Friday, 2 November 2012

CSR - Old School

The year was 1991, that was the time when Corporate Social Responsibility was unheard of. Life was simple, Corporates did just their business and made profits and Charity Organizations did not do any business but doling out welfare and feeding the poor and did not make any profit. The two entities functioned in their own spheres and nobody bothered or even thought that Business should engage with Community Organizations or vice versa. 

In that period, I was working in an International Aid Agency's Non Formal Adult Education for Fishing Communities in Coastal Tamil Nadu. Total Literacy was the all encompassing Mantra and every district in Tamil Nadu was busy declaring themselves "100% Literate". In this backdrop, we got zero support from the Govt. when we said we wanted to educate the fisherfolk

I was joined in this mission impossible by a Catholic Priest, and a fiery character who had strong communist idealogies. We soldiered on against all odds and went about setting up non-formal education centres in fishing hamlets - where we also taught them to read and write. Predominantly, though the NFE centres were more a platform to discuss the aspirations, the joys and sorrows of the younger generation of the fishing community. We also were privy to the ocean like wisdom of the village heads who extended their full support and wanted their wards to be 'educated' not just literate. 

It was no coincidence that the fishermen /women were as broad minded as the ocean itself. They had their priorities right and their approach to life was to face it with all its struggles and never back down or complain. They believed that the Ocean with its abundant treasures will take care of them – come what may. They also understood, that education is not just knowing to write down your name. They did not go to any classroom, but even a 5 year old in that village will tell the time by just looking at the position of the sun. They know when to venture out into the sea and when not to. They knew how to calculate the “profit -loss' for the day, and the women could make accurate guess on the weight of the fish caught even while it is being offloaded onto the shore. 

Enthused by their active participation, the NFE centres became a centre of intense discussion on issues of community development like creating jobs, income generation, mainstream or formal education etc. Government meanwhile got wind of the happenings in these centres that they finally decided to close down all centres. The foreign Nation which was generously funding this activity was told rather bluntly that they cannot continue with a "literacy' program in a 100% literate State. The Development Counsellor fought valiantly, but had to succumb to bureucratic pressure and finally the project was abruptly shut down.

Back then there was no Govt. backing, no corporate funding, no fancy Public Private Partnership or fancier Citizenship Initiatives - but it was purely, unadulterated People's Participation that kept the project going. The fishing community supported the project not because it will help them write their names on a piece of paper, they understood that it will help build their community stronger. 

The project also me a new perspective to life, They helped define my approach to life. Till this date, this conviction has helped me to work towards bringing out the true meaning of education and unearth the treasures of knowledge buried deep under the recess of rote learning and discover the joy of learning – something that the humble fisherfolk realized from day one.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Technology in classrooms - old wine in new bottles?

 Technology penetration in educational institutes is rapidly gaining ground. In India, many private schools now proudly display their "smart classroom' status. In remote villages, Government Schools have computer labs. There is now talk about using Tablets, iPads and smart phones to make education interactive and meaningful.

However, in this race to embrace technology, are we forgetting the good old pedagogy - the foundation for any education program to succeed . Noted ICT in Education expert Shelley Pasnik cautions educators about this gap -"is Pedagogy keeping up with technology" he asks.  Let us examine this question in Indian context.

I was addressing a group of faculty members in a leading Arts and Science College in Chennai as part of a faculty development program. Since the session was on e Learning and ICT usage in classrooms, I asked them how many of them are on Facebook, about 10 - 12 hands went up. Then I asked them how many of them have a blog of their own. There was complete silence, until one young lecturer rose up and asked "Sir what is a blog?"  

Another day, another place, this time it was a Government School. In my interaction with school teachers on use of computers and ICT in education, many teachers proudly declared that they have attended Computer Training during summer holidays. Some teachers even displayed their certificates to me. At the end, I wrote my email ID on the blackboard and asked them to send me emails if they needed any information or wanted to share any information. The teachers exchanged quick glances and finally one teacher confessed, sir we do not have email ID and another teacher said, I have email ID, but internet connection in this school does not work. This particular Government school has a well equipped Computer Lab - computers with LCD monitors and names of prominent IT companies listed as 'sponsors'.

The point is on one hand our schools have computers and they also have 'computer classes' and training, but the teachers are still not oriented to make the best use of it or they are hindered by infrastructure barriers like lack of internet connection. You may think this is common in Government schools, but it is similar in so called elite 'Smart Schools'. Once, when I asked my daughter how is her 'smart classroom' functioning as I see that board everytime I drop her to school. She said, oh, that my teacher switches it on shows some slides, then fumbles with the controls and then switches it off. It is back to the good old blackboard and lecture.

When the college lecturer asked me about blogs and the school teacher asked me about creating email ID, I really felt that our teachers, administrators and educators simply do not understand the real power of technology. Mere placing of computers, gadgets, interactive white boards without training the teachers in their proper usage will not change anything. Teachers will brush aside the technology as simple waste of time if they are not properly trained.

Administrators and educators should realize that just buying all sorts of new technology does not make learning meaningful, it is about how you use them. Even with latest technology teachers still struggle to retain students interest. New technology to be effective must be backed up by innovative pedagogy. Pedagogy should dictate how the devices, tools should be used. As Shelley Pasnik says, "it is what you do with (technology & devices) and how teachers and students use those tools"

While developed countries are leapfrogging to digital devices of all shapes and sizes, our education system is caught in a time warp.Teachers and students  are mere onlookers as other Countries, even countries like Bangaladesh and Sri Lanka are overtaking us in terms of technology usage in education.

Traditonal pedagogy practices must evolve to match the growing technology, if the investment in Computers and other technology has to start bringing in rich dividends. Teachers must be sensitized and oriented to new technology and its usage. Otherwise it will be the classic case of old wine in new bottles, or its digital equivalent : PDF and powerpoint slides of traditional textbooks on computers and iPads.


Thursday, 22 March 2012

Initiatives in Classroom Transformation – ICT

17th March was a red letter day for many people involved in education reforms. For on that day, a middle school teacher from the Chennai (corporation) School, made history when she stepped up to the podium at the NGO 2012 seminar – a prestigious gathering of NGOs from across the Country - and declared to the world that she is a Champion Teacher.

The people, who had gathered to hear a teacher speak, ended up listening to the inner voice of a life changing experience. The teacher’s voice trembled with emotion and she could barely string together meaningful words in English, but she communicated in the universal language of love –straight from the heart and with passion. 

Yes, Sridevi is a not just a Champion Teacher, but a real champion in life who surmounted many challenges and today she could face the world with enormous confidence. “Sridevi Miss” as she is affectionately called by her children (she always refers to her students as ‘my children”) is part of the Reinventing Education Program – an education partnership program conceived by IBM and driven by Govt. school teachers in two southern states of India – Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu.

As I watched Sridevi articulate the transformation that she helped shape in her classroom through the Reinventing Education program, my mind raced back to 2007 when it all started. The setting was the Andhra Pradesh Residential School.  There were a group of noticeably bored set of teachers, head masters (HMs)   and education officials.  Apparently, they did not relish the idea of spending a Saturday afternoon listening to someone who wanted to for some reason –to build a smarter planet

 Anticipating a ‘techie’ to walk into the classroom with a laptop in tow, they were a tad disappointed to see me with no such gadgets. They had set up an LCD projector, again anticipating the inevitable powerpoint presentation and had closed all the windows rendering it dark and gloomy.

I walked in, and asked them to open the windows so that I could see their faces. I told them to switch off the LCD projector too. Now I could clearly see and sense that I had certainly created some curiosity and wee bit of attention. I introduced myself and my company IBM. I explained to them that I wanted to discuss with them about an education reform initiative proposed by IBM and asked them to list out their expectations. Now the audience’s curiosity turned into déjà vu. With practiced ease, much like a student reciting memorized lessons, the teachers and HMs started to narrate a ‘shopping list’. They said, computers are very good and their school needed more computers. Some of them wanted CDs for all lessons from 1- 10th grade. The more adventurous demanded that all teachers be given laptops! I only wondered if it were that simple, IBM could have just completed a one day laptop mela and sent me home without a job!

I realized that the teachers are so conditioned by the onslaught of technology companies on their sensibilities that they equated technology with gadgets and stuff. Wanting to shake them up from their techno – gadget fantasy, I gave them a simple exercise.

Requested all of them to forget about computers, technology and gadgets for a moment close their eyes briefly and reflect on their school days – when there were no such ‘distractions’.  They obediently closed their eyes and soon they were travelling back in time. After few minutes when they ‘got down’ from their time capsules, I asked them to narrate a few things they remembered about their school days.  

Now the narration was different, they are no longer producing a shopping list but articulating their experiences. Many said corporal punishment, strict teachers, lots of homework, exams all the time, too many books (heavy), memorizing tables and formulae etc. Some of the ‘enlightened’ teachers also said only boring lectures and no computers (sigh!)

I grabbed half a chalk that had been thrown on the floor by an exasperated teacher and made a list of things they told about their school days in a column on the not so black board. Quickly I had run down the length of the board and also had difficulty holding on to the remnant of the half chalk, I barely managed to scribble on the top of the column “Education in 1970s” – I could have as well named it ‘education woes’ – then I stopped.

Turned around facing the audience again, I asked them to close their eyes one more time and this time I wanted them to ruminate on education today, in the present, in the 21st century. They closed their eyes but quickly opened them with an understanding smirk and smiling eyes when they discerned the irony. Nodding in agreement to their dignified silence, I rubbed out 1970 from top of the list and replaced it with 2007.

The silence was broken when one teacher said ‘nothing has changed sir’ same boring lectures, more homework, more books and more memorizing. Then I asked them can IBM bring in the change? Can supplying 100 computers and 1000 CDs change the situation? Almost the entire classroom joined in unison and said No - We will have to bring in the change. I then said, IBM will join hands with them and we will make the change.

Thus began the long journey of Reinventing Education that had transcended the narrow understanding of technology, broke the barriers of attitude and years of conditioned behavior and transformed ‘boring’ teachers into bold Champion Teachers and insipid classrooms into thinking Transformed Classrooms. Presently there are more than 400 teachers who are touched by the Reinventing Education Program.

The significant change was, the teachers never again asked for computers, laptops and CDs. Instead they had asked me – teach us how to use them in my classroom, teach us how to open an email account. Show us how to download pictures and information from the internet and how to convert them into interesting lesson plans.

We listened, started training the teachers in pedagogical tools, ICT and together we created a Reinventing Education portal for the teachers to collaborate, share and learn. Today teachers like Sridevi for whom computers were once associated with computer labs and boring administrative work, are using it as a powerful learning tool.  For her presentation at the NGO 2012, she had downloaded education quotations from the internet, created a PPT, loaded it on a pen drive and made a wonderful presentation.  Today she proudly says: “ because of Reinventing Education, I have become a leader in my school, the commissioner and education officers invite me and ask my views on bringing in any changes in curriculum. I take pride in sharing my experiences with other teachers. My students find that I am a completely different person now and they say I smile more often. In my classroom even the quietest child will boldly answer any questions or even better ask me more questions

The rousing applause that marked the end of Sridevi Miss’s presentation woke me up from my reverie. As people gathered around congratulating her, IBM’s tag line of let’s build a Smarter Planet – suddenly rang very true.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Corporate Philanthropy: Where We Stand

In one of my previous blogs on "Partnerships" I have highlighted how Indian companies have forged successful partnerships with community organizations to leverage their respective core strengths. In this recent article, Ann Cramer talks about public-private partnership as an innovative approach. You can go through the full article and see many good examples.

Corporate Philanthropy: Where We Stand

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

CSR and Social Impact

At the beginning of the year, it is customary to make a list of top 5s or top 10s of several global events. I thought of delving into the top 5 reasons for companies to invest in CSR as well as key success factors. Weber Shandwick and KRC Research did in fact conduct a research in October 2010 and surveyed 200 CSR executives and have come up with the following 5 reasons/ success factors:
1. Having an Impact on critical issues in society and seeing an organization's value in action
2. Non-profits as partners are vital to the success of CSR
3. Almost 90% of the executives said that Senior Leadership Support drives CSR success
4. Companies prefer to tackle multiple issues as part of their CSR (environment, education, global development etc)
5. Employee engagement and Community Engagement are equally important factors for the success of CSR efforts.

The implications of the study is immense as it reiterates several beliefs that drives CSR initiatives as well as underline the importance of stakeholder engagement - both internal and external. The fact that companies are looking beyond checkbook philanthropy  to actually making a social impact and actively engaging in societal issues is very heartening. It is also great news for Non-profit organizations as the large corporations view them as "valuable partners'  who bring in the necessary expertise. It is also good to hear that companies are concerned about a variety of critical issues spanning education, environment and many other issues aligned to their core competencies and business objectives.

Overall, the  outlook for CSR and corporates engagement with society looks positive and CSR investments are all set to increase in 2012 and beyond.

The know more about the study and its findings do visit:

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Corporate Volunteering

Corporate Volunteering is the buzz word in CSR. Many companies already have an employee volunteer program in place and many other companies are contemplating. As part of my research for this article I found that NASSCOM foundation has come up with a booklet on corporate volunteerism titled: "Volunteer in Action".  This booklet provides the 'do's and don'ts of volunteering as well as testimonials from many volunteers. The booklet only skims the surface of what is a very popular  but underutilized medium of employee motivation.

In fact, world wide there is a shift from traditional volunteering (e.g cleaning up the neighborhood, painting school walls, tree planting etc) to more technical form of volunteering aligned to Company's business vision and objectives. This is called "High Impact Volunteering". This trend to move up the corporate volunteering value chain to High Impact Volunteering include: International Employee Volunteering as well as Skill Based Volunteering.

International employee volunteering is when companies send employees from one country to work in another. This corporate citizenship strategy may be an aspect of a company’s global volunteering program in that employees from one region or market travel internationally to volunteer alongside employees in another region or market. 

Currently, only a few companies have employee volunteer programs that include opportunities to go abroad. The recent report “Global Companies Volunteering Globally” noted five large multinational firms that have publicly committed to expanding their international employee volunteer programs; BD, Dow, GSK, IBM and Pfizer. Besides the five noted in the report, a number of other companies are currently investigating or enlarging their international employee volunteering programs.

Skill based volunteering aligns employee volunteering to the strategic business motivations and leverage the corporate assets and expertise to raise the bar and result in high impact. Employee volunteering that is aligned to corporate strategy like stakeholder relations, customer focus, competitive context and leadership development have more chances of drawing on the workplace skills of employees and the company’s distinct corporate resources.

IBM’s Corporate Social Corps  is another classic example of skill based volunteering. According to Stanley Litow, the VP of  IBM Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs as of February 2011, in just three years  IBM sent a total of 100 teams  to 20 countries around the world. These teams were made up of 1000 employees from 50 countries in which IBM works. Stanley Litow, views these ‘citizen-diplomats’ as something more than a means to making IBM more productive and profitable. These programs work towards a more civil society on a global scale, to the benefit of all. 

To summarize, Corporate Volunteering is seen as a great tool to motivate employees as well as align the Company's goals and employee skills to the needs in the community.