Inclusive educational innovations in India

by Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin and Alfonso Echazarra
CERI Innovation Strategy, Directorate for Education and Skills

India has been hailed for being a laboratory of frugal and inclusive innovations. The Tata Nano, the cheapest car in the world, the Aravind Eye Care Hospitals, which fight “avoidable blindness” by giving cheap or free state-of-the-art eye surgery to poor Indians, or the Bharti Airtel, which offers low-rate phone calls, thanks to an innovative business model, are often-cited examples of innovations that make valuable products and services affordable to deprived populations. Just glance at the Honey Bee Network database and you will find a plethora of interesting initiatives targeted to the Indian poor: from the Mitticool, a natural refrigerator made entirely from clay that requires no energy, to the Washing and Exercise Machine, a mechanical, semi-automated, pedal operated washing machine for clothes, the jugaad spirit is ubiquitous.

This drive for inclusive innovation is visible across all sectors in India, and education is no exception. The spotlight has often fallen on the USD 35 Aakash tablet, designed to improve the teaching process and end the digital divide, and on the Mid-Day Meal programme, a government programme that provides free hot lunches for children attending school. But there are also plenty of other initiatives trying to improve the educational outcomes of the economically deprived. These initiatives are particularly welcome in a country where, in spite of remarkable progress in education, one third of the adult population remains illiterate (EFA report 2012) and improving learning outcomes remains a huge challenge, as evidenced by Pratham’s Aser report, itself another example of frugal innovation.

The Education Innovation Fund for India (EIFI), the first competitive fund for educational innovation across India and a collaboration between Hewlett Packard and the India Council for Integral Education (Sri Aurobindo Society), funds and supports about 20 initiatives addressing such challenges. As part of new work on inclusive innovation in education started by the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), EIFI grantees have piloted our new survey and shared with us how they help poor students access better quality education. Here are a few examples of innovations they are implementing.

One reason why low income students frequently have low learning outcomes is that they are offered an education that is irrelevant to their interests and daily life. Oasis, a social innovation organisation, notes that rural children are often trained for urban professions, while schools offering good programmes in rural development are located in urban areas. As a result, neither rural nor urban kids tend to use their knowledge, notwithstanding the fact that they are very likely to have dropped out long before they complete their education. The establishment of Gramodaya schools in rural areas is meant to address this mismatch. The schools will offer rural development education to rural students so that they can implement the practical knowledge and sustainable techniques that they will learn through peer-to-peer and community-based learning.

Another reason for low learning outcomes is that well-meaning teachers are often poorly equipped to provide good teaching, in terms of both pedagogical knowledge and resources. In deprived areas, pedagogical innovations will not be adopted unless they cost virtually nothing and are accompanied by some form of pedagogical aid for teachers. But several frugal innovations show that the cost of learning resources can be made almost irrelevant (though this does not imply there is no other challenge for their adoption).

Making better use of a school building may just require some good use of paint, as Building as Learning Aid (BaLA) by Vinyãs has shown. BaLA develops standards to turn school buildings into learning resources. Diagrams painted on the floors underneath doorways, for example, support children’s learning of angles. BaLA also maps its learning resources on the Indian curriculum, showing school principals and teachers how these new resources can be used in teaching and learning. The project now operates in 18 Indian states, affecting over 10,000 government schools and their communities.

Another programme, Learning is Fun and Experiential (LIFE) Lab provides low-cost, hands-on learning models to foster experiential science learning in underprivileged schools, hoping to boost students’ interest, confidence and creativity. The balloon car, used to teach Newton’s laws of motion, only requires a balloon, a straw, an ice cream stick and four bottle caps – not to mention, of course, a healthy dose of curiosity and craftsmanship. Science teachers across India can access the “LIFE Lab” as an open source platform of hundreds of resources by attending support sessions in its community centres. Life-lab is currently working with eight schools, two community centres and 3,000 children.

India is a laboratory of frugal and inclusive innovations. But how can these promising ideas and stories empower more teachers and students in their learning and be scaled up? Making these innovations visible and shared across school and teacher networks is the aim of two EIFI grantees, both making a simple use of technology to that effect.

By identifying Gujarati schools and teachers doing much better than expected, the Educational Innovation Bank at IIM Ahmedabad is building a repository of teaching innovations meant to empower and inspire other teachers looking for practical ideas to teach more effectively in India’s under-resourced schools. With a network of 4,000 innovative teachers, the web-based database already reaches out to 100,000 more.

Design for Change (DfC) proposes another way of making inspiring success stories visible. It shows that learners can be agents of change and be made more responsible for their learning and for changing their community. DfC supports teachers and learners in virtually all Indian states with a simple method based on design thinking. Drawing on the projects submitted to its school challenge, it displays its preferred ideas in a video database containing numerous inspiring “stories of change”. Design for Change now has sister organisations in 34 countries.

All of these examples show that making quality education accessible to poor students does not necessarily require many additional resources: it can just take a better use of existing resources, cheap additional ones, or the adoption of existing good ideas – generally with some form of teacher support. While frugal innovations alone may not be enough, Indian innovators show us that the jugaad spirit can improve the education of disadvantaged children at little cost.

CERI Innovation Strategy for Education and Training: Inclusive Innovation
CERI Innovation Strategy for Education and Training
OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
OECD report on Innovation and Inclusive Growth

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