Room To Read, Bridges the Digital Divide with IVR

Ritika, Ankit and Virendra Yadav bear testimony to India’s struggle against the digital divide. First-generation learners, hailing from some of the most economically underprivileged communities, these children were bereft of schooling of any kind when Covid-19 hit the country. Nor could they become part of the online education system as they had no access to a smart phone.

Not only them but according to an estimate, as many as 70% of the students studying in the Uttar Pradesh’s government run schools had no access to a smartphone device. To overcome this problem Room to Read India launched an interactive voice response (IVR) service in Uttar Pradesh that restored a semblance of normalcy to the academic growth of children left behind by the digital divide. IVR service, available through a toll-free number (1800 572 1710), enables young children to listen to new stories every day free of cost. It can be accessed with the cheapest feature phone in the market.  

Room to Read, an international NGO works specifically in the area of early grade education. It has established libraries to inculcate reading habits in children in more than 1000 government schools in Lucknow and Varanasi districts. 

During the pandemic where physical access to libraries was not possible, Room to Read published its books online making it available to children through various digital platforms. IVR was one such platform launched in nine states in India.  Says Sourav Banerjee, Country Director of Room to Read, “Through IVR we wanted to reach out to those children who have no access to the Internet during the pandemic. We have uploaded stories on voice response system so that families with even a basic phone can have access to good quality reading material. With the help of teachers and the education department we also distribute worksheets to children, so that they can write the answers after listening to the stories. It is important to keep children engaged by age-appropriate reading material to inculcate the habit of reading in early grade children”. 

Launching the service, the Uttar Pradesh Minister for Basic Education – Dr. Satish Chandra Dwivedi stated, “the initiative of IVR calls is a great opportunity for children as well as the community. I am sure children will enjoy it surely, I myself will listen to it.” The minister also lauded Room to Read India for the effort, “Room to Read has always set up something innovative be it the resources given to children in the Libraries or E- content.,” he remarked.

For 8 years old Ankit, the service brought a respite from the drudgery of the lockdown. Living with his father, a labourer, in the Dalit dominated village of Khalispur some 45 km from Varanasi, e-learning was as good as science fiction for the young child. He grew bored and then despondent with each passing day.

Today, hearing stories on the IVR service, using the sole cellphone in the household, has become a daily ritual in the household. Ankit’s father has taken to hearing the stories as he works in the fields and then narrating them to the child when he comes back home. “Hearing the stories with my father and mother is the best part of day,” he beams.

7 years old Ritika from Ghamhapur, Varanasi has a similar story to tell. Her father, has the only smartphone device in the household but being a salesman he’s often away from home. Ritika’s mother however has a feature phone which is now used by the duo to hear stories whenever they feel like it. “We’ve can remember all the stories word by word now,” says Ritika. Her mother who never went to school herself has now taken to reading with a passion.

For 9 years old Virendra, the lockdowns changed irrevocably the day he got to know of the toll-free number from a visiting school teacher. Overjoyed at the seemingly endless supply of new stories and perhaps inspired by the teacher’s example, Virendra took it upon himself to spread awareness about the initiative in his village. Better still, the 9 years old has committed to supporting 12 children who cannot access such materials.  

IVR is quite a success as server has recorded close to 10,000 calls in last three weeks. Room to Read’s initiatives aim to harness this intangible quality of literature, the wonders and discoveries that unfold with each page and the joy of sharing it with children like Ritika and Ankit.