11 in Bangalore, 11 in Hyderabad, 10 in Mumbai, five each in Delhi and Kolkata, seven in Chennai, four in rural Karnataka, and two in rural Maharashtra. Since it has always been SOL’s effort to team up with local organizations, the Indian chapter of SOL recently announced its merger with the American India Foundation, another non-profit organization based in the Bay Area. The latter is now responsible for all its work in India.
When we reach the school, we find about 20 odd people standing in front of the building, chanting slogans. As the metal collapsible gate is opened to let us in, Banerjee explains that they are members of the local wing of some political party, protesting the school’s decision not to take in any more children in the lower grades owing to a shortage of funds. The parents of prospective students do not seem to mind but the political parties do. This is Bengal after all, where nothing remains apolitical for long. We leave them behind, go up a winding staircase, through a small classroom, where little girls stand up to greet us with a namaste, down a narrow hallway at the end of which we leave our shoes and enter JNV’s Computer Learning Center.
It is nothing fancy, not to someone from Silicon Valley, anyway. It is just an air-conditioned room with 10 personal computers lined up against two opposite walls and a laser printer tucked away in a corner. But to understand what those 10 computers mean to the students and teachers of this school, one must first understand where they come from.
Situated on the western fringe of the city along the Hooghly and housing some of the docks of the Kolkata port, Khidderpore is a largely working class, low-income neighborhood. It is also a high crime zone. This coupled with the fact that it has a large minority population, makes it one of the most politically sensitive areas of the city. The students of JNV come from extremely poor families—their fathers are more often than not cab drivers or rickshaw-valas and mothers are household maids. They live in nearby slums, and some of them are so poor that they cannot even afford to have breakfast before coming to school. Needless to say, none of them have seen computers in their lives, let alone used one. Even being in an air-conditioned room is a luxury they can only dream of. JNV is truly on the wrong side of the digital divide, which SOL hopes to bridge.
As we wait for some of the teachers and students to come and meet us, Banerjee shows me some of the projects that they have already worked on. There is a PowerPoint presentation called Festivals of India by ninth-graders, another on Chinese Civilization by the same class, and yet another one—this one by a biology teacher—on the human heart, and another one on the factors affecting our weather system. The English is not always perfect (this is a Hindi-medium school, and to some of the students, these projects are as much a means of learning a new language as they are of learning a new technology), but the presentation is impeccable. And if you consider the fact that they have been working with this technology for only a few months, the result is quite impressive.
“We are not trying to teach these children programming,” explains Banerjee. “Our purpose is to teach them to apply this technology to everything they learn.” The students accordingly are encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the computer lab and use the Internet as much as possible to research their course material and to apply their findings in their class projects. Lakshmi Pratury, director of the Digital Equalizer program at the American India Foundation at Milpitas, CA, and responsible for SOL’s fundraising in India, tells me later that their long-term vision is to make sure that education does not just encompass curriculum, but goes beyond it to become a holistic experience. “Our mission is to teach these children that technology is not an end in itself, but a means to an end,” she says. “Our goal is three-fold: promote inquisitiveness in children; encourage the application of this technology in as many different forms as possible; and finally, to enable the children to see this technology in all its elegance and simplicity.” This should not be about flaunting a new skill or getting good grades in the classroom, but a means of connecting with people and truly becoming global citizens, feels Pratury.
That SOL is succeeding is evident when I speak to some of the teachers and students of JNV. Rinki Agarwal, a ninth-grader proudly shows me her PowerPoint presentation of Rainy Season, and explains how she had “surfed” the Internet to get her material. Ruby Kumari Rajak, her classmate and author of Quadrilaterals, tells me that her only concern is that when she leaves the school a couple of years from now, she will not be able to use this technology. When asked why it is so important to her, she answers simply: “I like working here. I am learning so much every day.” Coming from an extremely poor family, she knows that she will not be able to afford lessons elsewhere or frequent any Internet café. Whether it is the hope of getting a better-paying job later or simply the need to escape her dreary surroundings at home, this little piece of equipment has become her window to the world. Both Agarwal and Rajak say that they are going to request the school authorities to let them come and use their computers from time to time after they have graduated.
Ajit Pal, the school’s history teacher, also the co-author of the very impressive Chinese Civilization, tells me how he spends after school hours to hone his own skills at the computer as well as to research material for his students. After all, the teachers themselves are new to this technology. But what they lack in experience they make up in enthusiasm. Many of them had given up their vacation time last year and signed up for computer learning classes. And besides using computers in the classroom, they are preparing a database of all students with their personal, health, and academic details, as well as printing out school notices and circulars. “This is a wonderful technology. It has made teaching so much more attractive,” says Pal. “Besides, I can see that my students are loving this, and that makes all this work worthwhile.”
Others agree with him. “As a teacher, my primary goal is to instill a sense of curiosity among my students,” says one. She recounts incidents where her students have questioned her, even contradicted her in the classroom because of the information they have come across on the Net. “I think it is wonderful that they now have the opportunity to explore on their own. They did not have that previously,” she adds.
Right now, the lab is open for use by students in eighth, ninth and 10th grades only, and is being used extensively for science and social science projects. The school soon hopes to introduce the use of computers in the language classes, as well as extend their use in the lower grades. And since all the five schools under SOL in Kolkata are connected, students will have access to projects being done by students and teachers in the other schools as well.
So how does SOL go about choosing its schools? “We look for underserved schools which are ready to experiment with our program,” says Srimathi Prasad, the country coordinator of the program. So far, SOL has worked only with government and government-aided schools, she says. “The biggest hurdle we face, money aside, is the mindset of the people,” adds Banerjee. According to her, some schools have refused to be part of the program because they “simply don’t see the benefit of the Internet.” Likewise, most of the parents of these under-resourced children, being uneducated themselves, cannot appreciate what their children are learning. But in the schools that have joined the network, the response has been tremendous, she claims. “The school authorities as well as the parents are seeing that this technology can make a real difference in the lives of the children.”
And how much does it cost SOL to set up all this? About Rs. 700,000 ($14,000) in equipment and teacher training, says Prasad. Of course, in rural areas, where infrastructure is almost non-existent, it is more than that, she adds. So far, SOL has raised all the money for all the schools. For the first batch of schools they got funds from Nortel Networks. Hardware was bought from WIPRO, HCL, and other local vendors. “Now the challenge is to get the schools self-sufficient so they can sustain the labs after two years when SOL will stop funding them,” she says.
In Kolkata, there has been some help from local companies, says Banerjee. Computer Society of India, Kolkata Chapter, gave Rs. 60,000 ($1,200) to improve the LAN cabling, resulting in all the five SOL schools in the city getting structured cabling. Webel, a Government of West Bengal enterprise helped upgrade modems to routers in all these five schools. Other local businesses have helped out with software packages. Matrix Infosystems Pvt. Ltd. has agreed to give Computerized Accounting Package “Figurz” ($500 each) free to the five schools for office use. The Chatterjee Group Company donated Bangla software to all the five schools. Wockhardt Medical & Research Centre, Rotary club of Calcutta (Midtown) and ABSO Software Pvt. Ltd. have decided to provide medical check-up for all students every two years. Already, about 500 students of two schools in the city have been examined. Moreover, Rotary Club is looking into the possibility of starting Interact Clubs in these schools, which will promote leadership qualities and team spirit among the students.
A couple of hours later, on our way out through the back entrance—for protesters are still blocking the front of the school building—I notice an SOL poster with the words: “The Internet gives students a chance, not only to see the world, but to be seen by the world.” Maybe Rinki Agarwal, Ruby Kumari Rajak and many more like them at JNV and elsewhere have finally found a way to see the world and also to be seen by it.