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Using Technology to Help Students "Love to Learn"

Former engineering student and ‘born and bred’ educational entrepreneur, Shabnam Aggarwal passionately believes that technology can be put to great use in making the process of learning, addictive and fun. But she is also keenly aware that technology itself is not an agent of transformation; rather it is the teacher and the student, in whose hands technology must rest, who are.

US born, Indian origin Shabnam Aggarwal has packed in several steep learning curve experiences in a short span of time all in the field of education with a special focus on delivering imaginative content to underprivileged children across the world.

Armed with an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon, she found unusual use for what she learnt when faced with the prospect of teaching rescued sex workers in Cambodia, basic English and computers.

Aggarwal has been the head of Datawind India’s education wing, and enabled links with companies/NGOs interested in using the Aakash tablet for educational purposes.

 Braingain’s Rajyasri Rao spoke to Aggarwal and asked her what made her choose the path she has, what she has learnt along the way and to what extent she credits her years at Carnegie for what she is doing today.

You are described as an educational reformer and you have used your energies to improve educational models and methods to better reach low income students across the world. What personal or academic experience led you to this issue?

The biggest transformative experience was when I was in Cambodia.

“I feel that sorting out what you are truly passionate about, and pursuing that deeply, prior to university, is the key to getting into a high class university.”

I had just come out of a terrible experience after working on Wall Street and moved to Cambodia for a year and was introduced into the space of social enterprise. While working for a company I got to meet girls who had been rescued from sex trafficking – one of the most stigmatised groups in the world – for not only do they come from the villages, they are poor, they are uneducated and they don’t really have a lot of prospects for the future.

And the only thing they wanted to learn was to speak English and learn to use a computer.

I began teaching them both and recognised that my engineering background could actually affect their future life.

Can you tell us what you studied and how that contributed to your professional interests?

I did my electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon. While I was at Carnegie I had this opportunity from a professor to work with Microsoft Research in Bangalore in 2006 December. I got to work for a microfinance organisation called Ujjivan and developed a solution for them to use technology as a tool to increase their efficiencies. That was my first experience of village life – going into the slums around Bangalore – and using my skills in a really positive way.

And what do you think helped you gain a seat at Carnegie?

“The biggest realisation I’ve come to is that everyone nearly all the time focuses on the children. And what we need to be focussing on is teachers.”

I feel that sorting out what you are truly passionate about, and pursuing that deeply, prior to university, is the key to getting into a high class university.

Don't try to do everything and anything that comes your way. Pursue the things you are extremely interested in, and it will show in your application and your essay clearly, without you having to make much effort.

Although I believe it's great to try new things and dabble outside of your comfort zone, it's also imperative to show you have direction and want to solve something very pivotal about the way the world works today.

You have been striving to understand why poor children in most parts of the world fail to receive good quality, imaginative and retention inspiring education. What have your various endeavours revealed about that?

“Don't try to do everything and anything that comes your way. Pursue the things you are extremely interested in, and it will show in your application and your essay clearly, without you having to make much effort.”

The biggest realisation I’ve come to is that everyone nearly all the time focuses on the children. And what we need to be focussing on right now is teachers. I do of course believe that children are our future but also that if we continue to circumvent our teachers we are failing ourselves and failing our students. Because the implementer in any given educational situation is the teacher – and if the teacher is not equipped with the adequate training and exposure with what is in her hands then they are not going to use it well or even at all.

To what extent do you think it is possible to use technology to bridge the gap we have in India: between the paucity of resources and the need for good quality education.

I think that the more we focus on the technology the further we get away from the solution. Take the Aakash tablet for example. It’s a really great tool and the cost is extremely low right now. But at the end of the day it’s just hardware. Without the software that helps to relate to the context at hand, it’s of not much use.

What is more potent is the spread of the internet to the masses.

So where technology will be great is when it is thought about as an end to end solution. What remains ever relevant and of greater importance is the conversation between human beings. And in education, what is of paramount importance is the relationship between a child and a teacher.

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