With intervention in the form of attendance monitoring using tablets and mobile-based applications such as WhatsApp and eAttendance, government schools are seeing improved outcomes in student performance as well.
One can never undermine the role of a good teacher in a student’s life. They help to shape and mould young, impressionable minds who will form the pool of talent in the near future. But in a country like India, where teacher absenteeism is a huge problem that plagues the education sector, outcomes are compromised. And this reflects in the numbers as well.
Only 59 percent of children in Class III can read and understand a passage, according to the government’s National Achievement Survey, a figure that can be improved by good, quality teaching.
“The fact that teacher salary does not seem to be a factor in teacher attendance is significant since teachers in rural private primary schools in India make one-quarter to one-fifth as much as government school teachers,” says Prema Nedungadi, Director of Amrita Centre of Research in Analytics & Technologies for Education, an educational technology initiative of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, a pan-India multi-disciplinary research institution.
Harish Singh, a 34-year-old teacher in a small government school in Uddalka, a village in Uttarakhand, was absent for 40 of the 200 working days in the 2017 academic year. And his reasons are typical of a lot of teachers’ in such small towns and villages – official academic duties that involved outstation travel, absent without reason, departmental work, and personal reasons. “I live within the five km radius of school; I asked the students to visit me if they need help during the weekends to make up for the missed classes sometimes,” he adds.
To effectively address the high teacher absenteeism rate while improving the educational outcomes in remote villages of Uttarakhand, Prema and her team developed the mobile application eAttandance. They used the existing infrastructure of technology— digital connectivity and mobile phones— to connect all government school teachers virtually through WhatsApp to facilitate the exchange of study plans, student progress reports and logs of extra curricular activities.
These technologies encouraged teachers and coordinators to share resources and pedagogical suggestions with each other, thus leading to decreased sense of isolation and increased sense of empowerment among teachers.
More than 1.5 million government schools are spread across India; 192 million children receive education through the government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (education for all) programme.
According to the Union Human Resource Development Ministry’s website, 1,87,006 primary schools (Classes I-V) and 62,988 upper primary (Classes VI-VIII) schools are running with fewer than 30 students. Besides, 7,166 schools had zero enrolment, while 87,000 schools have a single teacher. Overall, the numbers indicate the dismal state of small schools in India.
“Many schools, particularly primary schools, lack the required number of teachers. The problem is exacerbated in rural primary schools with only one to four teachers. This often results in reduced educational access and lower levels of learning that, in turn, discourage children from attending school,” says Prema.
Attendance and performance of students in rural schools is another yardstick to measure the accountability of teachers in those schools. Teacher absenteeism is hard to monitor as accurate administrative records of both teachers and students may not be maintained and, in some cases, may be falsified as teachers cover for themselves.
According to a World Bank 2016 report, India’s rural schools spend Rs 440 crore, per year, in salaries to teachers who are absent from classrooms. Monitoring teachers is more efficient as “hiring more teachers increases the teacher absence rate, which further increases the costs”, the researchers said.
Prema, a researcher and an educationist whose focus areas include access to digital education in rural areas, was cognisant of the problems associated with high teacher absenteeism rate. Hence to curb this trend, in 2014, she began to study ways through which technology could assist teachers. She started her pilot project in Uttarakhand’s 54 government schools in Rudraprayag and Uttarkashi districts.
Three years later, her team worked with the schools to implement the use of Android tablets and monitoring apps such as eAttendance and WhatsApp in an attempt to reduce absenteeism in schools and also increase teachers’ effectiveness and improve student performance.
“The mobile phone-digital connectivity and reach in rural India had increased, and villagers were familiar with social media networking platforms like WhatsApp. Children, too, were attracted to gamified learning and we used this as a motivator for education,” she recalls.
Her team met the village panchayats, explaining to them the vision of the project and sought permission from parents and teachers for sharing information on WhatsApp.
“Though there was initial resistance to the daily monitoring as it involved more work, teachers started valuing the online support as it improved the teaching and learning outcomes,” she says.
Calling it the Amrita Rural India Tablet Education (AmritaRITE) methodology, Prema’s team provided teachers with an Android tablet, with a 2G SIM card for online connectivity. Students are given tablets with educational content that can connect to the teachers’ tablets through Bluetooth. The teachers’ tablets have the WhatsApp and eAttendance mobile apps installed.
Four to five villages were grouped into a cluster and each cluster had one AmritaRITE team member who monitored the educational activities, conducted periodical surprise visits to schools for physical inspection, and distributed tablets for WhatsApp communication.
Originally, the project involved various pedagogical apps and tools in nine Indian languages, and WhatsApp was initially used only as a communication tool among educators, coordinators and remote tutors. It was then enhanced as a classroom monitoring tool, as an outcome of the difficulties faced in the early phases of the project in teacher accountability. Additional apps, such as an attendance app, and pedagogical elements such as small modules to train teachers, lessons were also incorporated into the mobile-based framework. The messages in the groups are in English, Hindi or transliterated.
The teachers were asked to send daily attendance count by gender and a photo of the entire class with the correct timestamp for verification.
Teachers also keep a record of what was taught in the class each day, and of other activities like yoga, and community services.
“As WhatsApp data sent by one teacher is visible to all others in the group, there is a healthy competition to perform among teachers,” Prema adds.
Teachers who are regular in their attendance and sending daily reports are also given certain monetary incentives by the AmritaRITE team. When any teacher needs some learning material for the class, it is made available to teachers through WhatsApp for download on tablets. The coordinators also watch videos of how individual teachers teach a concept and then provide supportive feedback. Data recorded over the past nine months show that teacher attendance improved by 21 percent.
The technological interface, Prema explains, boosted the teachers’ interest and their engagement in teaching. The networking and peer-to-peer learning helped the teachers to improve performance by receiving learning modules from experts, getting immediate answers to their queries and sharing ideas with peers, thus providing both pedagogical knowledge and classroom strategies.
Funded by Amrita Centre of Research in Analytics & Technologies for Education, the AmritaRITE team regularly monitored the classes and provided feedback to the teachers. The three-year project witnessed improvements in reading, writing, mathematics and science among students, which were measured through weekly and quarterly assessments.
“With this approach, significant improvements have been seen among students in studies. For example, at Uddalka in Uttarakhand, only 24.8 percent of Class III students could do math at grade level in an assessment conducted in February 2016. In September 2017, as many as 75.3 percent of students could complete math assessments at grade level, showing a big leap in student outcomes in math,” Prema says.
The approach also supported teachers and helped to create a network of teaching staff across Uttrakhand where they shared their training experience, innovative class lessons, and student-teacher problems. Teachers who were once isolated in a small region in remote and rural India were now able to communicate with teachers in other villages.
Though the monitoring is for entire classroom activities, Prema says that teacher attendance gets automatically tracked as teachers send multiple reports daily. As achievement at each centre is acknowledged to the entire group, teachers have reported an increase in motivation.
“The student-teacher interaction using this technology interface is more robust today, helping students grasp difficult subjects better. Students, especially those from rural areas, have limited exposure to the latest technologies. With the mobile-based application learning, students are more confident about using technology and that is helping them learn better as well. It is also placing them on a comparable platform with urban counterparts for accessing similar education, and eventually, employment opportunities,” says GS Tomar, Principal of Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya.
The AmritaRITE team is now reaching out to more schools and hopes to spread beyond Uttarakhand in the coming years.