While the debate surrounding social media as a learning tool is unlikely to abate any time soon, a 30-year-old school teacher from Kashmir, Sabbah Haji, strongly believes that if there were no social media, she would not be able to receive the ‘kindness of strangers’ for running a school located at the remote and inaccessible Breswana village up there in the mountains of Doda in Jammu and Kashmir.
Haji was residing in Bangalore but she jumped off the corporate bandwagon when a news story about violence in her hometown made her to return back to the ancestral village in 2008. What struck her was the prevailing illiteracy in almost two generations of villagers due to the apathetic attitude of successive governments. “The teachers fail to show up at the government schools while there is no accountability, especially in remote areas,” she added.
The village is about a one-and-a-half-hour trek up from the last point where a vehicle could reach, after an eight-hour drive from Srinagar. After setting up a kindergarten – Haji Public School – in May 2009, she had to face the truth that she couldn’t do it without teachers. “But since the school location was a day’s visit away, I had no other way but to introduce the world with the unheard-of place and my endeavour through social media,” said Haji. “The prime motive was to use social media to find the right teachers for the school by making use of a 2G mobile network in the absence of broadband internet access.”
Her plan was to find creative ways to draw attention to the area’s educational needs along with the promotion of classroom activities primarily through Facebook, Twitter and blogs. “That worked and volunteers started to arrive with textbooks and other educational material mostly from different Indian states and other parts of the world too,” she told The Express Tribune on the sidelines of the event. “A number of Pakistanis had also shown their keen interest in volunteering but the political situation unfortunately could not make this happen.”
Of all the social mediums available, Haji finds the Facebook most effective in her specific case.
But even Twitter serves the purpose well. “Recently, I just sent a tweet that the school requires a projector and within 15 minutes I received a pledge through a gentleman I did not even know about,” said Haji, who now has more than 9,500 followers on Twitter. Her handle is @imsabbah.
Then a video, a hilarious yet adorable rendition of Shakira’s Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) and Adele’s Rolling in the Deep performed by the school’s students at an annual day performance went viral when one of her Twitter followers from Pakistan, @KhizM, posted it. From there the American news website The Huffington Post picked it up, followed by the Indian press.
For the training of her locally hired young staff, the school also brings into play the users’ uploaded teacher training material on YouTube.
“As of 2012, we have gone up to grade 4, with more than 150 students and a teaching staff of 15,” she said. “The plan is to continually train and recruit more staff and resources and eventually take the institution up to high school level.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2012.