FAMILIES FOR SUSTAINABLE LIVING

FaSL is looking for partners to start a Bachelors program in rural Telangana. This document describes our vision to start such a program. A video describing this vision is here.

Why a Novel Education System for Rural Areas?

Visionaries and scientists agree that equitable, decentralized, and sustainable development of all geographies is a must for the continued thriving of our society. Not only is such development good for the economy, it is also a right step towards holistic growth which is the only way to secure our future. Many developed economies have excellent examples of such decentralization where instead of urban sprawls, several small towns host academic institutes, industries, and medium to large organizations. On the contrary, in developing countries like India, we witness extreme migration to cities and smaller urban centers. This is because all socioeconomic incentives are concentrated in urban areas. An important requirement for achieving decentralized development is high quality public facilities: schools, technical/University education, hospitals, parks, well-connected transport etc. While a multi-pronged approach may be needed to meet all requirements, FaSL would like to focus on education and improve the following factors: lack of educational facilities, rare access to professional mentors (for example science, tech, medicine etc), and little to no community participation. We believe that education can increase the availability of skilled labor and make a locality more attractive for living. If educational institutes open their resources (libraries, technology services, sports facilities) to surrounding populations, it can enrich communities significantly.

In most cases, good quality schooling or university education is associated with high cost. Most public sector universities and schools which offer free education either offer poor quality education or are so exclusive that not many can get admissions. Private sector institutions on the other hand, for obvious commercial and logistical reasons, are located in and around urban centers. In such a scenario one has to either move to an urban center for quality education or is stuck with bad quality.

eLearning as a Solution to High Quality Rural Education.

It may be possible for rich patrons or Govts to establish a few high quality educational institutions in rural settings, but this will need large capital and operational expense. A more scalable and optimal approach is to use a framework that can complement existing systems – the current public sector schools and well-performing Universities. While scale is important, so is price. Zero should be a valid price point for education. A capable child must be empowered to self-learn from a variety of resources at an affordable, and sometimes zero price.

FaSL has designed a framework which can act as complementary to the existing education system. Our idea is to set up a lab at each Govt public school followed by a regional learning center for higher education. We call them Skill-labs and Skill-centers, respectively and explain them below.

What is a Skill-Lab? A skill-lab is located within a rural school (Govt Zilla Parishad High School). Every skill-lab is equipped with a fully functional computer lab with a student to computer ratio of 4:1. The objective of a skill-lab is to expose students in class 8-10 to a diverse set of technologies and career possibilities. This is done through online materials/quizzes (Demo of existing quiz software used by FaSL is here), guidance/mentoring from industry experts, projects, and field trips. This will: (1) Provide students with supplementary material for their school subjects, (2) Expose students to eLearning / Self-learning, (3) Broaden the scientific spirit of students.

What is a Skill-Center? For every 5-10 Skill-Labs there will be a centrally located Skill-Center. The skill-center is primarily an institution for bachelor education offering the local students a chance to obtain a bachelors in science or technology. Each skill center is specialized in a particular field of study and staffed with experts in that field and passionate about rural education. The staff are responsible for the administration of the center as well as the skill-labs associated with that center. The main differentiating factors of the bachelor program at the skill center as compared to regular university offerings are the following,

  • While many institutions offer high quality education the curriculum they cover usually is very broad with many topics and a lot of information on each topic. Our curriculum offers a set of topics along with clear application context, be it in industry or society. This enables the participant to acquire life-skills along with theoretical skills which together can lead to a successful career. Please refer to this link (BSc AAC) for more information on BSc in Applied Analytics and Computing. Mandatory part of our curriculum is personality development, leadership skills and communication skills which we inculcate through a series of lectures and activities.

  • Contribution to the local community: Our curriculum mandates the participation of students in community service using their technical skills. For example, a student pursuing computer science can assist villagers by maintaining a free internet center. One can also assist in setting up and maintenance of skill-labs at the schools. They can also work as teaching assistants at the skill-center or as teachers at the skill-labs. These exercises will make them: (i) Gain valuable experience, (ii) Become socially aware and (iii) Understand practical applications of technology.

  • Another very significant factor differentiating us is eLearning. Typically, students should be learning from professionals or academics with very good experience in a given field. It is difficult to bring together experts from different fields while setting up an educational institute for offering multiple courses. Our vision is that each skill-center would specialize in a particular subject. Many skill-centers would then have experts from different areas. For example, a skill-center in Yellakonda, Telangana has experts in computer science and a skill-center in Bayana, Madhya Pradesh has experts in electrical engineering. Both skill-centers will be able to offer BSc in their respective subjects through online live courses. This enables us to offer many courses across multiple centers with low Capex and reduced Opex.

  • The course content will be both online material, remote live classes and in-person teaching. All faculty will be creating content similar to that of courses offered on Coursera or Udemy. Part of the curriculum will also be industrial certification programs.

  • Our system of education is close to the door and does not require displacement of the students. This will lower costs, enable greater access, and allow students/faculty to think of applying technology in local problems.

Each skill-center would be equipped with 2-3 digital classrooms and engineering or science labs. While some of the courses are taught by the faculty residing at the skill-center, others will be taught remotely. We foresee that for subjects like computer science, practicals can also be conducted remotely. Other subjects, for example electrical engineering, biology, or applied physics may require more elaborate logistics. We are working with experts in other topics to determine logistics that can enable effective practicals.

In the long term, we hope that the skill-center can act as a center of knowledge for nearby communities. We would be conducting open-to-public workshops on aspects like technology, health, yoga, arts, agriculture etc. The skill-center would also be accessible to students from skill-labs for reading, sports, interaction with other students/faculty.

How will a skill-center offer a bachelor’s degree? We intend to build associations with universities who believe in our vision and capabilities. The skill center will act as a regional training or learning center where all teaching and mentoring is conducted while a Govt recognized degree is given by the associated university. Faculty from the university will also be teaching some of the curriculum remotely and the students from the university will also be able to take up programs offered at the skill center. Some partners have inquired with if polytechnic courses using eLearning mode may be offered to students after their 10th grade. Current Govt regulations allow a student to take up polytechnic courses remotely if the student has two years of work experience (Refer AICTE Approval Process Handbook, Technical Education in Blended Learning Mode, pages 25-26). This requirement may be difficult to satisfy for students who clear 10th grade in villages.

What have we done so far? Two skill-labs in the villages of Yellakonda and Nareguda have been running since 2017 (See Illustration 1 to Illustration 4 below). Dr Suryaprakash Kompalli and Dr Kishore Konda have been conducting training on office tools (Openoffice), programming tools (Scratch), digital photography and editing, web browsing, etc. Videos of some of these lectures are here. Students are also asked to create project reports and presentations on community topics such as sanitation, water, agriculture, ecology etc.

Photographs showing our current work.

What will be the next step? As a next step, we are interested in setting up a skill-center close to the existing skill-labs and offer first of a kind BSc program in Applied Analytics and computing. For more details on the program and curriculum please refer to this link. The faculty in-charge of the skill-center will be Dr Suryaprakash Kompalli (Linked in) and Dr Kishore Konda (Linked in). Both have a PhD degree in computer science and industry experience in computer vision and machine learning. The faculty will act as mentors of the students at the skill-center and teach some of the courses in the curriculum. We have identified more faculty who can take up online live courses and will be happy to share details with partner organizations. Currently, Dr Konda and Dr Kompalli reside at the village 2 days a week to conduct sessions at the skill labs. A room has been constructed in the area for this purpose. We envisage that when the skill center is functional, faculty who take in-person classes will be staying in the village on a full-time basis. Land has been identified near the villages for: (i) Skill-center, (ii) Residences of skill-center faculty, (iii) Any future expansion.

What will be the admission criterion? The admission criteria will be decided jointly by FaSL and the university offering the BSc degree. One of the main criteria can be reservation to the local students and more specifically the students coming from BPL families. The students will be tested on language studies, mathematics and reasoning as admission criteria.

What do we expect from the future? Ideally, our vision is to set up a network of skill-centers and skill-labs across the whole country. This will be a big step in the direction of decentralizing the economy making it more sustainable. Hopefully, this will result in more people settling down in their local neighborhoods, spurring sustainable industry and infrastructure, and achieve what our organization is created for: Families for Sustainable Living (FaSL).