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Sunday, May 09, 2021

Digitalising education will also democratise it

The pandemic has created a mammoth crisis in education. Going digital is a solution that can also solve long-term problems of quality.

Written by Radha Goenka |
Updated: April 29, 2021 8:54:11 am
A long-term outlook of digitalisation of education will truly democratise education. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Guts and hope. As Indians, we have both of these traits in abundance. Sometimes these illustrious traits lead us to wonderful outcomes, and in other instances to foolish ones. What else would explain the current COVID mess that we have landed ourselves in, where we now boast of the largest number of positive cases in the world. But then, we have God on our side. Clearly, when we thronged in millions at the Kumbh Mela during a pandemic, we believed God would save us from any harm. Guess what, he didn’t. But, fortunately, something else probably will. We have hope and we will show courage in the face of adversity to find innovative solutions. That is what we do as Indians. We will find a way through this mess, together.

It’s guts and hope that always get us to find innovative solutions to the mind-boggling problems we face. In India, today, 97 per cent of our kids go to school. A seemingly impossible task 20 years ago. India’s successful school enrollment is a case study the world learns from today. How did we do this? We introduced programmes like the “Mid-day Meal” that got people to send their kids to government schools for a free healthy meal. How innovative was that?

It’s time again for us to dig deep to find creative solutions to the mammoth education crisis that we are staring at. With public schools being completely shut for an entire year now, the majority of our kids have had no access to any form of education for over 12 months. Due to obvious problems like lack of smart devices and access to the internet, these kids have missed an entire year of schooling. Most of them have probably also forgotten what they already knew. Their families, especially in rural India, have gotten used to having the extra hands at home and will possibly be reluctant to send their kids to school ever again.

And that is why, we need to put our heads together and solve this gaping education crisis we are facing as a country. In the short-term we could do three things.

First, and most importantly, we must focus on reopening schools. The majority of the world has opened their educational institutions in some format or the other. We need to think creatively on how to restart our schools. For example, we could use outdoor locations, teach in smaller groups in local community centres. We could increase the duration of the academic year, to give the system more time to make up for the last year, and facilitate widespread teacher vaccinations drives. Getting our kids back into the physical school, even for a few days a week, is of paramount importance given the practical gaps in online education that our schools currently face.

Second, we should redefine who the “teacher” is and expand it to include parents, volunteers and older children in the community. These people can support the traditional teacher and create continuity in the learning process. We could do this by giving autonomy to school authorities and creating decentralised community-based solutions. Local authorities can work with their communities to create new localised learning solutions. This will also provide great opportunities for smaller experimental public-private partnerships. The best practices from these solutions can be scaled up for increased impact. After all, decentralisation and autonomy are the cornerstones of innovation.

Third, we should focus on using new touch points to educate our kids. Bridging the digital divide to enable online learning will take time. But accessing and creating free standardised content that can be easily disseminated through existing widespread mediums like television, radio and telephone can be done immediately. We will also need to create new standardised assessments to ensure that continued learning on these platforms is taking place.

While trying to bridge the gap the pandemic has created with short-term solutions, we should also view this as an opportunity to solve the larger problems that we face in education. This period has given us time to pause, rethink and renew at an individual, corporate and political level. Why not do the same at an institutional level for education? We could look at this crisis as an opportunity to solve the largest problem we face in our schools, which is, lack of good quality education. While most of India goes to school, most are not learning at school. Not learning enough at least — 75 per cent of kids in Class 3 don’t have basic reading and arithmetic skills according to the ASER 2018 Report. And the higher education figures are even worse.

The biggest learning from COVID’s impact on education globally has been the possibilities and benefits of virtual schooling. Kids in developed parts of the world and less than 1 per cent of privileged Indian kids continued to learn online through this year. While there were a lot of challenges and shortfalls in this transition to online learning, there were also huge gains. Availability of new and interactive global content, that included games, apps and much more, and access to high-quality global teachers. If you want to learn Spanish why not learn from a teacher in Spain? While many doors shut, many others opened. The success and potential of online learning is clearly evident in the prosperity of companies like Byju’s, Unacademy and White Hat Junior.

We can learn from this and solve our quality-education problem by democratising “content”. To do that we first need to bridge the “infrastructure divide” and create access. If our government could digitise India with Aadhaar cards and bank accounts, they can surely do the same for education. Access to low-cost internet doesn’t seem to be a big problem with the vast network connectivity we have achieved as a country. Funding and creating access to infrastructure of devices is the only real gap.

Next, we need to relook at our content with an increased focus on building English literacy. Basic functional English that connects us to the vast learning opportunities on the internet — 90 per cent of the content on the internet is, after all, in English. This is a fantastic opportunity for us to move out of our regional thinking and truly enable our children by giving them limitless opportunities of self-learning available on the internet.

A long-term outlook of digitalisation of education will truly democratise education. It can be an opportunity to provide equal access to the best quality of education to all. Globally, there is no shortage of high-quality content in education. In fact, we can even view this as an opportunity to train our teachers online and give them access to high-quality global training. In the long run, we can create a truly high-quality hybrid education model that combines the best online learning tools with well-trained face-to-face teachers.

The pandemic has happened. It’s here. It will feature in history as a horrible time when lives were lost. We will lament and learn from it. But it won’t define us. How we respond to it, however, will. How we innovate will tell our stories of hope and grit.

As Viktor Frankl said, “between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Through our response, let’s define the Indian education story differently.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 29, 2021 under the title ‘Crisis as teacher’. The writer is founder, Pehlay Akshar Foundation and director at RPG Foundation.

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