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Monday, February 4, 2002

Dropout rate declines as computers take charge of school
Tisha Srivastav

In contrast to the usual hankering after an English medium education, the humble Corporation Middle School in the Velachery suburb of Chennai in Tamil Nadu is one that all other English medium school-going children in the vicinity want to join.

This transformation has been taking place since 1999, when a state-of-the-art computer centre was set up at this school with the intention of teaching students with the help of computers. One visit to the school and it is easy to understand why the computer centre has become so popular. A walk up to the first floor of the building and one is in for a big surprise - a fully air-conditioned hall with 25 computers. In fact, the room looks like a research laboratory from the outside. But once you enter, you are overtaken by the excited giggles of the children mingling with over 50 eager clicks of the computer mouse.


The Tamil-speaking students studying till Class 8 in this school are enjoying their weekly browse in swivelling Featherlite chairs through a snap Server that permits multiple accessing of CDs. This means that these children can browse as many CDs as they want from each computer, a facility that only the students of prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology have enjoyed so far.

Be it one class or two per week, multimedia features with graphics, action and sound take the students through their social studies, where 3D maps make geography come alive. And there are also English workbooks through which those children who are weak in English get to improve their command over the language with the help of this extra input. For problems, they can have a Net meeting with teachers. And the most complex science experiments are made more appealing with animations that are developed by the faculty members.

The software is also developed with active participation of teachers so that they can host quizzes, evaluate tests, learn how to use computers themselves and of course enjoy the other off-the-shelf educational software. In addition, the students take the lead in creating names, visuals and concepts to make learning fun.

The room has the air of a cyber café where no adults are really required. Here too, it is the children who teach others mathematics or help a fresh batch get over their fear of computers or even to get used to the air conditioned atmosphere which is cold and can be somewhat daunting.

And the results of this involvement and enthusiasm can be seen everywhere. For instance, students of Class X, who had not seen a computer till two years ago, can now type faster than their teachers. Instead of a fear of technology, a computer has become a natural ally in learning. The curiosity factor has made way for real improvement in the average analytical abilities of the children and marks of the weakest sections of the classes have improved uniformly.

The computer centre is so popular amongst the students that they don't want to leave their school. Children of milk vendors, neighbourhood carpenters who have studied till Class VIII in this school come back in their free time. Besides enjoying computers for themselves, these children also teach others on a voluntary basis.

Diwakar, Shanmugham and Narayanaswamy are three such students, who also have a lot in common. They are bright, 14-years-old and so strong is their love for computers that they are confident that they can become software experts soon. And all at a reasonable price. For instance, a Class VI child pays Rs 75 as fees per year and an average computer class outside costs about Rs 1,250 per month. Job opportunities are also tremendous, since students become familiar with application software like MS Office, MS PowerPoint and MS Excel.

Practicality apart never is the fun aspect of education sidelined. Care is taken that the enthusiasm of the children is maintained at all times and an occasional debate or a seminar is conducted to find out the impact of computer education. The same goes for the training of the schoolteachers as well. The same staff that thought that computers were going to be a waste of time, or at best a distraction, now learn the applications during the summer holidays. The computer is now a friend who helps them mark, evaluate, simplify, communicate and sometimes do their own job better.

The centre is fully funded by the Educational and Social Trust of Citadel Fine, a pharmaceutical group of industries based in Chennai. "We realised that there are numerous schools languishing without proper infrastructure. So we decided to invest in a Government School as the difference which we might make could be gauged easily," says Rajiv Krishnamurthy, Chief Executive Officer, Citadel Pharmaceuticals.

The project also emerged out of the realisation that the high drop out rate had something to do with a lack of interest in what was being taught in government-run schools. The Corporation Middle School in Velachery is now directly benefiting 1,500 students and indirectly it is also ensuring that families encourage dropouts to rejoin and complete their schooling.

This experiment has also demonstrated to the private sector how it can join hands with the government while combining the vernacular with the curricular to arrive at a modern form of dynamic learning. And make government school products proud of themselves and fashionably spout the latest technocratese.