Lacking teachers and textbooks, Indian schools look to Khan Academy for survival

R KrithivasanStudents from Sree Karpagavalli Vidhyalaya School in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, watch Khan Academy math videos.

CHENNAI – In a country where teachers are scarce and decent textbooks are hard to come by, schools in India are pinning their hopes on a free online tutorial service based in the United States.

Some Indian schools are already using Khan Academy, which offers courses in a variety of topics via online videos, to shore up the basics of math and science, reduce student absenteeism, improve test scores, and in some cases just survive. But these one-off school initiatives could benefit from an effort to dub 450 of Khan Academy’s 3,400 English-language videos into at least three Indian languages, as well as other efforts to make them more accessible to Indian students.

In addition, Khan Academy is in talks with India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development to match school curricula with relevant web tutorials.

“What our teachers have are only textbooks, and there is an urgent need for strong teaching and learning resources,” said Giridhar Subramanian of the Azim Premji Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Bangalore which focuses on education. The foundation has already dubbed 38 Khan Academy videos in Hindi, Tamil and Kannada, and plans to complete 120 by March and 450 by 2014.

The foundation makes the dubbed videos available through an affiliate website, and through its field institutes which work with rural schools.

“When good teaching materials are readily available, why should we reinvent? ” he said.

The Khan Academy was established in 2008 by Salman Khan, a Harvard Business School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus, following the growing popularity of the video tutorials he made for his cousins. In 2010, Khan Academy received a grant of $ 2 million from Google and $ 1.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In August, three to four percent of the site’s six million monthly users were from India, making it the third-largest generator of traffic, behind Canada and the United States, said Sundar Subbarayan, head of school partnerships. from Khan Academy, in an interview via Skype and in an email. He also said he was aware of 10 schools in India that used Khan Academy videos.

Some of those Indian users were from the computer lab at Sree Karpagavalli Vidhyalaya Middle School, a struggling private school in central Chennai that receives government funding for grades one through five. The non-profit Altius Foundation in Chennai pays teachers in grades six to eight. Most of the school’s students come from one of the neighborhood’s twelve slums, and the vast majority of their parents have never been to school.

On a recent visit to a second-floor classroom, 11 girls and 5 boys, dressed in beige plaid shirts and brown pants, sat with their headphones on, watching their choice of Khan Academy videos based on the math which has been subtitled in Tamil by the foundation. If the students, aged 10 to 12, don’t understand something, they can ask for clarification from one of the two lab supervisors, which has 16 web-connected computers.

“The system is goal-based, so kids can work at their own pace,” said Srikanth Chandrasekaran, stock trader and philanthropist who heads the Altius Foundation. He donated 500,000 rupees ($ 9,400) to set up the computer lab in June 2011 at the college.

Over the past decade, 20 of the school’s 28 classrooms have gradually gathered dust as Sree Karpagavalli’s student population has fallen to 225, a third of the 720 students who attended in 2000. A growing number of slum dwellers choose to send their children to private English-speaking schools, which are seen as a way out of poverty and into the Indian labor market.

“The school was dying because the language of instruction was Tamil and it also didn’t have good teachers,” Chandrasekaran said.

Now, sixth grade students develop their weekly math lesson plans using Khan Academy videos. Because the math teacher resigned at the end of the last school year in April, these videos are now the main form of math education at the school, which has only 12 teachers, half the number of teachers. 10 years ago.

“A lot of sixth graders didn’t even know how to add or subtract, but now math scores have improved,” said Gopalan Ganesan, a retired businessman who volunteered to be the treasurer. from school four years ago. Almost a third of the class scored more than 80 percent on recent sixth-grade tests, and less than 10 percent of students failed, a marked improvement over before, Ganesan said.

Just six kilometers away, the American India Foundation, supported by the Indian diaspora in the United States, has also started using Khan Academy videos to support math and science studies at upper secondary school in the Jaigopal Garodia government in northwest Chennai.

It is a much larger school than Sree Karpagavalli, offering classes in English and Tamil to 1,000 girls, many of whom come from poor families. In July, after a visit from Mr. Subbarayan of the Khan Academy, the American India Foundation launched a pilot program to help children use the Khan Academy videos in the school lab, which has 25 laptops. donated by the US computer manufacturer Dell.

“We work with first generation learners, and if they cannot read or write, it reduces their interest in the subject, which leads to absenteeism,” said Baskaran Dheenadayalan, program manager for the based foundation. in Chennai.

Just two months after the start of the video tutoring program, the attendance rate of 6 to 10ePrimary school students, who have access to Khan Academy videos in the lab, jumped to 92% in August, down from just 63% in June, Dheenadayalan said.

Even schools with more affluent student populations supplement their courses with videos from Khan Academy. RN Podar School in Mumbai has struggled to provide computer lab places to all of its students. Instead, the school began assigning course-specific video tutorials as homework for its 2,700 students, from middle-class families with internet access at home.

“Now the teacher’s time is not spent preparing for lessons, but understanding the classroom and designing classroom interactions with differentiated instruction where peer learning takes place.” , said Avnita Bir, principal of the RN Podar school, in a telephone interview.

One of Ms. Bir’s concerns has been the high rate of teacher attrition, sometimes even over the course of a school year, and she finds free online courseware a vital support in dealing with teacher shortages. .

Mr Subbarayan confirmed that the Khan Academy had had a “brief conversation” with the Indian government to map the programs of the Central Secondary Education Council to the Khan Academy videos and that the nonprofit was planning to open an office in India by June of next year.

The main obstacles to the wider implementation of web tutorials in India are uneven internet connectivity, lack of funds to purchase computers, and uneven understanding of American-accented English in videos, although a lack of funds to purchase computers. nonprofit, the Central Square Foundation, nicknames Khan Academy. videos in English with Indian accent.

But Mr. Subbarayan was optimistic that Khan Academy could help India’s education system.

“The price of technology is going down and India can skip generations in education, but you need the right mindset,” he said. “Education is a right, and everyone has the right to a quality education. “

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