Social entrepreneur Santosh Phad’s Thinksharp Foundation launches free app titled ‘Digi Library’ for providing quality books for all primary level students from rural and lower economic backgrounds
Social entrepreneur Santosh Phad (35) is on a mission to bridge the yawning educational chasm between rural and urban India.
The pandemic-induced lockdown, which cast a long shadow on the continuation of education of children from the social margins, has thrown up just such a challenge for Mr. Phad, founder of Thinksharp Foundation (TSF) – a non-profit organisation that has been working to bridge the rural-urban divide for nearly a decade.
TSF, which has been doing yeoman service by helping enhance modern educational infrastructure in rural schools and facilitating its access to underprivileged students, has now launched a free app titled ‘Digi Library’, providing quality books on myriad topics for all the primary level students from rural and lower economic backgrounds.
“With physical classes coming to a stop due to the pandemic, these children could not avail of the benefits of online education. Being the children of daily wage workers and migrant labourers, they couldn’t afford smart phones or tablets. Erratic power supply in such areas was a further challenge,” said Mr. Phad, speaking to The Hindu.
As a result, there was a fear that these children would drop out and ultimately lose interest and get involved in income generation activities along with their parents.
“Hence, we launched this app with the objective of ensuring that children could continue their reading even during the lockdown and that their interest in books could be sustained in the absence of physical classes. The app is targeted at students of Class 4 and above. It is conceptualised as a ‘modular library’ with one bag having the capacity to hold 30-40 books. Often, it is observed that there is no space in these schools and the books remain in the teacher’s cupboard. This app obviates physical storage as one doesn’t need any cupboard to store books,” explained Mr. Phad.
An important tracking feature of the app is the ‘activity report’, through which parents, teachers and the children themselves can see how many books they have read and not merely ‘flipped through’.
It has already been downloaded by more than 1,000 children from different schools across Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
“More than 1,500 books have been read already. TSF has tied up with such organisations as Pratham Books and the Eklavya Foundation to provide high-quality and well-designed books on science, history, culture and wildlife among others. We are also encouraging students, parents, teachers and volunteers to write and publish stories, which we will make available on the app,” said Mr. Phad.
The books are divided into seven-eight categories and are presently available in three languages: English, Hindi and Marathi.
Currently, TSF, through its ‘Project StudyMall’, works with 51 zilla parishad schools in 13 districts across Maharashtra, including Buldhana, Beed, Ahmednagar, Jalna, Aurangabad, and Raigad, Palghar, Pune, Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara in western Maharashtra. By February-end, the foundation will have tied-up with 60 such schools.
“We are currently working on e-learning, through libraries beyond the textbook curriculum to include stories, poems, biographies and science. We have also set up solar to ensure uninterrupted electricity. This will also help save electricity and result in less power bills for the school management,” Mr. Phad noted.
The focus, he said, was on the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions where schools lacked even basic amenities such as electricity, washroom and drinking water as opposed to their well set-up counterparts in western Maharashtra, where these schools were substantially endowed by gram panchayat or MLA funds.
Typically, the foundation invests around ₹3 lakh a village, of which ₹1.5 lakh goes for the solar panel, ₹50,000 for physical library and ₹1 lakh for e-learning and monitoring assessment maintenance.
“When we choose a village, we first create a development plan. We then confer with teachers, gram panchayat authorities and local communities to determine what the village schools lack. For instance, we get them to fix basic infrastructure like meters for power. Then, we deploy our modern infrastructure like tablets, smart phones and so on,” he stated.
21st century education
Mr. Phad and his team are determined to impart 21st century education to the rural areas and ultimately plan to work with schools in around 500 Indian villages in the near future.
“To achieve this vision, imbibing computer skills is central to our programme. To this end, we have begun a computer education program titled ‘Computer Mitra’, where our trainers each cover four-five schools in a week,” added Mr. Phad, himself a child of humble environs of a backwaters village in Maharashtra’s Beed district.