The government appears to be focused on offering technology as the panacea for the ills of implementation in education. In the Budget Session, the HRD minister made a series of announcements in the Rajya Sabha on how the government plans to track online the learning of every child, on a day-to-day basis. Instead of mid-year reviews, she claimed, such regular monitoring will enable the system to deal with the learning deficit in the public education system and take speedier action. It would also allow parents, she said, to track their child’s attendance and progress in the classroom.
The recognition of the link between learning and dropping out is heartening, but the faith in technology to fix either or both problems is perplexing. While technology no doubt can, and should be, used to improve governance, it is only possible when the underlying conditions can enable technology to be used effectively. Unfortunately, the current state of institutions involved in the delivery of education, especially at the frontline level, are so abysmal that it is hard to see how technology can play the role envisaged for it.
To begin with, online tracking implies computer facilities in all schools or, if not schools, at the cluster or block level. While such aspirations have been mentioned in several policy announcements (notably Digital India), the reality is far removed. Most schools do not have computers (84 per cent, according to DISE, 2014-15), and many do not have electricity connections either (40 per cent). None has a budget line for electricity bills. The latter are to be paid for from the school maintenance grant, which is a paltry Rs 5,000 a year, barely sufficient to meet regular maintenance needs of schools. As a result, many schools rely on stealing from other connections; or where they do have a connection the teacher or head teacher has to use personal resources to pay. Sustaining computer use of the regularity required for such incessant monitoring is a distant dream.
Besides the physical infrastructural limitations, there is the well-known shortage of teachers that would make the task of maintaining daily records of learning of every child difficult to accomplish. With more than 10 per cent schools being single-teacher and less than 10 per cent schools having a full complement of teachers, that is, one teacher for every class, the daily computations required will be seen as a huge extra “burden” by the teachers and will in all likelihood take away from their core teaching duties. In fact, the propensity to fix governance problems through data collection in various forms (and formats) is already becoming counterproductive as far as teaching-learning processes and the time spent on them are concerned.
In a recent survey of the government’s monitoring system in five states, a team from the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) found that as many as 480 formats reach the block office for collation from a mere 48 schools every month. With each Block Education Officer being “in charge of” more than a hundred schools on average, and 42 per cent of them having dual charge (71 per cent DEOs have dual charge), that is, looking at more than one block or holding some other post in the administration, it was not surprising that many officials including teachers interviewed during the survey, complained about not being able to fulfill their primary roles.
In order to report in the manner suggested, teachers would also need to be trained in the process of evaluation and tracking learning. But what does day-to-day learning mean? How can it be measured? And what happens to children who take longer to learn or teachers who use creative methods to teach and cannot code learning in daily doses? Apart from the philosophical questions this raises, the logistical difficulties of such an exercise belie the possibility of their functioning. In fact, CCE (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation), a provision under the RTE Act, 2009, which came closest to suggesting a system of maintaining individual records of students on a range of learning parameters has been on the list of ideas to be thrown out since this government took charge. Why, and how then, does it think that an even more complex system can be made to work now? Such simple-minded faith in technology can only be understood, if one also accepts that the political will to fix the underlying problems does not exist. Those problems require investment in state capacities that no government, including this one, seems willing to make.
Most importantly, no thought seems to be given to how the actual improvement in learning will take place, even assuming that it is “tracked” accurately? Fixing the learning deficit requires a lot more than tracking. It requires investment in capacities that is clearly not forthcoming. The RTE Act has a provision for “special training” that is meant to bring children who have dropped out of the system back into the mainstream. This provision is currently not being used because the resources required for it — both human (including the training of teachers), financial (extra teachers dedicated to this task) or physical (classrooms where these children can be taught separately) — have not been budgeted for. In addition to the special training, which is meant for dropped-out children, those currently enrolled also require sufficient resources to enable learning. Studying in multi-grade classrooms (95 per cent in rural primary schools according to the CPR survey) with poorly educated and trained teachers, inadequate infrastructure (75 per cent of the schools have pending infrastructural deficiencies) and insufficient learning materials (33 per cent schools in Delhi did not receive books on time) is not a recipe for learning. It is hard to see how, under these circumstances, use of technology to improve “tracking” can improve learning outcomes as well.
What is desperately required is investment in the institutions of delivery — in teacher education and training; in filling vacancies in schools through new appointments and not through the subterfuge of “deputation”; in putting accountability systems that run all the way up to the top of the chain so that action on the ground can be expected; in local data and information systems that are connected to the planning process; in devolving power, with resources, to frontline levels so that the possibility of using discretion in response to a local situation increases. Parachuting technology onto an incoherent and under-resourced system only amounts to placing the cart before the horse. It could possibly make matters worse.