The company says the move is part of a “wider goal to leverage advanced learning technologies, so that every child may reach his or her potential despite the extreme social and economic disadvantages they might face”.
Some 224 million Indians live below the poverty line. Half of the country’s population is under the age of 25 and, by 2027, India is predicted to have the world’s largest workforce, with a billion people aged between 15 and 64. Poverty, child marriage, abuse and drug trafficking are among some of the key problems of the red light district that can disengage children from studies.
The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity revealed in October last year that only 48% of India’s girls studying up to the 5th grade are literate, while a Pew Research Centre Poll found that only 22% of India’s adults could get online in 2015, although there are nationwide efforts being made to get people connected.
“Given the advancements in AI and robotics in optimising jobs, low-skilled workers will increasingly be replaced by machines,” commented Charles Wiles, CEO and founder of Zzish. “If the country seeks to grow and remain commercially competitive in an increasingly tech-enabled world, its education system must change to support these needs. This means focusing its efforts on helping the poorest children become self-sustainable individuals with marketable skills relevant to modern life.”
Among many of its other initiatives, VITAL’s flagship programme is the Rambagan project (named after the Kolkata red light district), which it runs in partnership with humanitarian organisation CINI, whose social workers help implement the project on the ground. The initiative provides refuge and education for children living in the area. All of the children who attend its evening school are the children of sex workers; their mothers have gone into prostitution in order to earn an income, unable to find alternative work because of the extreme discrimination they face.
Since the initiative launched, no child has entered second-generation prostitution. Some students have even completed their studies to do Masters degrees and have taken on professions in accountancy, engineering and teaching. Yet, by virtue of their provenance, these children will have many obstacles to confront in their plight for a better future. “Even though the Indian caste system is outlawed, the children of Rambagan are deemed the lowest of all, regarded even beneath those who are homeless and live on the street,” commented Yvonne Neuman, founder and trustee of VITAL. “As part of our mentorship, we work hard to ensure that the children are not stigmatised because of their social background. Instead we encourage them to focus on the quality of character they are and aspire to be, and to be proud of their achievements and the skills they will have to offer future employers when they complete their studies,” commented Upasana Das, child psychologist at Rambagan.“Equally, we are hopeful that employers will judge these children on these specific merits.”
Currently, provision of educational equipment at the evening centre is scarce: there is a book bank for children to borrow books and specialist teachers for high school age children. Lessons are centred on practical topics that reinforce life skills for survival on the streets alongside usual academia.
Zzish will install internet at the centre, provide tablet computers uploaded with its platform and curriculum-mapped content, and will work closely with teachers to launch a pilot programme to ultimately explore how much a child’s learning can be accelerated through technology and apps. Comprehensive testing of academic ability – including assessment of maths, science and language skills linked to Kolkata’s schools curriculum – will be undertaken initially among three core age groups (ages 8-10, 10-12 and 14-16) and compared to a control group.Younger pupils will also have access to the technology but will not be formally tested.
The technology is part of the real time formative assessment movement, – a new generation of edtech programmed to improve memorisation and mastery of core curricular subjects. In a group of grade 6 science students in the US it helped improve assessment scores by 10% in six months. It is hoped that the Rambagan initiative will yield similar results for children of the red light district.