A unique project to teach computer applications

BANGALORE DEC. 4. Teaching computer skills to poor students in government high schools has one big obstacle — money. Buying computers and proprietary software is a challenge, often insurmountable. Open source software, especially Linux, is now considered as a viable option.

This is the story of a group that is trying to teach computer applications to high school students in Goa using the open source software.

Arvind Yadav, part of the Goan Schools Computers Project (GSCP), said: "The real challenge is to make computers a tool for learning. Students should be able to ask questions, analyse concepts, and answer questions. What is happening now is that a bunch of private companies are simply replicating textbooks on computers and that will be of no help."

Mr. Yadav, who runs a software solutions outfit, and some fellow Linux enthusiasts are here for a three-day meet on all that one can do with Linux, including, teaching children. The meet concludes on Thursday.

"We started in 1995-96 with four rural schools in Goa," said Ashley, who coordinates the day-to-day work of the project. At that time computers had to be imported through an obscure customs circular that allowed imports of "once used equipment", he said.

"Now we work with 21 schools. We were able to convince to switch over to Linux from proprietary software. What they do is teach a course in computer applications prescribed by the school education board for classes 8, 9, and 10. While the syllabi still have brand names of a popular proprietary software in literally every line, the Goa Government has in principle agreed to recognise the course taught with open source software," he said.

Mr. Yadav said each school has a small network of a server and three to five nodes running on Linux. The project was implemented with the help of volunteers. The next step would be to extend the project in three directions: "To find money to get more computers to add more schools to the project, and add more computers to the existing networks in the schools that are part of the project. The Goa Government is looking at a proposal to help senior secondary students get easier access to computers," he said.

"To use the computers after school hours to extend computer education to the local people. We replicated NIIT's hole-in-the-wall experiment with some slum children in Goa using Linux. A computer was installed in the slum and children were given free access. Using an application that showed them phases of the moon, the children were able to figure out the date and time for a given phase on their own without any intervention," Mr. Ashley said.

Finally, the focus of the project will be using the open source software to teach other subjects effectively. This involves identifying and writing the applications required, and bringing together the teachers, the students, and the software developers to work on what should be done.

Mr. Yadav said the GSCP got help from a British citizen, David Futer, who was helping a school in Goa. He learned about GSCP and offered to pool his resources. That resulted in a teacher exchange programme with teachers from the Goan schools going for short durations to the U.K. to see what was happening there, and teachers from there coming to Goa. Two batches of teachers had visited the U.K. as part of the programme.

A teachers' training institute is being roped in to train teachers in Linux, and Mr. Yadav and his colleagues are trying to train volunteers in one specific distribution of Linux so that they can work with a homogeneous system across the schools that are part of the project.

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