Eradicating Illiteracy and Innumeracy with Mobile Education 24 Sep, 2008

Very few advertisements have the knack of making an impact. For me, the Idea mobile ad (of educating rural children) is truly admirable for the social message it echoes.

While in urban India, cellphones are used for catching up with friends, closing business deals and connecting with our near and dear ones. In the rural scenario, mobile phones hold the potential of revolutionizing education.

In a country where the IT and telecom sectors are booming, the average literacy rate is 65%. Is there any way in which these profit-churning sectors are positively affecting the literacy levels?

Distance education is a familiar term for anyone who has pursued their degrees over the internet from a university based out of another state or country. So what is stopping us from localizing the concept of ‘distant learning’ to the grassroot level?

Limited funding and weak infrastructure are two of the major deterrents to the growth of literacy level in rural India. Education is secondary, as schools are not always located in close vicinity, and family obligations and chores dominate the lives of rural communities (including children). Yet, education can touch the lives of those who wish to learn; technology and telecom have already joined hands to make a difference to the lives of the rural youth.

The Lifeline for Education program managed by One World aims to provide academic support to teachers in rural schools in India – using accessible communication mediums like mobile phones. The system uses simple communication protocols to facilitate education in remote regions of the country. The program is servicing 13 panchayats, 164 villages, and 571 schools (as of March 2008) in the Monteswar Block in the Bardhaman district of West Bengal.

Another alternative is for teachers, volunteers and organizations to take the onus of adopting a village and ensuring that they make a difference to the literacy rates in these areas. For example, The Times of India’s ‘Teach India’ campaign created a positive wave in urban India and saw volunteers from every walk of life come together and make a difference to the way that knowledge is shared. It is time to replicate this model in rural India and use mobile phones as a medium to reach lives untouched by the gift of education.

Research company Global Equities has projected that education could amount for 20-25% of iPhone sales in the next few years. No doubt India has a long way to go, but if the public, the corporates and the government collaborate, it is definitely a good time to start the journey.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen sums up the need for education in ten words: “Illiteracy and innumeracy are a greater threat to humanity than terrorism.”

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