Indian middle class is rising. This rise brings with it the comfort of outsourcing household work fairly cheaply. That has left one of the most common profession of the last generation, home-maker, with little left to do once the kids grow up. The increasing popularity of Ekta Kapoor, and daily soap operas in the past 15 years is testimony to this fact.
Meanwhile, the educational infrastructure has shown itself incapable of providing even basic education in a sound manner. While education is free in government schools, the quality of education is often very poor. The major reason for the bad quality is insufficiency of teachers, leading to large class sizes. Indeed, even children attending affluent schools usually complement their learning with tuition and coaching classes.
In the quiet corners of Vadodara, in Gujarat, an NGO has discovered the hidden social potential of housewives, especially in providing education to those who need it most. Pathshala, a brainchild of ex-educator Juin Datta, currently provides school-like education to 130 kids of all age groups. All kids are from families dwelling in footpaths and slums, most of whom are not enrolled in any school. To succeed, Pathshala relies heavily on its army of volunteers which comprises mostly of urban housewives. In a short span of 3 years, it has had commendable impact, leading to the government supporting the initiative by providing premises, transport and food to the students.
There is no surprise that it works! It provides the volunteers a sense of fulfillment and worthiness, with an opportunity to contribute tangibly to the society. My mother is a volunteer in the organisation, and I noticed a clear rise in her self confidence and self-worth post teaching. She is far from the only one. Talking to other volunteers, I realized that most of them were very serious about the endeavor, and went about their work in a professional manner. It works because the volunteers receive in terms of love and gratitude, more than they give. This synergy is what makes the model sustainable.
The important question though is, is this model scalable? If we implement the Pathshala model as it is, there is still scope of doing much more. Majority of the women in cities still do not work. Even in Bangalore, for example, only 25% women work. Even accounting for the fact that most volunteers would likely be over 45 years old, there is still a large number of potential volunteers. One pitfall of the model is higher education, as housewives are generally ill equipped to teach at that level. Nonetheless, for primary and lower secondary education, Pathshala experiment has proven its potential.
The important cog however, in scaling up the solution to its full potential, is technology. There has been a spurt of edu-tech startups in recent times, Khan Academy being the most notable and unique success. By providing free and high quality courses online, and organizing the content in a relevant manner, Khan Academy has 10 million users worldwide already. It can thus play a big role in creating a virtual community of teachers and students, by providing the platform and the necessary tools to students,teachers and parents.
With the use of analytics, it is possible to provide quality and personalized educational content automatically. A teacher remains indispensable however, since they can answer questions immediately, and follow up with the students to ascertain timely learning. Artificially intelligent course assistants are already a reality. While they are yet to be deployed on a large scale in education, it would not take long. The bots obviously cannot replace the humans, they can reduce their workload considerably by responding intelligently and correctly to the standard queries. This helps teachers handle more students at a time.
Here is how it all comes together. The problem with scaling the Pathshala model is not the lack of volunteers, but rather the need for a physical school. This requires considerable investment in terms of time and money for students as well as volunteers. The progress made is thus slow. On the other hand, if one were to use the same model online, one could make considerable gains in efficiency. One volunteer could handle upto 100 students as opposed to a handful. With relevant analytics, we can even find the most effective teacher for every student and match accordingly. It would also help recruit volunteers who prefer avoiding the hassle of moving. For students, not only will they have world-class education at their disposal, they would also have a personal teacher to clarify doubts.
The social potential of the urban housewife is yet to be fully unleashed. With predictable advances in technology, the time might not be that far away. And it could make a radical difference in many lives.