The DSH Voice Forum: Why?

Digital StudyHall (DSH) develops and deploys low-cost, practical, and effective technologies to help improve education for needy schools in some of the poorest areas in India and Pakistan. Many of these are single-teacher schools in rural areas and urban slums. They lack knowledge and training. They have to cope with difficult social economic issues such as child labor, child marriage, gender bias, and caste bias. Many are in remote areas. It's understandable that often a sense of frustration, isolation, and hopelessness can set in at such a place.

A possible solution to this problem became apparent during the face-to-face workshops we conducted with teachers from some of these schools. The workshop had a packed agenda, but the attendees spent an unexpectedly large amount of time in spontaneous discussions with each other; the discussions were lively and substantive; it was often a difficult decision to force an end to a discussion so we could move onto the next item on the agenda. The attendees remarked they felt that the discussions and exchanges left them renewed and reinvigorated when they departed the workshops.

The problem, unfortunately, is that these face-to-face workshops are difficult to arrange. Because the schools are spread apart far from each other, we need to overcome difficult logistic challenges, such as arranging transportation and coordinating scheduling. When teachers leave their schools to attend workshops, they have to cancel classes. It's a deeply conservative society and many still feel uncomfortable about the idea of female teachers traveling without the company of male "guardians." The end result of all these difficulties is that these workshops, though widely perceived to be very productive, are rare events.

What we would like to provide is a continuous virtual "forum" that allows these teachers to communicate and share with other teachers, some of whom are peers elsewhere, and some are better trained counterparts in good urban schools. Such a forum allows the teachers to seek advice, receive feedback, share experiences, conduct virtual student and teacher activities. The forum doesn't just allow mere one-on-one conversations; its perhaps most important capability is enabling sharing: an exchange that has occurred between a pair of teachers, if relevant, for example, could be stored and shared with a larger group. In this way, a physically isolated teacher may feel that she is constantly a part of a larger caring virtual community, a community that shares and understands her problems and frustrations, a community that is eager to speak up to offer timely and relevant advice, a community that can provide a much needed virtual pad-on-the-back when she accomplishes something against all odds.

How does one go about implementing such a forum? These are extremely resource-constrained areas. There is no computer, no broadband. (DSH helps solve electricity issues, a necessity for some of the other DSH technologies and programs.) There is often cell coverage, but our teachers cannot afford smart phones; people just have "dumb" voice phones (which are more than adequate for them). In our experience, due to lack of familiarity (not lack of smarts), something that western users might take for granted, such as a hierarchical voice menu, is difficult for audience to grasp.

So this is what we set out to build: an easy to use voice forum that enables sharing, in an extremely resource-constrained environment.

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