Educating India

Atanu Dey has yet another brilliant post – this time on how to educate India’s illiterates.

Adult education, for instance, is a crying need in rural India. You can, of course, use a variety of means of achieve that, ranging from blackboard and chalk, to radio and TV, to PCs with literacy software. Examining the economics of the situation could well reveal that blackboard and chalk is the most appropriate means. For a total capital expenditure of Rs 500 and an operating expenditure of Rs 1000 per month, you could make 20 adults literate in 6 months. Per capita cost would then be about Rs 325 (about $7.) Let’s do the numbers if you were to use a PC. Cost of hardware and software Rs. 20,000; power supply for the PC: Rs. 20,000; trained manpower and maintenance per month: Rs 3,000. Total cost: Rs 58,000. Per capita cost: Rs 2,900 (about $65.)

Of course, one could always use the PC for a number of uses, not just adult education. Instead of just educating 20 people, one could use it more intensively by say using it 12 hours a day and thus train 5 batches for a total of 100 people. Still, the PC method would cost Rs 70,000 and the blackboard method will cost Rs 25,000. By using the low-tech method, you save Rs 45,000. Here is an idea. Give Rs 450 as an incentive to the people: become literate for free and when you complete the course, you take home Rs 450. Total cost to the state: Rs 70,000, the same as the high-tech solution. Same expenditure but guaranteed different outcomes.

In the low-tech scheme, you give money to the rural adults. This is an incentive to them and better still, they in turn, spend the money locally which stimulates the local village economy. They buy food perhaps which helps out the farmers. Compare that to the high-tech scheme. The money goes to the manufacturers of hardware and software, which basically means Intel, Microsoft, HP and so on.

He also gives a framework to think about problems:

1. First, identify the problem as precisely as you can. For instance, too many illiterate people in rural areas, for example.

2. Diagnose the problem. This step is most often glossed over. What is the cause of illiteracy? Is it because they do not have PCs? Or is it because they don’t have teachers? Or maybe because they don’t have time to go sit in a class because they have to earn a living by toiling in the fields? Or is it because the upper caste people prevent the lower caste people from going to class?

3. Apply the appropriate remedy that fits the diagnosis of the problem. If it was really a lack of PCs in that village that led to illiteracy, then by all means get those PCs Fedexed immediately. But the vast majority (about 99.99recurring percentage) of humanity has become literate without the aid of PCs. So it is unlikely that the lack of PCs is the cause of the illiteracy. It is more likely something else.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.