The French revolution talked about ‘Education for all, Work for all’. The free software movement is taking this further with ‘Computer education for all’.
This was amply demonstrated by students and teachers at the opening ceremony of Ambedkar Community Computer Center at Sudarshan Layout (behind the IBM office at Bannerghata road). The centre, a volunteer effort from AID (Association for India’s Development, Bangalore chapter) and Stree Jagruthi Samithi, was launched to provide free computer training to children in the area.
There are many reasons why this event is path breaking, but the centre’s efforts in using GNU1 and Linux in teaching breaks the myth that free software has only a niche user base and cannot cater to the general public. The tutors at AID have proved that free software has reached a maturity level and ease of use that it has brought down the barriers to computer literacy. This is besides the obvious career/job-oriented benefits associated with computer training in today’s cyber age.
Some might argue about the wisdom and efficacy of teaching computers to slum children. These children belong to mostly dalit families which live in small spaces, lucky to have a public toilet to share with the community, picking garbage for a living and stressed by the constant fear of eviction at any given point of time – surely these are more pressing problems that need to be attended to?
But those who saw the kids in action that day would never dispute the confidence and the energy this initiative has infused in them. It was amazing to see a young Mohan start his computer and give a demonstration of his work without a single hitch. He explained to us, hardware is to software what the body is to soul. Once when the screen paused for a second, he hit the function key to reload the screen without batting an eyelid!
The entire credit for pulling off this unique effort goes to the tutors, who have taught children the basics of computing by allowing experimentation. By adopting Free Software, this centre is also teaching some higher goals of freedom and community participation that Stallman2 would be proud of. They have proved that software is not necessarily an exclusive property or that placing restrictions on access to computers and computing devices is not going to work anymore. One day in the near future, these children will have the courage and conviction to build and use software as they choose and not as others have chosen for them. That indeed would be a solemn and worthy goal to pursue. Because, computing is going to be a necessary part of every day life; as indispensable as electricity.
But more importantly, the volunteer programme by AID and Sthree Jagruthi Samithi essentially is a step in the direction erasing the digital and economic divide. With debates raging in society over the reservation policy, with large scale apathy and red-tapism involved in primary education, with slum children who manage to pass on to high school and college but denied of mentoring and career options, Programmes such as this alone can engage society as a whole in bridging the gap. If only these families would get a living wage, the sky is the limit for these youngsters to explore and fly in freedom in pursuit of a bright future..
The event ended with a lot of singing and dancing and smiles all around – which says volumes for the success of the initiative. Here are some thoughts on how this could be leveraged into a sustained effort:
- At least five more such centres of high quality need to be set up, and ensure jobs to students after their training.
- Quality can be pursued by identifying, upgrading and refining existing skills. This depends entirely on the efficiency of the tutors.
- Periodic training spread over one or two days must be given to develop key people from the centre to take the initiative forward. They should be competent in working both on GNU / Linux and Windows
- A six-month curriculum with all the exercises tried out, should be put in place
- Periodic reviews and tests to informally measure progress and keeping on track should be followed
- Since learning is participatory in computer education, teachers are needed only as guides; its access to computers that is more important. More participation from generous donors (who can either pump in cash or donate computers) is therefore required to ensure the same.
- Society needs to trust and work with so called lesser qualified people. For the demo, it was Saraswathi and Mani, two people from the community who were trained to give training to others, who ran the whole show.
- Volunteers like Pulkit Parikh, Karthik Shanmugam and Balaji Kutty who are undaunted by red-tape, and have the zeal to get things done at all times. Activists like Geetha Menon and Haridass should be in the forefront to enthuse and involve these volunteers.
This is account of a volunteer tutor, Pulkit Parikh:
- It was very heartening to see that this well-planned and smoothly carried out event had precious little contribution from the AID volunteers. It was almost entirely conceived and organized by the kids, led by Saraswati and Mani, the community volunteers. They have done a remarkably good job in passing on the knowledge from the AID volunteers to the (younger) children, and deserve more accolades than anyone involved with the centre.
- To round off the evening, Mani showed the guests what all they had learnt so far. Seeing his perpetual curiosity to learn and zealous attitude towards life, you would never imagine that he is crippled. Few months back, I went to these people with a view to teaching them. Sitting here today, I feel I have learnt more than taught.
Working with this community has also given us first-hand insights on what it is like to bend your back for 10 hours a day, for less than 100 bucks. Whether you are for capitalism or socialism, you can’t deny that these daily wage labourers deserve better. Thus, it is important to keep the bigger picture in front of us at all times and continue to fight for better wages and strive for better public health and education systems.
1. GNU – a computer operating system composed entirely of free software
2. Stallman – the founder of GNU Project and Free Software Foundation