Imagine not being able to read a bus destination or a work contract or your children’s school reports! Empowerment comes through literacy and, yet, a staggering 25.96 per cent (2011 census) of the Indian population is steeped in illiteracy and suffer varying levels of exploitation and indignities because of it.
While several government initiatives are underway to address this problem it would take millions of teachers and decades of education before India could achieve 80-90 per cent literacy through traditional teaching methods. The situation calls for an out-of-the-box solution, and that is exactly what Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) came up with in 2000, when they first experimented with the Computer Based Functional Literacy (CBFL) programme in Beeramguda village in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh.
CBFL is a multimedia-oriented software package, an e-learning system for helping adult illiterates who speak the language to learn the skills of the 3 Rs — reading, writing and arithmetic. While TCS capitalised on its core competency in software development to develop CBFL it also incorporated the extensive research done by the National Literacy Mission (NLM), established by the Indian government in 1988 to eradicate adult illiteracy.
The CBFL method uses graphic animation patterns for visualisation and audio appreciation. The combination of graphic patterns and sound patterns leads to recognition, retention and recall of words. Adults are taught through the medium of the computer to recognise word structures. A prerak or an instructor at each centre helps facilitate the class. The use of puppets in these multimedia programmes makes it interesting and the emphasis is more on recognising words rather than individual letters. Primers developed by the NLM often supplement the programme.
CBFL is currently available in nine languages — Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Oriya, Kannada, Urdu, Bengali and Telugu. It has also been implemented for the Northern Sotho language in South Africa and for the Moore language in Burkina Faso. In India the programme has till date helped over 175,000 adult illiterates. While CBFL initially focused on the most basic of the 3 Rs — reading — the second-generation version incorporates all three elements and is available in eight of the nine Indian languages served.
The programme has raised social awareness on literacy and other social issues. Women have been the largest beneficiaries, gaining self-awareness and showing interest in knowing more about women’s issues. Adult literacy has also created more awareness about healthcare and nutrition issues.
Velimela Kalavathy from the Marxist Nagar Colony in Medak district is a happy beneficiary of this initiative: “Literacy has opened up a whole new world for me. Reading newspapers, signing documents, helping my children with their homework — these were things I couldn’t do previously. Now I can do all of this and a lot more.” Another beneficiary, Velimela Chandramma, has started a women’s self-help group in her village. The group takes on small government contracts in the district and helps women in the group to substantially increase their income levels.
CBFL scores over conventional methods of teaching as it does not require large-scale school facilities or teachers, takes shorter time to impart literacy (one-third of the time), can be taught according to the pace of the learner, has a lower dropout rate, requires basic computers, and can effectively supplement and enhance existing adult literacy programmes. The method has been accepted as part of the 12th 5-year plan of the Government of India.
Adult literacy may not be such a distant dream for India, after all.