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<nettime> The 300-million question -- how to spread literacy in India...
Frederick Noronha (FN) on Tue, 19 Aug 2003 06:15:29 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The 300-million question -- how to spread literacy in India... andfast


>From Frederick Noronha
fred at bytesforall.org

WHAT DO you do with a population of close to 300 million iliterates, who
can speak their native languages, but cannot read or write in them? Do we
see them merely as empty stomachs, and a burden on the nation? Or, is this
an untapped potential, which can be converted into 600 million useful

If a project by premier Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) can find the right
partners, and hit critical mass, then this large section could be
converted into productive individuals who can read signboards. Maybe even
the simple text of a newspaper in under 40 hours of learning-time.

Retired Major General B G Shively's recent mission to the Goa port town of
Vasco da Gama saw him take on an unusual enemy -- illiteracy. It also took
to India's smallest state an innovative campaign that brings enticingly
near the dream of making India literate.

Says Pune-based Shively: "Every adult has inborn qualities (and
intelligence). You only have to activate it."

This military-man now consulting advisor to the Tata Consultancy Services'
literacy plan suggests that the computer can turn into a magic wand of
sorts, to spread reading skills without the need for a huge army of

Quite some work has already been done by TCS in Andhra Pradesh, with
Telugu. Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil and Bengali are the other languages
worked on. Gujarati is shaping up.

What's more, there's an added bonus: India could become functionally
literate in just three to four years time, if -- and this is a big if --
this method is vigorously implemented.

How does it work? Simple. The software giant TCS is using low-end
computers to take out the monotony from teaching, piggy-backing on the
initiatives already undertaken by the National Literacy Mission, and
treating adults very differently from children when it comes to teaching

Some rules: don't make an adult sit for tests. Don't get caught up with
writing, as the difficulties involved acts as a major disincentive.
Reading skills are most important. Adults can't be made to study alphabets
the same way children unquestioningly take to it.

"One-third of our population -- old, young and adults -- are illiterate.
Some 150-200 million are adult illiterates between 15-50 years. Illiteracy
is a major social concern," says Shively.

Growing at 1.3% per annum roughly, literacy is creeping in just too slowly
to make a difference for India's efficiency. That's where, says TCS,
computers come in.

Software generated by TCS, which is given to volunteer groups
free-of-cost, tries to teach adults to learn to read a language by words,
rather than the traditional method of learning by alphabets.

In the Goa Shipyard Limited, one of India's military-run building centres,
the concept recently drew interest. Sixty workers signed-up to learn the
most important of the 3 Rs. Andhra is however the state where this project
has made the most progress.

"There's almost nothing the teacher has to speak. Everything is in the
software. So teachers can run 5-6 classes (one-hour) classes in a day,
without getting tired. You don't need a trained teacher (because of the
software)," says Shively.

In 40-hours flat, an illiterate could be turned into a 'functional
literate', claims the major-general. This would enable one to read simple
newspaper headlines, check out bus directions, read signboards and the
like. Hopefully, such skills could be deepened over time.

Their ideas are put out on the site www.tataliteracy.com, and the TCS is
claiming a good response even from a few industrial groups wanting to gift
their workers with literacy.

To avoid reinventing the wheel, the TCS -- which sees this venture as part
of its philanthropic endeavours -- is working in tandem with the
government-run National Literacy Mission primers.

So what happens if literacy comes in 40 hours, instead of 200? Drop-out
rates are low. It wouldn't take India another 20-25 years to touch 90%
literacy (three to four years are enough, says TCS), and the 'demotivating
factors' are knocked off. Trained teachers are no longer the bottleneck.


This project has been talked about for some time now. This writer recalls
first reading about it sometime in mid-2000. Perhaps it has not been able
to spread far and wide, because of a lack of effective linkages with other
individuals who could take it ahead. Particularly non-profit
organisations, and corporates who share this vision. Also, having the
software under the GPL (General Public License) could perhaps make it
easily sharable, improvable, and yet make clear the major contribution put
in by the TCS.

It perhaps makes good sense to take on computers as an ally in fighting
iliiteracy. We have a huge problem: Nearly 350 million Indians cannot read
or write.  Of these, about 200 million are adult illiterates...

Even five-and-half decades after Independence we have not been able to
tackle this problem. Comparing China with India, TCS argues that "apart
from other factors that build the economy, it would appear that the level
of literacy affects the economy in many dimensions". Between 1990 and
2000, India's literacy crept up from 52.5 per cent to just 65.5 per cent.
In this time, China's grew from 73 to 92 per cent. Malaysia's literacy
touches 87$, Thailand's is 95%, and that of South Korea, 99%.

In ten years, over the nineties, India's literacy rate showed only a ten
per cent increase. "At this rate, it will take at least another 30 years
to reach a literacy level fo 90-95%", argues TCS. To come out with an
innovative solution, a team lead by F.C.Kohli -- along with Prof P N
Murthy and Prof K V Nori -- has been studying the how to make a low-cost,
technology-based effective solution to India's literacy problems.

This method's goals are to give a 300-500 word vocabulary to learners in
their own languages. (As noted above, five major Indian languages are
currently covered. Many more are waiting to be done.) This skill could
enable them to read a simple newspaper.

The idea is to help adult learns build an association between sounds and
their graphic presentation. Familiar words -- and their written forms --
are broken down into syllables and the written form, finally ending in the
alphabet and their sounds. The focus is on learning words rather than

Explains TCS: "This method focuses on reading, the most important of the 3
Rs in literacy. Once this is achieved, a person can accelerate learning to
the other Rs through the use of the reading skill. In other words, the
reading ability is expected to act as a trigger to develop the full
measure of literacy."

CBFL, or Computer-Based Functional Literacy as the TCS calls it, an
interesting but not-adequately noticed project from the Tata Group, claims
it can make "90% of India functionally literate in three to five years".

It uses animated graphics and a voice-over to explain how individual
alphabets combine to give structure and meaning to various words. It is
designed from education material developed by the National Literacy. The
CBFL method employs puppets or lively images as the motif in the teaching

Lessons are tailored to fit different languages. They focus on reading,
and are based on the theories of cognition, language and communication.
"With the emphasis on learning words rather than alphabets, the project
addresses thought processes with the objective of teaching these words in
as short a time span as possible. The settings for the lessons are
visually stimulating and crafted in a manner that learners can easily
relate to (the puppet-show idiom)," say the project promoters.

Voiceovers reinforce the learner's ability to grasp the lessons easily,
and repetition adds to the strengthening of what is learned. The method is
implemented by using computers and 'flashcards' (small cards, with the
alphabets written on them). The computer delivers the lessons ('shows') in
multimedia form to the learners. The flashcards, which have letters
printed on them, support the process by fortifying what has been absorbed
and by helping beneficiaries memorise what they have learnt.

Claimed advantages of this approach include:

* Acceleration in the pace of 'learning to read' (it takes about one-third
of the time that writing-oriented methods require).

* Flexibility in adjusting to individual learning speeds.

* Lower dropout rates in comparison with other adult literacy programmes.

* Does not require trained teachers or large-scale infrastructure.

* Can be conducted on computers with configurations as low as 486 (these
are the kind of machines that many organisations can afford to give away).

* Can effectively enhance existing adult-literacy programmes.

* The multimedia format ensures that the pronounication of the
words/letters is taught accurately through the system, rather than being
left to individual teachers. This is particularly useful for languages
like Tamil, where the same letter can be pronounced differently (based on
the context). See http://www.tataliteracy.com/how_it_works.htm

Other initiatives to battle the huge problem of illiteracy are also
underway. Some time back, Atanu Dey <atanu {AT} are.berkeley.edu> was involved
with raising funds for a few primary schools run in rural Andhra Pradesh
(see www.indiarural.org).

"For the cost of training one student in IIT (India's prestigious centres
of engineering higher education) for one year, we can provide basic
literacy skills and a midday meal for 200 students for a year," says Dey
who was at the University of California in Berkeley

Then, there has also been CALP -- which uses puzzles, games and things
which would interest the young mind while in the background teaching the
language. It has been made by Pratham, for CRY

For a lot more information, check out the National Literacy Mission's site
nlm.nic.in which also offers a link to various technical software on which
language solutions can be built (tdil.mit.gov.in)

This ties up with with the initiative of educationists like Brij Kothari,
of IIM-Ahmedabad. Kothari's emphasis is on strengthening the skills of
neo-literates, by using same-language subtitling for the lyrics of popular
television filmi songs so popular across the country.

This software runs even on earlier-generation higher-end 486 PCs with 16
MB RAM and free hard-disk space of half a GB or more. Multimedia support
is needed for the speakers. Their goal? Accelerating adult literacy in
Idia through the effective use of IT.

Maj Gen B G Shively, AVSM (Retd)
Consulting Advisor, Tata Consultancy Services, Pune
bshively at pune.tcs.co.in
Anthony Lobo, TCS, Air India Bldg, 10th Floor,
Nariman Point, Mumbai 400021 Tel 56689378
anthonyl atmumbai.tcs.co.in
National Literacy Mission (India) site
Site explaining the TCS idea of promoting functional literacy through
low-end computers.
Frederick Noronha (FN)        | http://www.fredericknoronha.net
Freelance Journalist          | http://www.bytesforall.org
http://goalinks.pitas.com     | http://joingoanet.shorturl.com
http://linuxinindia.pitas.com | http://www.livejournal.com/users/goalinks
T: 0091.832.2409490 or 2409783 M: 0 9822 122436

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