Urvashi Sahni
Ashoka Fellow since 2009   |   India

Urvashi Sahni

The Digital Study Hall
Urvashi Sahni and Randolph Wang are matching high-quality pedagogy with low-cost technology to link quality teaching in urban schools with poor rural schools, and doing it inexpensively and on a…
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This description of Urvashi Sahni's work was prepared when Urvashi Sahni was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Urvashi Sahni and Randolph Wang are matching high-quality pedagogy with low-cost technology to link quality teaching in urban schools with poor rural schools, and doing it inexpensively and on a large-scale. A facilitated video-based instruction system provides flexible ways of teaching students in the face of entrenched shortages both of qualified teachers and quality educational materials.

The New Idea

The Digital Study Hall (DSH) initiative founded by Urvashi and Randolph is a user-generated video sharing system intended to overcome the shortage of qualified teachers in poor and remote rural schools. DSH provides tools to help local schools and citizen organizations (COs) make videos of the best teachers in actual classroom sessions, teaching standard textbook materials. These videos are stored and shared in a network of “hub databases” and then distributed to underserved local “spoke schools” via digital video disks using the postal system and other couriers. Local teachers use the videos live in their classrooms as they interact with their students.

The key principle of technology is using costs realistically through the innovative use of simple, readily available components that can produce many of the benefits of Internet-based distance learning without relying on connectivity. Pedagogically, the main principles are bridging the gaps between schools of different backgrounds and building incentives for people to improve their performance. This process delivers excellent instruction and helps train local teachers in their classrooms as they imitate and learn from the most talented teachers featured in the videos. When sufficiently advanced, these teachers may be featured in new videos that are shared with other schools, thus improving the system as it is currently being used.

A feedback mechanism for both teachers and students has been put in place via a mobile phone messaging system which posts a weekly teaching assignment followed by problem-solving and discussions. It is not only a ‘monitoring’ mechanism for teachers, but a potentially important aspect for building an educator’s community that serves the key function of motivating both teachers and students to improve.

In short, the focus of DSH is not to replace people; instead, it is about amplifying the reach and the power of a relatively small number of skilled teachers and training and empowering the less skilled teachers. In this sense, DSH is foremost a “people system,” enhanced by a computer- or network-system.

Beginning their work in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), which is significant due to its caste and gender politics, DSH works with some 35 pilot schools in UP, Maharashtra, and West Bengal in India, and ten schools in Bangladesh with the hub-and-spoke model. The DSH database contains more than 3,000 lessons in five major local languages and 500 other educational videos. A dedicated team of volunteers and staff in India, Bangladesh, and the U.S. collaborate on content production, distribution, teacher training, technology, pedagogical research, and other educational activities. The DSH approach has recently been adopted in spin-off projects for agricultural extension and rural health care education and also by an educational organization in Pakistan that is independently applying the model.

The District Institute of Education and Training, which aims to improve the delivery of education, plans to roll the DSH model out to all the 70 teacher training institutes in UP.

As the project evolves, the DSH team envisions working toward a freely accessible video database that covers every subject for every grade level and language, and for every state and national syllabus, presented in a culturally-appropriate manner. The result would be a “people’s database of everything” which they believe may one day have profound implications for democratizing knowledge and education in developing nations.

The Problem

A December 2008 study, “Comparative Study of Emerging Economies on Quality of Education” by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, with data provided by UNESCO, WEF and IMF, ranked India 6th among the seven emerging economies of the world in terms of education quality. India scored only 3.3 points in the study, while Russia, China, and Brazil topped the chart. The study further stated “Serious attention needs to be paid toward the education system. India may stand to lose its competitive advantages against other countries in the long-term if corrective measures are not taken to strengthen the Indian education system qualitatively.”

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA, Universal Education Program), the Government of India’s most ambitious project to date on elementary education, was launched in 2001. In 2002 the government made elementary education for all children a fundamental right. However, according to UNICEF, there are over 100 million children still out of school in India. Government data candidly admit to a drop-out rate for boys up to grade five of 40.67 percent in 2000 to 2001, with a higher rate for girls. Another survey also provides evidence of the poor performance of students. The data analysis shows that the extent of repetition in grade one in some states is 30 to 40 percent. The 6th All India Educational Survey conducted in 1993 reported a repetition rate in the range of 5 to 7 percent in each grade.

A number of reasons have been put forward, including poor quality of schooling and management, lack of facilities, especially rural, unavailability of textbooks, expense of schooling, the demand for child labor, and poorly qualified teachers. A committee report from the highest advisory body on educational policy in India concludes that children are walking out because there is no quality education. Poor children can ill-afford to spend their time in such classes or in schools that have no infrastructure or teachers.

According to the government studies, improvement in the quality, efficiency, and equity of education, depends, to a considerable extent, on the quality of teachers. However, years of neglect and government apathy have led to a large number of underqualified teachers. The government seems unable to deal with the magnitude of the problem. The Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) estimated that 88,562 additional classrooms were required in 2007 to 2008 and over 130,000 additional teachers will also need to be trained.

Attempts to improve teacher quality have often relied on a “train-the trainers” process in order to reach the necessary scale. However, the quality of the training gets diluted in direct proportion to how far removed the trainee is from the original, highly qualified central trainer. Furthermore, most teachers are largely dependent on conventional tools like chalk boards for teaching and have almost no access to other supportive material like lesson plans or any means to share or reuse resources. A majority of them have not studied beyond the higher secondary level, and less than 50 percent have received any form of in-service training. The result is that teachers continue to teach outdated material. There also seem to be no mechanisms in place to ensure that the curriculum keeps pace with developments in the field. In addition, educationists are of the view that the material being taught is too theoretical and places an undue emphasis on rote learning. Until recently the grading system created failed children, who then dropped out since their parents did not see any benefits of education. Textbooks are a major problem; without any established principle on timely revision; they are full of factual errors, and students find it difficult to relate to examples.

The 11th Five-Year Plan lays emphasis on using technology to address the problem. While information technology can help address the three important challenges facing school education in India today: Improving performance, improving teacher training, and improving the quality of instruction material. The Internet-based solutions offered so far have been too expensive and impractical in many cases due to low levels of connectivity in the country’s rural and remote areas.

The Strategy

DSH uses “mediation-based” pedagogy, which refers to giving a classroom teacher a quality model on videotape which the teacher then uses with his/her students, “mediating” between the students and what they see on the screen. Since India faces the problem of limited Internet bandwidth in most places, DSH promotes the idea of using traditional digital storage devices to record good teaching programs and physically transport them to remote rural and urban slum schools.

DSH is designed to work as a decentralized network of hubs and spokes. Each hub is a center of educational excellence and the hubs themselves “talk” to each other. The spokes are typically the poor rural and urban slum schools that need help the most, schools that lack good teachers, good content, and other resources. Each hub works on content production, content dissemination in its neighborhood, teacher training, monitoring, evaluation, and interacting and sharing with other hubs.

Each spoke school is given at least a TV and a DVD player. The mediator periodically pauses the video and engages the students in various activities based on what has just occurred on TV. These activities may include asking questions, inviting kids to the board, and organizing role-playing activities. All such pedagogical tools are modeled by the model teacher, and the mediator’s job is to make his/her class equally lively, dynamic, and interactive. In effect, the video and the mediator form a “team”: The video provides an example, a lesson plan, and a content and methodology model while the mediator, who may not be highly skilled in some domain-specific knowledge, supplies the crucial interactive element.

Another variation of the theme is “peer-mediation,” the approach of recruiting the brightest fellow students to serve as mediators during periods when the local teachers are absent, which are common occurrences in government schools. The student mediators appear to universally display a high degree of responsibility and enthusiasm when they are put in charge.

Teachers can also study the videos on their own, ahead of the live classes. DSH introduces committed teachers to a new, effective means of self-improvement. This eventually leads to a best-case scenario, when teachers become able to cast aside the live mediation crutch and become more effective teachers in their own right. The monitoring system Urvashi and Randolph have pioneered uses the hub staff and the feedback process to determine when a teacher has improved enough to begin acting as a model for other teachers. In traditional teacher training workshops, the short duration necessitates that the topics must be covered abstractly. It is not always clear how such principles should relate to many of the daily topics. In DSH, the videos carried home by the participating teachers provide an ongoing and highly specific training.

The process starts with selection of the right teacher, then recording classes through video cameras, adding value to these lessons by including pictures, maps and other graphics, making copies of digital media, distribution of the media and collection of feedback, and a process of improvement. A system has been put in place to monitor the delivery, interaction in the classroom, and measure student achievement. In a recently published preliminary evaluation study, children in several DSH “spoke schools” achieved a dramatic rise in test scores, and their local teachers demonstrated significant improvement in their grasp of subject matter as well as teaching skills. In addition, the classrooms showed significantly increased student participation.

Another team is in place to ensure that the hardware technology is not disrupted. The Digital Monitoring System doubles as a virtual voice network of teachers that enables local teachers to ask questions through the mobile phone, which are then recorded and answered by the appropriate people at a stipulated time every day. These voice responses remain stored in and may be used by all the teachers/people in the network. This community keeps teachers from previously isolated villages and slum schools connected to the hubs and to one another, providing constant sharing, feedback mentoring, and above all motivation. This facility is also being extended to students through activities such as “mobile-debate,” where a topic is debated by select students and judges drawn from the country’s well-known experts. This brings the student into the wider world that could not have been accessed before.

A logical progression to this has been the concept of “DSH-in-a-box.” The idea is to distribute the entire education library in a simple box. It plugs into a TV. The recipient teachers and children can browse, navigate and search it in a pleasant interface which allows them access to almost 700 science and history documentaries.

The hardware is a mixture of low-cost computers, old desktops, and used laptops bought at minimal cost from the second-hand market. The DSH technology team replaces the existing hard disks with its own operating system and since the boxes run mostly on open source technology, the cost remains low. While village schools with intermittent power supply have been provided with a battery back-up, DSH is experimenting with a solar powered system.

The content too is innovative. The duo believes in issue-based education. Hence, all subjects are taught through the lens of caste, poverty, gender, and communalism. For example, a typical activity in a math class learning how to calculate area and mass would be for the class to go to an underprivileged locality and measure their living space. This promotes empathy and deeper understanding of issues in a student’s mind, leading to inculcating citizenship learning in the classroom. Urvashi and Randolph make a priority of integrating such locally produced “grassroots curricula” into the body of educational materials available to other classes. DSH’s technology enables the pedagogically-driven transfer.

Girls are also a special focus of DSH’s content design. Urvashi and Randolph believe that unless underprivileged girls learn to look at their lives critically, they cannot change their own circumstances. The idea is to teach children to be change makers and create cultural capital.

While the DSH team is collaborating with the central and state government education programs at different levels, they have not yet been able to find the right hub in each location which would be a strong leader committed to the spoke schools. For this they have regular interactions with hub schools and staff from prospective ones. They are also in discussion with Teacher Training Colleges, to introduce the program in the basic Teaching Certificate classes to train future teachers.

The project in Uttar Pradesh is being supported and hosted by the Study Hall Foundation founded by Urvashi Sahni in 1986. The state has proved a good ground for the pilot since the teachers union in the state is the largest in the world, with 350,000 members. The duo has connected with Ashoka Fellow Sister Cyril in West Bengal, while in Pune the Madhavi Kapur Foundation is replicating it. Soft-ed, with financial support from Microsoft Research is piloting it in Bangladesh. The team is now being approached by other countries such as Egypt for replication.

DSH currently has a team of 15 full-time members. It received the 2008 Tech Awards for its use of technology in education given by the Tech Museum of Innovation.

The Person

Born in 1955 into a business family, Urvashi was married at the age of 18 to a businessman in Lucknow. Always thirsty for knowledge though, she continued her studies, even after the birth of her two daughters. A perfect student from her school days, she graduated with distinction in home science and then in political science with a first division. Urvashi did her master’s degree in philosophy, setting a record at the top of her class.

Urvashi’s entrepreneurial skills were evident from age ten when she scripted, directed, and acted in a play for which she charged a quarter of a rupee to raise funds for a school charity. In 1986, she founded an organization, Suraksha (Safety) after her 24-year-old cousin was mysteriously burnt to death. It was the first women’s organization in Lucknow and the first family counseling cell in Uttar Pradesh. She received the National Youth Award in 1987 for this achievement.

Urvashi went on to study at the University of California, Berkeley where she earned a master’s degree in education in 1990 and a Ph.D. in language and literacy in 1994. Because she believes the performing arts and meaningful education are interlinked, she took two courses in drama education from the University of Central England in Birmingham.

Strongly of the belief that education in India needed drastic changes with culturally appropriate content, and that teaching had to be viewed as a dialogue with children, Urvashi began writing articles about the state of education. She set up her first schools in 1986, Study Hall Education Foundation in Lucknow for urban, privileged children and three other schools, two rural and one for girls from urban, low-income families. However, Urvashi’s moment of revelation came when a teacher at her school asked her if she could copy her superior lesson plan. That was when Urvashi realized that she could copy all the lesson plans from the best teachers and get them to those who would benefit from them.

Urvashi’s hands-on experience has ranged from working in a government primary school in rural UP where she was responsible for installing the first computer, to working closely with the UP Teachers Union helping to design and implement a teacher training course which impacted 30,000 teachers. She also developed a course, “Joyful Learning” with UNICEF, which the UP Teachers Union helped spread to 28 districts in the state.

Urvashi has founded two other organizations: Grameen India Foundation and Didi’s Foods. The former provides training and employment to youth from rural and poor urban backgrounds while the latter works with destitute and poor women.

Urvashi won the prestigious Haas International Award in 2003. She lives in Lucknow and has two daughters who are pursuing independent careers.

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