Can Radios replace Teachers?

Businessmen and NGOs sometimes ask me what they can do to improve the deplorable state of education in India. I believe that primary education must and can be done only by the state. But industrialists d NGOs (who get plentiful foreign funding today) can play an important supplementary role.

Many businessmen have set up schools, but these tend to be for their own employees or for the urban elite. Businessmen have also instituted scholarships, mainly for college education, but these benefit mall group that is already well above the ranks of the really needy.

Such efforts do nothing for the horrendous problem facing rural as-insufficient teachers, hectic teaching quality, chronic absenteeism of teachers. No wonder the drop-out rate for rural dents is appallingly high.

No less than 98 per cent of all educational spending is on teach-‘ salaries. Conventional teach-is labour-intensive-a teacher i handle only one classroom of dents. However, the electronic revolution makes it possible for one teacher to reach millions of homes at low cost. This opens new vistas for cheap, quality education.

In China, state schools have TV and VCRs. Educational programmes are beamed to rural as, picked up by school TV sets and recorded on VCRs. These programmes are then played back to classes. Thus the remotest areas get lectures comparable with those in Beijing.

We cannot replicate this in India. Electricity in our villages is erratic or non-existent. Schools lack blackboards, drinking water or toilets, so equipping them with TV sets and VCRs is a pipedream.

We need an alternative approach. The latest NCAER consumer surveys show considerable rural ownership of radios and tape recorders. Even among low-income households in 1993-94, 31 per cent owned radios and 8.8 percent tape recorders. These work on batteries, and function even if the village has no electricity.

Motivated industrialists and NGOs can use these humble but effective instruments in improving the availability of good education.

First, they should get top-class teachers to give a series of lectures covering school curricula. These lectures must be in the local vernacular language (rural students will not understand English). The lectures should be the very ones delivered by teachers in top urban schools-that will convince lagers of their quality.

Next, the donors should approach the state government for time slots to broadcast these lectures on the long wave spectrum.

The lectures can be broadcast during school hours, as a teaching aid to schools. They should be broadcast again at night, to reach poor children forced by their parents to work during the day rather than attend school.

The lectures can be also recorded on tapes and distributed at a nominal price in all villages. Donor businessmen should motivate village panchayats to operate a library for such cassette-lectures— that way children can borrow a tape and later return it, so that the same tape is used by several children at a time of their own choice. If the idea catches on, commercial operators will operate lending libraries. In this way, education can reach millions at a modest cost within the budget of many trusts.

However, such a scheme also has grave limitations. It cannot be used to teach very young children to read and write- that needs personal interaction with a teacher. Neither radio nor cassettes can be used to teach maths, or subjects involving mathematics (like science).

So such teaching aids cannot substitute government schools in primary education. But they can supplement it, improve quality, and mitigate the effect of teacher absenteeism. Such gains are not to be sneezed at. Radio lectures will be most useful for arts subjects in higher classes, where rural students already know the basics but require higher quality.

Teaching maths and science is feasible using video- cassettes. The problem here is the high cost, and lack of rural electricity. New advances in photovoltaics suggest that solar electricity (with batteries for storage) can become available for just Rs 30,000 per house. If so, charitable trusts can start limited schemes for giving village schools solar-run educational electronics. Given the high costs, they should attempt this in only one district at a time.

If TVs are supplied to schools, they could be diverted from teaching to entertainment. A better idea is to supply TV monitors, which are cheaper, and which in conjunction with VCRs can screen educational video- cassettes. VCRs too may be be diverted to entertainment. But motivated teachers could convert this into an opportunity. By interspersing lectures with film song sequences, they may actually attract more students! Maybe the video-cassettes should, by design, have a song or sports sequence after every lecture. Instead of having any preconceived blueprint, donors should engage in a thousand rural experiments. That alone will show what works.

What do you think?