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April 18th, 2016
Education • Technology

A computer-assisted learning project in India

India, like many developing countries, is anxious to improve basic literacy and numeracy skills in primary schools. Pratham, an Indian NGO that specialises in education projects, started a computer-assisted learning (CAL) programme in Mumbai and the city of Vadodara in Gujarat. It used randomised evaluations to see whether CAL could be a useful tool in teaching schoolchildren to learn essential knowledge.

The initiative

Pratham is an education-oriented Indian NGO, which was founded in 1994 with the assistance of UNICEF. It has focused much of its attention on “a remedial education program, called the Balsakhi Program (balsakhi means ‘the child's friend'). [It] provides government schools with a teacher ... to work with children in the third and fourth grades who have been identified as falling behind their peers." [3] The Balsakhi typically meets with a group of 15 to 20 children for two hours a day during school hours with the teaching focused on basic numeracy and literacy skills. Pratham launched the Balsakhi programme in 2001-02.

One of its more recent projects was a Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL) Programme based in primary schools in Mumbai and in Vadodara (formerly Baroda), a city in the western Indian state of Gujarat. In the latter case it benefited from an IT policy put in place by the state government. “In 2000, the government delivered four computers to each of the 100 municipal government-run primary schools in the city of Vadodara (80 percent of the schools)." [4]

The programme was constructed so that classroom instruction was supplemented with CAL by placing four computers in each of the primary schools that took part (fifty-five schools were randomly assigned to receive the intervention).

Pratham introduced the CAL programme over two years. “The schoolchildren were tested at the beginning, middle and end of the school year, in both maths and language skills. The experiment was repeated the following year by providing the CAL programme to the schools that had served as a comparison group in the first year." [5]

The challenge

The second of of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals was to achieve universal primary education. However, one year later “there  were major concerns about the quality of public education in developing countries, with achievement surveys indicating low levels of learning even for children who have attended school regularly for many years." [1]

In India in 2005, “reading, writing, and arithmetic skills [remained] low among the literate population: 44 percent of students in grades 2-5 in government schools [could not] read short paragraphs with short sentences, and 28 percent of students in grade 5 [could not] do two-digit subtraction problems." [2]

The public impact

The main impact of the CAL programme is measured on whether the initiative had any impact on learning. This was measured by evaluating any changes in annual test scores. Overall average test scores of children in target schools increased by 0.28 standard deviations. A programme targeted specifically towards maths increased maths scores by 0.47 standard deviations and one year after the program was completed, initial improvements remained significant. This constituted “a substantial achievement when compared to other education interventions." [6]

Stakeholder engagement

There was a solid involvement of stakeholders in the implementation the CAL programme:

  • Pratham, the NGO, who designed a programme that supplemented classroom instruction with CAL.

  • The 55 Vadodara primary schools that took part in initial pilot phase.

  • The schoolchildren who participated in the CAL program who were tested on the basis of their learning.

  • The Pratham employees who made randomly timed visits to each classrooms every week to take attendance with a roll call.

  • The state government of Gujarat, which gave its support to the programme.

Political commitment

CAL was an initiative ran by the NGO, Pratham. Pratham works closely and in collaboration with the state government. When Pratham initiated the program in cities it reached tens of thousands of students, however, in collaboration with the State government, the scheme reached hundreds of thousands of students, indicating political support. [7]

Clarity of objectives

The main objectives of the project were to:

  • Improve basic maths and literacy skills in primary schools.

  • To determine whether the use of technology, such as CAL, can assist schoolchildren in increasing those skills.

  • To compare the impact of CAL with that of teacher-based learning, for example its Balsakhi programme.

Strength of evidence

The evidence behind using CAL as a means of improving maths and literacy skills was not compelling. “The idea of using computers to remedy the shortage of qualified teachers is very popular in Indian policy circles ... Unfortunately, there exists very little rigorous evidence on the impact of computers on educational outcomes and no reliable evidence for India or other developing countries. The evidence available from developed countries is not encouraging." [8]

However, the construction of the programme and the use of randomised evaluations was based on a sound methodology. The results from Pratham's CAL programme were encouraging in one sense in that they helped to increase the average test scores of all children in the selected schools in maths, although the cost benefit analysis was less convincing.


The CAL programme was based in Gujarati schools with the necessary computer equipment. The randomly selected primary schools were willing participants. Pratham had the necessary experience of conducting interventions in primary school education, experienced staff, and enough funding to carry out the programme.


The CAL programme was well run by an experienced NGO. “Pratham now reaches over 200,000 children in fourteen states in India, employing thousands. It works closely with the government: most of its programs are conducted in the municipal schools or in close collaboration with them, and Pratham also provides technical assistance to the government." [9] Of Vadodara’s 122 government primary schools, 98 participated in Year 1 of the programme.


The measurement was carefully designed, with a randomised evaluation based on two interventions:

  • “The first intervention is specifically targeted to the weakest children: it is a remedial education program, where a young woman ... works on basic skills with children who have reached grade 3 or 4 without having mastered them.

  • The second intervention is addressed to all children but is adapted to each child's current level of achievement. It is a [CAL] program where children in grade 4 are offered two hours of shared computer time per week during which they play games that involve solving math problems whose level of difficulty responds to their ability to solve them." [10]

The students were tested at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year, in both maths and language skills.


The Gujarati primary schools in the programme and Pratham were well aligned in seeking to make the programme successful. Pratham conducted the pilot phase with support from the government schools, teachers and children.

Pratham had collaborated closely with the Indian federal government and with various state governments on previous projects, and it is apparent that they cooperated well with the Gujarati state government in the CAL programme. For example, they implemented the programme in primary schools in which the necessary computer equipment had recently been installed.

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