When the whole of India went into a sudden COVID-19 lockdown last year Uzma Bano’s first thought was: “I won’t be able to go to school.”
Learning was something the 7th grader always looked forward to. The classroom was a daily escape from the confines of her home in the capital Delhi–a single 150-square-feet room she shares with her parents and elder brother, Shahi.
Uzma’s father Shakeel Ahmed earns around USD 6 a day as a carpenter or laborer when he can find shift work. With so little, surviving is tough. But unlike other poor families who often rely on their children to skip classes to earn extra cash, the Ahmeds always made sure their kids attended lessons.
“It’s the only way I can ensure they will have a better life than me,” says Uzma’s mother Rahmat Bano.
But their determination has been shaken by the pandemic lockdowns, which shuttered many schools and slashed incomes. While tuition at most state-run schools is free in India, many families facing poverty had no resources to switch to remote learning.
The experience of the pandemic has shone a stark spotlight on educational disparity–while most well-resourced private schools have been able to cope with COVID-19, most government and low-resource schools have struggled.
“We had to urgently find a way to bridge this digital divide,” says Aakanksha Gulati, chief program officer at Teach For India (TFI) a nonprofit that aims to deliver better education opportunities for all.
“We’ve known for a long time now that if we’re talking about educational equity for kids in our country, then technology has to be part of the answer. But the pandemic pushed us to realize that if our kids had to catch up, just some interventions here and there weren’t going to cut it.”
TFI runs a Fellowship that attracts fresh graduates as well as professionals from the private sector to bring new perspectives to education. As Fellows, they sign up to be full-time teachers for two years and TFI places them in government and low-income schools around the country.
Nowadays, the organization is developing solutions that blend classroom learning with remote learning to help communities with limited financial resources. To do so it’s working with decision-makers in the tech sector, like Farhana Haque, group director for devices at Microsoft India.
“During the pandemic we realized how privileged we were. While our children were attending classes online, so many others could not,” she says. “Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more–so we asked ourselves what we could do as a company.”
While ideating with her team on what more could be done, they realized there were dozens of laptops lying unused at Microsoft India’s offices. The devices were given up after being used for demos and other purposes but could be used for teaching in schools. Her team reached out to TFI to see if Windows 10 devices with their built-in security features would be useful for their Fellows.
While the first batch of laptops were being refurbished to be sent to TFI, Haque asked her team what more they could do.
“We also realized it wasn’t just about giving hardware, it’s about what they can do with the machine,” she adds. “Which was when we thought about installing Microsoft 365 Academic license, which comes with Teams, Office 365, OneDrive, OneNote, and a host of other Microsoft software, and is available to educational institutes for free, for both teachers and students,” she recollects.
Among those who have been using these Windows 10 machines loaded with Microsoft 365 applications for their daily use is Anissha Aggarwal. She’s a former Microsoft India employee who took a break from her career as a corporate communications professional in 2018 to teach as a TFI Fellow.
“I’ve felt strongly about how education contributes to gender balance in our society for a long time but did nothing about it,” she says. “That changed around 2016 when I joined Microsoft. I discovered the Microsoft Education program and learned first-hand how they’re using technology to create a healthy ecosystem for students and teachers alike.”