Functional Literacy in 40 Hours! : Kesav Vithal Nori, Business Systems and Cybernetics Centre, TCS

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Prof Kesav Vithal Nori, Executive Director, Business Systems and Cybernetics Centre, TCS presents his views here on the challenges and impact of the Computer Based Functional Literacy project…

Nearly 350 million Indians are illiterate. How does the Computer Based Functional Literacy initiative by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) seek to address this challenge?

Adult illiterates make up 15% to 20% of the population. The National Literacy Mission was set up by the Government to redress this situation. Government agencies have the resources to reach all adult illiterates, but the productivity of their teachers is low. The teachers are poorly paid and drop out rates are high among students. At this rate of progress, it could take anything between 15-20 years for the government to eradicate illiteracy. We need a large army of teachers to address this challenge. This was the reason for TCS to embark on developing CBFL software.

Experiments on the ground with CBFL showed that our slogan ’40 hours to literacy’ was reasonable. This was borne out through experiments in eight Indian languages. Teachers found that they could handle large numbers of students and more batches of learners. Even senior school children could become instructors as the teaching expertise was embedded in the software. The software itself demanded no computer literacy, except some ability to use the ‘mouse’. We had great hopes!

The CBFL prides itself with the potential of making 90% of India functionally literate in three to five years? How has the journey been so far and are you on course towards this historic goal?

We made big plans. However, things seldom go according to plan! The motivation levels in the field are poor, as are the rewards. Our core competence is in developing software, not in running such a programme. Apart from irregular students and discontented teachers, we had to deal with government officers who would get transferred periodically. Wherever we had some constancy, the results were more than heartening.

We were hardly qualified to sift between NGOs who wanted to help. Everyone promised us used computers, but only a scant few helped out. The logistics in getting computers, refurbishing, and transporting them to remote places was another underestimated problem. Getting necessary government clearance for discarded computers, imported by the software industry into export promotion zones for business purposes, was another logistic nightmare. TCS donated a large number of computers, but that cannot fill the needs of a national programme.

Our performance has been abysmal in eradicating illiteracy. Around 200,000 adult illiterates have benefited through the CBFL. That’s neither here nor there with respect to the size of the problem.

What makes the CBFL programme effective?

Technology is only a means to address important ends. As technical people, we can envision and fashion technologies that address important social needs.

This was our principal motivation. Technology is effective when its internal complexity does not get in the way of its absorption. A case in point is the telephone. Its usage is simple and intuitive. CBFL had this characteristic. The simplicity of CBFL helped in making it readily and easily usable by untrained people.

The computer was a big attraction in rural areas.

Technology is not worth it if it is not a productivity multiplier, and democratic with respect to minimum quality for all. What is both humbling and chastening however is that even good technology is not good  enough. We need to have a collective will to address immense social problems.

What kind of partnerships or engagement has the programme managed to forge with different stakeholders?

The National Knowledge Commission reviewed CBFL and advised NLM to adopt as many technologies and techniques available to spread literacy. TCS has joined hands with NASSCOM, CII, and MSSRF to spread the use of this technology. The technology is being used in jails in several cities to provide inmates with literacy instruction. TCS volunteers also do their bit in spreading its reach. For Urdu, we have a partnership with Siasat Daily in a programme that is flourishing. Tata Steel has been a big experimenter, having done without computers in Jharkhand, and helping create CBFL for Oriya. IIIT Hyderabad and IIT Bombay are interested in using this as a base for technologies for supporting education. Discussions are also on with State governments of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Karnataka  for spreading literacy.

Please share with us details of its international outreach.

On a visit to India, the then First Lady of South Africa, Madame Zanele Mbeki, visited one of our field sites. She was keen to see if CBFL could be used to address the needs of tribal languages in South Africa and invited TCS to visit them. Their problem was complex for they had no scripts for their tribal languages. A TCS team visited South Africa to standardise their coding in Roman alphabet. This provided a basis for them to effectively implement their own CBFL. We are also working towards completing the development of CBFL for Arabic and will be given to UNESCO Egypt and Moroccan government, as a start.

How has the government and its concerned bureaucracy responded to the programme?

On the whole it would be fair to say that our government is not dogmatic about any approach to address adult illiteracy. However, they have not been proactive in extending ICT to address such societal causes. The State Resource Centre in Andhra Pradesh has developed new primers and supporting computer software; but these are at variance with the principles and methodology provided by the older versions. We would be happy to transfer our technologies to NLM as it is based on their collateral and principles and will be easiest for them to absorb.

Would you like to share with our readers the impact of this programme, giving specific instances?

Literacy is more like a fundamental civil right. It empowers us to participate in the mainstream of society, giving us an uplifting independence. We found many heart warming instances of this point of view, mostly from women. One young lady found greater acceptance at home as she was able to participate in her children’s studies. Another found joy in her new found independence of not having to seek directions for her destination.

On the whole it would be fair to say that our government is not dogmatic about any approach to address adult illiteracy. However, they have not been proactive in extending ICT to address such societal causes

A bunch of school children on the outskirts of Bhopal were very excited about CBFL. The Madhya Pradesh government had put adult illiterates under each senior school student and gave these kids ‘guru dakshina’ for successfully turning these adults literate. These children felt CBFL could help create greater interest in their elderly charges! These experiences reassured us that not combining literacy instruction with livelihood earning skills was inessential.

Prof Nori is one of the pioneers of the Tata Con

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