Millennium Post

Nexus of Good: Beacon of hope

Akshara Foundation, through a tripartite partnership between the government, private and voluntary sector, has been scaling efforts to ensure quality education for children

Nexus of Good: Beacon of hope

Nexus of Good is all about identifying, understanding, appreciating, replicating and scaling good practices. Akshara Foundation epitomises this approach. This is the reason why it has been selected as one of the awardees during the Annual Award function, 2022, organised by Nexus of Good Foundation along with FICCI Arise.

In my attempt to assess the ground reality after having taken over as Secretary, School Education, I travelled to a number of states. One such visit was to the interior areas of Karnataka where I 'discovered' one of the many solutions to the poor quality of school education.

Established as a Public Charitable Trust in March 2000, Akshara Foundation was founded on the belief that quality education is the undeniable right of every child. It was conceived as a tripartite partnership between the government, the private sector and the voluntary sector.

At the turn of the century, Bangalore was on the brink of becoming the next Silicon Valley as Y2K rolled in. However, the irony was that enrollment in government schools had dropped drastically. Something needed to be done about this issue before it spiraled out of control. It was then that the Karnataka State Education Department took the initiative to rope in NGOs to tackle this problem. Upendra Tripathy, an IAS officer (the then Commissioner for Public Instruction), played a critical role in the evolution of this unique Public-Private Partnership with equal participation and investment from the Foundation itself, Karnataka State Government, and the local donor community in Bangalore. Subsequently, it was one of the finest IAS officers, Ajay Seth, State Education Secretary, who helped to scale this model.

Over the years, Akshara has developed its own individual identity, credibility and vision. In 2003-04, Ashok Kamath, a very successful corporate professional, decided to leave it all behind and give back to society. He joined Akshara as the Managing Trustee and became the Chairman in 2008, following Rohini Nilekani who had been the then Chairperson. Akshara has gone to great heights and scale under his able leadership.

Since its inception in 2000, Akshara has run multiple programmes (Akshara Ganitha for Math; Swalpa English Thumba Fun for English language; Prepare not Repair for Preschool Education; and The Classroom Library) that are designed to be comprehensive, scalable, replicable and cost-effective. The Foundation has always believed that for a programme to be successful, it must be scalable. All efforts have always been designed with this in mind.

After three years of evaluation, the unambiguous success of the Akshara Ganitha programme resulted in it being adopted by the Karnataka State Government as the in-class programme for mathematics, for grades 4-5. Phase 1 saw it being implemented in the six districts of the Hyderabad Karnataka Region (about 7,600 schools). This was quickly followed by scaling it up to an additional six districts, and now every government primary school across every district in Karnataka uses this programme which has been christened Ganitha Kalika Andolana (GKA).

In 2017-18, officers of the Odisha government, led by their visionary Education Secretary Ranjana Chopra, observed this programme in action in Bangalore and wanted to replicate it in Odisha. Within a short span of time, the programme has been scaled to cover all schools in two districts, and from 2019-20, the infrastructure in the form of kits and teacher training has been created to extend this to all schools in Odisha. In 2018, Andhra Pradesh replicated this programme as Ganitha Mitra, and this is now implemented across 5,500 schools in Andhra Pradesh. The programme now impacts over four million children across the three states.

The governments have been the anchor for GKA with consistent and strong support from Akshara Foundation and the local communities. The three state governments have also invested significant amounts in teacher training and procuring teaching / learning material (TLM) kits. Several companies, through their CSR, have supported Akshara to manage this activity by having field support across the districts and to continuously innovate and come up with better solutions that can be quickly adopted into the GKA model.

The National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy — NIPUN Bharat — Guidelines for Implementation, 2021 have cited GKA as one of the best practices in maths teaching.

Samagra Sikshana Karnataka (SSK), having studied GKA 1.0, recognises the impact of joyful maths learning on children, based on activities with Teaching Learning Materials (TLMs) and realised the need for similar TLMs for the higher grades. In late 2021, SSK requested Akshara Foundation to design and develop an activity-based pedagogy and TLMs for grades 6, 7 and 8 in accordance with the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.

Akshara Foundation anchored the development of TLMs for grades 6, 7 and 8 under the banner of GKA 2.0, in collaboration with maths teachers from every district in Karnataka, lead pedagogy experts, and resource persons from NGOs working in maths education (the power of collaboration!!).

In July 2022, the Ministry of Education approved a pilot to scale this programme across nearly 9,000 schools and it will be implemented in the districts of the Kalyan-Karnataka region.

Since 2017, Akshara has also been making investments in creating digital versions of its classroom products. The first of them was Building Blocks, a free math learning app, specifically targeted to work on low-end Android phones. Mapped to the National Curriculum Framework, it is available in nine languages and does not depend on continuous internet connections for a child to be able to access it. Since then, there have been more than 3,50,000 downloads and, with up to six children (avatars) being able to play on one phone (one download), this has potentially reached over a million children. In 2019, Building Blocks was unbundled and made available as individual 'gamelets' on state Diksha platforms and linked to energised textbooks using QR codes.

These games have so far been designed for children from Grades 1 to 5. But the love and demand for Building Blocks has only been increasing. With more community members like parents and children asking for this app to be available for children in other grades as well, Akshara Foundation decided to create games for children in Grades 6-8 as well.

By September 2022, one half of the games meant for Grade 6 will be deployed on the Diksha Platform, in English, Kannada and Hindi. Akshara is also working on getting the government of Karnataka to print ETBs – Energized Textbooks with QR codes for these new games.

The Covid-19 pandemic, as we all know, has impacted multiple facets of education, especially in government schools. Education was completely disrupted during 2020-22. Schools closed, and children in rural hamlets, the most afflicted, were cut off from the grounding habits of the classroom.

In an attempt to ensure these children received education and learning of some nature, Akshara's field team and a 'small army' of thousands of Education Volunteers launched Maneyalle Madona Lekka (MML), Learning Maths at Home, a blended learning model of sorts.

Every week this team sent maths worksheet links to stakeholders across the spectrum, making use of every last connection they had, every single mobile phone they could utilise, and every WhatsApp group they could make use of. These worksheets were a mix of offline learning and Building Blocks, Akshara's free offline and online math learning app. Home was enshrined as a learning space.

This effort reconnected children with maths, restored confidence in them that they can handle it, a feared subject for many. They touched children's lives in a meaningful way. It reinforced classroom habits and prepared children for the reopening of schools. That technology can be a learning medium and not just a source of entertainment was a new perspective of village communities imbibed, many for the first time. Rural school-going children familiarised themselves with online learning with a smartphone in their hands.

Views expressed are personal

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