There have been innumerable schemes to take technology and Internet access to Government schools in non-urban India. Many have bordered on the ridiculous – like distributing computers to schools with erratic or no power supply. It took Ranjitsinh Disale, a primary school teacher in a Zilla Parishad School in Solapur, Maharashtra, to experiment with a simple idea: QR Codes printed in textbooks.

Rooted in Reality

When Disale reached Paritewadi, Solapur in 2009, he was confronted with a school in complete shambles. The predominantly agricultural community did not believe that educating their children was a priority. Disale has changed all of this, by integrating with the community and using a number of simple but innovative ideas to help the children learn effectively.

One of these ideas is text books printed with QR Codes. Disale says that he realised early on that the children enjoyed learning from audio and video digital content. He created a large, digital resource bank in Marathi, made up of videos, slides and animations. The content itself was wide-ranging, from poetry and music to mathematics and science.

Disale struggled to find a way to enable the children to access this digital content whenever they wanted. Then, as he watched a local shopkeeper scan a QR code to create an invoice, he had an epiphany. Disale created a QR code that led to a video and asked his students to scan it. Their awe-struck reaction was enough to tell him that he had found his solution.

Ranjith Disale talks about the moment when he realised QR codes were the answer. We love how his parents beam proudly through the recording

Parents were co-opted into the initiative and convinced to let children use their phones. This sounds easier than it was in reality. In 2014, says Disale, only eight parents in the village had smartphones.He organised face-to-face sessions and gave them a step-by-step training video on their phones. When other parents saw the world of resources that the QR codes opened up, they too started buying smartphones.

The biggest benefit of the QR code-enabled textbooks, says Disale, is that they allow for personalised learning. He curates the content delivered via the QR code for each of the children he teaches, so that they can learn at their own pace.

Word spread beyond the district and other schools started to adopt QR coded books. Soon, the Government of Maharashtra adopted this across all state-run schools. The Ministry of Human Resource & Development (MHRD) now advocates the use of QR codes and in 2017, it launched project ‘Diksha’, which uses an open source platform called Sunbird to produce the content.

A textbook printed with a QR code

The QR coded textbooks have proved particularly useful in the pandemic. Even with schools closed, 20 lakh students in Maharashtra accessed these codes in October 2020, showing that they were still learning.

Beyond the Classroom

Disale hasn’t stopped thinking of new ways to make learning more experiential and fun. Using Skype, he takes his class on ‘virtual field trips’, where they interact with children from other countries, learn to ask questions and gather information independently.

“Today although my students don’t have passports, They have travelled to nearly ninety countries without leaving the classroom.”

Ranjitsinh Disale
Disale’s efforts have prevented child marriages in the district

The biggest beneficiaries of Disale’s efforts have been the girls in the district, who were earlier married off when they were barely teenagers. In the last ten years says Disale, this has changed dramatically and more girls are finishing school.

Disale has received many accolades for his untiring endeavours. Most recently, he was awarded the prestigious Global Teacher 2020 prize, which comes with US $ 1 million in prize money. Characteristically, Disale has chosen to share half the prize money with the nine other nominees, who will each receive US $ 55,000.

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