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Lounge Heroes | The girl who keeps the school on the cloud running

Ashwini Doddalingappanavar ran away from home to avoid being married off. Today, she is training teachers to use technology to take online classes for government school students in Karnataka

Ashiwini shot people and scenes in her village for the New Realities film on her life using a 360-degree camera
Ashiwini shot people and scenes in her village for the New Realities film on her life using a 360-degree camera

When Ashwini Doddalingappanavar was 15, her parents told her she did not need to study further since they were looking to get her married. In the tiny village of Kurugovinakoppa in north Karnataka, about 14km from the taluk headquarters of Nargund, where she lived in a joint family home of 12 members, most girls would study up till “degree class” (class X) and get married.

“Most families don’t want to spend money on girls’ education. People think getting married is the only aim for girls. If some girl goes out (to study or work), they start spreading rumours about her and that’s why families are afraid to give freedom to girls,” says Ashwini (she prefers to use only her first name) over the phone in precise English. In fact, even convincing her parents, who are farmers, to send her to Nargund for high school was a challenge for Ashwini. But when it came to sending her to college, they absolutely refused to support her. “They told me that the only reward I could give them was getting married,” says Ashwini, 24.

Ashwini’s story is not, by any measure, a unique one in India. In fact, by having been “allowed to study” till class X, she was better off than millions of girls who are forced to drop out even earlier. Ashwini, however, refused to be told that she had no choice in her future. She had heard of a skills training institute in Hubbali, the nearest big town, about 70km away, and was determined to get there. Using her meagre savings, she ran away from home one day, took a bus to Hubbali, and walked into the office of the Deshpande Foundation, a non-profit that runs a pioneering programme to provide industry-specific skills to unemployed rural youth.

“When I entered the building, I thought I could not survive here. I had never lived away from home, never stayed in a hostel,” Ashwini recalls. She did not have enough money to pay for the subsidized four-month skilling course that the facilitators at the Deshpande Foundation advised her to take up, so she convinced them to let her join the ongoing course midway and pay only half the fees, promising that she would catch up with the work. She did. It was during the skilling course, which included basic computer literacy along with communication and presentation skills, that she picked up spoken English.

She was selectedfor a job soon after she finished the course, in 2018. The offer to work with the Meghshala Trust, a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation that focuses on using technology to provide tools and resources for teachers to improve the quality of education in government schools, turned out to be yet another turning point in Ashwini’s life. She picked up the skills needed for the job remarkably quickly and was soon working with the trust in Bengaluru.

The Meghshala Trust creates digital “teachkits” for classes I-VIII for maths, English, science and social studies. These are made available to teachers in government schools through an app, also called Meghshala, which helps them supplement textbooks with a dynamic and interactive curriculum. Implementation associates like Ashwini help train teachers to use the app. By the beginning of this year, she was working with 20 government schools in and around Bengaluru, visiting each once a month to update and retrain teachers in using the application.

Then the covid-19 pandemic struck and Ashwini was forced to return to her village. The first few months were tough as she found herself being sucked back into the quiet, uneventful domestic life of her home and village, but her skill with the Meghshala app came in handy as soon as the government allowed schools to take classes online. Since the internet in her village is patchy, she realized that teachers at the local government school and others that she was in touch with were struggling to take classes online. So she came up with a tech-based solution using screen-recording facilities for teachers to utilize the app in a wholly online environment. At the same time, she started training students and women in her village to use smartphones and gain basic computer literacy—something she continues to be engaged in as she waits for the pandemic to subside so she can return to Bengaluru.

Ashwini’s story was chosen by tech company Lenovo as one of 10 narratives of young women from across the world who have used technology to transform their lives. A short film featuring her is part of the company’s New Realities project, which uses 360-degree Virtual Reality camera techniques to tell the stories of ordinary-but-remarkable young women like Ashwini.

The pandemic made it necessary for her to shoot the film herself, using equipment shared with her, with guidance from the film’s producers. “Initially people in my village laughed to see a girl with a camera shooting ordinary things, but they were curious too,” says Ashwini, laughing. “I hope that if even one family decides that they will educate their daughter because of me, I will feel I have achieved something in life.”

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