Every afternoon, a group of five or six girls meet at the Yuwa House to do math. They sit on a mat on the floor and crouch over their work, enthusiastically tackling problem after problem despite the fact that no teacher has assigned this as homework. When they don’t understand a concept, they pick up an electronic tablet and find the short video lecture that walks them through how to solve the problem. If they still don’t understand, they can watch the video again, or ask the girl sitting next to them to explain.
It’s striking to see this miniature classroom at work. The system, which aims to enable peer teaching, is dependent on recent tablet technology to bring students math lectures in the form of videos. The girls who are using this technology, however, live in mud houses and fetch their family’s daily water from a hand pump down the road. They would not know how to navigate a computer. The girl who is training and recruiting new students did not understand the concept of a website: it was described to her as being a combination of newspaper and television. And yet these village girls have learned which buttons to press on the tablets. In an instant, they are connected with millions of other students around the world who are using the same videos to advance in their studies.
Yuwa launched this program, dubbed “Kicking It New School,” only a few months ago with the help of a grant from Ashoka Changemakers. It’s a project I’ve been helping to launch here in Hutup for the past two months. Although I’ve hit a good number of technological road bumps along the way, the philosophy behind the venture is shiny, new, and (if educational innovations float your boat) nothing short of revolutionary.
The Khan Academy Revolution
If you had told my fifth-grade self that I would one day be helping to set up a math program in India, I would have laughed at your joke. Math was not my subject. Beginning in grade school pre-algebra classes and holding true up until college-level statistics courses, I have had extreme difficulty paying attention to math lectures. Regardless of the enthusiasm or creativity of the teacher, my focus inevitably strays when presented with lessons based on numbers and problem sets. On any given year, a quick comparison of my math notebook with my notebooks from any other class was a testament to this difficulty: without fail, the notes from my math class would brim with the sketches and doodles of a student clearly not following the lectures.
But my grades didn’t necessarily slip in these classes. I knew that in order to understand the material, I just needed to sit down by myself with a textbook that clearly spelled out the concept. With the lesson in front of me, I could slow down. I could go over the example questions as many times as I needed. Sometimes I would even try to do this self-teaching during math lectures in the classroom, because I knew it was the most effective method for me to learn and the quickest way I could finish whatever homework was assigned. Every year of school, I found myself regarding the time spent in math classrooms as a waste of time.
The Khan Academy organization recognized that I was not the only student who has felt this way. Countless students struggle to pay attention and remain disciplined in school because lectures are not taught in a way they understand or at a manageable pace. So why not take the lecture out of the classroom? A lecture usually consists of one teacher transferring material to group of passive students, many of who may not even be benefiting from the lesson. If students could receive lectures at home, in a way that they could digest the content at their own pace, wouldn’t it be better to use school hours to encourage greater interaction between students and teachers?
Khan Academy was founded by a man named Salman Khan who grew up in New Orleans and attended MIT and Harvard Business School. Several years ago, he was tutoring his cousin in calculus. One day he wasn’t able to make their usual tutoring session; instead, he put together a quick video that explained the concept and sent it to them in an email. Afterwards, his cousin shyly explained that although she truly enjoyed being around him in person, she actually preferred his tutorage in video form. The material was clearly presented. She could watch the parts she didn’t understand as many times as she needed, without feeling embarrassed about asking the same questions again. Intrigued, Khan set to work making more videos. Eventually Khan quit his job and devoted all his time to the creation of Khan Academy.
Check out the Khan Academy website today and you will find a massive database of videos ranging from finance and economic theory to art history and astronomy. Videos are free and accessible to anyone with a computer and the Internet. There are “knowledge maps” that show students (young or old) which videos will help them build a proper foundation to take on more advanced subjects like trigonometry or quantum physics. Videos have been translated into a handful of different languages, and thousands of classrooms around the world are using them to inspire students to learn. 
Yuwa’s goal is to cultivate leadership and confidence in adolescent girls. Given the proper technology, the peer teaching that Khan Academy promotes has great potential to create an educational environment that allows the girls to grow both academically and personally. Thus, Yuwa purchased five Barnes and Noble tablets called Nooks (similar to a small iPad or Kindle Fire), and Khan Academy moved into the village of Hutup.
The Nastiness of Nooks
Frankly, these tablets are an enormous headache. I have called them much worse names in the past few months, airing my frustration at Barnes and Noble engineers to the empty Yuwa house. Two of the three Nooks are useless: one won’t allow videos to be downloaded, and the other has stopped playing the videos on its databases. Those two are currently collecting dust in the back corner of Franz’s room: $400 worth of idle, infuriating electronics. The three remaining Nooks sporadically malfunction. Sometimes they stop responding to touch, despite having a full battery and despite the extreme respect with which they are handled. Everyday, the girls will pass me one of the tablets with a confused look on their face. I ‘ve found that turning the things off and on a few times will temporarily fix most problems. But not always.
The Nooks were originally chosen because of their affordable price and advertised ability to play videos. Internet access is not a requirement for the Yuwa version of Khan Academy: videos that have been translated into Urdu can be easily downloaded from the Internet, and then stored on a compatible device. Given the complexity and incredible quickness of available technology today, it seems like it should be a simple request for a tablet to have the capacity to store and play a library of short videos.
Obviously, before Yuwa expands this program, a different vehicle for the Khan Academy videos will have to be chosen. The problem is certainly not with the students. The girls enjoy the videos and race through the various levels of developmental math. I think it’s safe to say that they have already surpassed the majority of their village in math ability. Government schools here are appallingly inadequate, and private school fees are out of reach for many poor families.
For those of you who are still with me through this longer-than-usual blog post, I have a request: if you or anyone you know has insight on quality tablets or alternative hand-held devices with the capacity to play videos, please send me an email. Once the proper infrastructure is in place, this program has the potential to have a profound effect on the lives of hundreds of disadvantaged girls who are still at risk of dropping out of school and being married off by their families once they hit age fifteen. Sparking an interest in learning and providing opportunities to pursue that curiosity can alter the course of their lives. The only thing holding back the initiation of this program on a larger scale is a technological snag and some funding.