Can Digital Educate India?

Note to policymakers: Access to technology by itself does not ensure learning.

Written by Maya Escueta | Updated: August 17, 2015 5:34 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Narendra Modi, Digital India, Modi to launch Digital India Week, school, indian school, education system, indian education, Modi Digital India, india news, school news, indian express columns The one laptop per child scheme, adopted by many national governments, was scaled before being rigorously evaluated.

Speaking at the Saarc Summit in Nepal last November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that “information technology has removed all barriers to quality education”. With the launch of Digital India, state governments and education practitioners have become increasingly interested in the potential of technology to address low learning levels in primary schools.

Behind Modi’s assertion is a theory that technology can solve fundamental problems with India’s education system. Digital India, Modi’s Rs 1 lakh crore scheme, seeks to provide free broadband wifi in all schools. But before promoting technology as the next big solution, decision-makers should consider how existing research can inform these investments. A handful of high-quality randomised impact evaluations have provided insights into the potential of technology to improve learning. So far, these evaluations have shown mixed results.

Studies have shown that access to technology in and of itself does not ensure learning. For example, the one laptop per child scheme, adopted by many national governments, was scaled before being rigorously evaluated. A subsequent evaluation of the scheme in Peru found surprising results: Although children accessed and used the computers, the programme had no effect on math or language outcomes. While children became adept at using laptops, usage did not translate into improvements in literacy or numeracy. If raising learning levels is the ultimate aim (rather than merely access and usage), then more thought on programme design is needed.

Researchers found similar results in a study of “computers for education”, a programme run by the Colombian government that installed refurbished computers in schools and trained teachers to use them. Usage only increased fractionally, and the programme had no effect on language or math test scores. This is consistent with broader evidence across sectors suggesting that improving access alone, through computers, textbooks (or even toilets for sanitation), is not always sufficient in driving behaviour change. Similarly, free laptop distribution has been tried in several Indian states over the last four years with little rigorous research on its impact and massive implications for taxpayers. We don’t know if these inputs translated into learning, but based on the global evidence and the way these programmes were designed and implemented, there is reason to be sceptical.

Nevertheless, technology has the potential to improve learning outcomes when well integrated into the learning process. Randomised evaluations conducted by researchers affiliated with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab have shown large effects on basic literacy and numeracy from carefully designed ICT interventions. An evaluation of a computer-assisted learning programme in Gujarat, developed by Pratham, showed large improvements in student math scores. Students received two hours of instruction per week, during and after school, supported by a volunteer. Computer games not only provided access to technology but also shifted the child’s learning experience by acting as supplementary instruction targeted to the ability level of the child. These findings are part of a suite of studies that show targeting instruction to children’s learning levels is more effective at improving learning outcomes than following a rigid curriculum. In this case, rather than technology being a solution in and of itself, it facilitated students’ ability to learn at their own pace.

Additional studies reinforce the importance of programme design. An evaluation of a computer-assisted math programme showed drastically different results when implemented in two different ways. A supplementary after-school programme for one hour a day increased students’ math scores significantly. However, an in-school pull out programme that replaced the normal curriculum for one hour a day, within a relatively well-functioning network of NGO schools, actually lowered students’ math scores. Decision-makers must not only consider if the programme works, but also what it is replacing.

New education technologies have the potential to facilitate self-paced learning in more sophisticated ways. More rigorous research is needed to better understand how technology can best be utilised, both in and out of schools. Rather than evaluating specific hardware or software products, we should focus on evaluating models of technological enhancement that will remain relevant even after specific technologies become obsolete.

The writer is education policy lead, JPAL South Asia.

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  1. Payel Sen
    Jul 7, 2017 at 1:23 pm
    Smart Students using Digital India Here’s an informative read regarding the idea of digitization and how online education can benefit the students to survive academically in this modern world. s: medium /tutstu-knowledge-democracy/smart-students-using-digital-india-b0a18d9d5af2
    1. I
      Indian Education is transforming due to Digital In
      Jul 7, 2017 at 12:51 pm
      Indian Education is transforming due to Digital India Here's an informative read regarding the idea of digitization and how online education can benefit the students to survive academically in this modern world. s: tutstu.quora /Indian-Education-is-transforming-due-to-Digital-India
      1. Rohit Prakash
        Mar 24, 2017 at 8:52 am
        Yes, it Can. "Live and Interactive" digital learning empowers the learners to recieve par excellence, quality education anytime and anywhere. Whether it is career and technical education or project based learning, it gives learners a more interactive platform for learning and essment. Digital learning in schools raises the level of education, literacy and economic development in countries.
        1. M
          Mujtaba hakak
          Aug 17, 2015 at 1:19 pm
          Author has highlighted a very valid point that just having access to information technology don't always result in better results and learning. I would like to bring in example of Sweden which is amongst the most developed countries countries in the world and every child has access to information technology. Swedish schools used witness some the best results in the world but now that is changing and are recording worsening results and excessive access to information technology has been described as on of the causes. Most of policies formed by Indian government are a mere copy of what one of the western countries have done in the past and I personally doubt they even bother to look into the outcome of those policies and Mr Modi is no exception to that. Maybe it is time for indian policy makers to wakeup, get back to the drawing board and form policies for india.
          1. A
            Aug 17, 2015 at 8:44 pm
            It is true that technology aids learning.But learning should be followed by the practice of the learnt things by the students. This is amply proved by the fact the student learning from internet after the same has been taught in the school, retains more of it. But those doing it once only through the internet retains less and hence scores less. The second thing is the layout of the courses taught which significantly impacts the learning and is not present on the internet. Resulting in difficulty in understanding. These are some issues faced by me and if addressed can result in better results in the learning
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