Television for education: Dr Sarabhai’s vision for Arunachal

[ S Mundayoor ]
Never in the past seven decades of independent India has school education received so much public attention as during the current coronavirus pandemic. Educational institutions, teachers and the government agencies have been talking feverishly about online classes, assignments, smartphones, Zoom, radio talks and TV classes, as if these were forever a part of our school life and we had somehow forgotten to take them into the classroom. Just a few months back, in many schools and colleges in India, a mobile phone was a taboo for a student!
Yet, a voice of caution against getting swept away by the spell of online classes has also been heard from several corners. Eminent educationists like Dr Kasturirangan, Prof CNR Rao, academicians and journalists
have written against this euphoria for online education as ‘the thing’ that would transform India’s school education. As we in Arunachal are well aware, variation in net connectivity and absence of laptops and smartphones for children in most Arunachal homes would make access to (online) education unequal among the people, deepening the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
An available option, which unfortunately has not received adequate attention and strong patronage from educational planners in the country, is television. This has been pointed out by several writers during the current crisis. For Arunachal, for strengthening school education at the grassroots, TV could be a powerful intervention.
Before answering that, let’s take a look at India’s experiments with television for education.
Speaking on ‘Television for development’ at an international development conference in New Delhi in November 1969, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the father of public television in India, declared: “We should consciously reach (the benefits of TV) to the most difficult and least developed areas of the country; and because they are in this state, we should reach them first.”
India welcomed TV as an experimental evening telecast in New Delhi in 1959 under All India Radio. In 1961, the Delhi School TV Project commenced, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, USA, which ran for four years, upto 1964-65. The project under AIR targeted around 200 secondary and higher secondary schools in Delhi, and around 20,000 students. Telecasting daily an hour, it covered physics, chemistry and English for students of Classes 9 to 12. Selected local teachers were trained by the Ford Foundation for conducting classes.
The project was evaluated by an American sociologist, Prof Paul Neurath, then a guest faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. (Readers would be interested to learn that copies of his two evaluation reports have been offered to the Lohit Youth Libraries by Prof Mandakini Khandekar, the research officer of the evaluation team, now aged 91. She has very graciously offered these for the benefit of Arunachal’s researchers.)
In 1975, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), targeting select villages and towns across central India, started by beaming lessons directly from a satellite loaned by the NASA for one year, thanks to Dr Sarabhai’s initiative. The content was planned and recorded in different languages by the ISRO’s Space Application Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad, which even today remains a main institution with expertise and a large library of prerecorded learning content for schools. The SITE programme was the fulfillment of Dr Sarabhai’s dream for the education of the marginalized people of India, even though these telecasts ended in 1976.
It is relevant to mention here that the SAC had prepared NCERT video-lessons for secondary classes in NE states a decade back, recording them in our own locales. Some of these recordings could be useful for Arunachal schools even now. Since the ISRO has been celebrating the birth centenary of Dr Sarabhai since 2019 with a series of space-science programmes across India, the state government could approach the ISRO for quality TV lessons badly needed during the present chaos.
Around 1983 came the educational media research centres (EMRC) in many universities, supported by the UGC. Doordarshan started telecasting content for college students prepared by the EMRC, Pune, in different subjects, in English and Hindi. Some of these were quite interesting to laymen, school students and teachers too – like Prof MR Bhide’s sessions on ‘vermicomposting’, a new concept then. Prof Bhide even came to Arunachal, at the invitation of a group of schools, and introduced the new technology to school staff and farmers in Oyan and Pasighat. (This writer, with batches of Arunachal school students, was a regular viewer of the EMRC shows for many years, telecast Monday to Friday during lunchtime, 1–2 pm.)
The other enjoyable educational telecasts on Doordarshan in the 1990s were the popular science series Turning Point by Prof Yashpal, and Bharat Ek Khoj, based on Nehru’s Discovery of India. With private TV channels arriving, several educational programmes have been beamed by them too. Channels like National Geographic, Animal Planet, etc, have been highly popular, adding to the joy of learning life sciences, geography and general knowledge among students and teachers.
Could language learning be promoted through TV? Many parents would remember their little children in the ‘90s picking up American English by watching Disney comics on TV. Here was language learning the fun way: children chose what appealed to them. The Hindi dubbings of these comics came later: with that, the rural parents lost an excellent, child-friendly and free tuition master for English.
Quite unnoticed, a silent language teaching programme was going on across Arunachal by the late ‘80s, led by our own people. It was quite unlike the government’s adult education programme, in which the instructors could hardly interact through the community’s language. With the arrival of low-priced, portable video-cassettes and video cassette players (VCP), Hindi rapidly became the lingua franca across the state by late ‘90s. Hundreds of one-room ‘theatres’ mushroomed even in the remotest hamlets, screening day and night the latest films from Bollywood. The VCPs ran on portable petrol gensets and the viewers paid Rs 5 per show. We remember youths watching several shows in a day during the holidays. Teaching spoken Hindi was never easier. (This is a social change worth researching by our educationists…). Did any school in the state try promoting English, our medium of instruction, in a similar way?
All these reinforce what Dr Sarabhai visualized about the role of TV in social transformation. It is now the turn of our educational planners in Arunachal to take it further. A few programmes that can strengthen the educational base in our government schools are listed in the next article. (S Mundayoor is an education and library activist with four decades of close association with the Arunachalee youth. He is the coordinator of the Lohit Youth Library Network and the academic advisor to RIWATCH, Roing. Email: