Using technology for education

GUILHERME VAZ

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‘The most important challenge is how to provide essential public services such as education and health to large parts of our population who are denied these services at present. Education is the critical factor that will empower the poor to participate in the growth process and our performance in this area has been disappointing. Literacy is still less than 70% and while the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has expanded access to primary schools in terms of enrolment, it has yet to provide quality education. Looking ahead, we need to move as rapidly as possible towards universalisation of secondary education which is an essential requirement in a knowledge driven world…’

Draft Approach Paper for the 11th Plan

 

DESPITE the unequivocal acceptance of the importance of access to education, access continues to remain the major problem that impedes national development and frustrates individual aspirations. This is because access goes beyond initial enrolment in school. While near 100% school enrolment of 6-14 year olds is likely to be achieved by the end of the 10th Plan, retention in school and a completed cycle of eight years of useful and relevant learning encompassing different requirements of learners to secure outcomes related to deployable knowledge, skills and experience remains elusive. The overall 31% dropout rate in primary schools with even higher rates in some states, if not reduced sharply for both genders and all social groups, would make a mockery of providing education for all.

The Pratham study which found that 38% of the children who had completed four years of schooling could not read a small paragraph with short sentences meant to be read by a student of class II; that about 55% of such children could not divide a three digit number by a one digit number, read together with the DISE data of 2004 which indicates that on an average about 8.3% children repeated a primary grade, together point to the abysmal quality of instruction a majority of our children have been subjected to.

 

In fact, an educational mortality rate whereby of 100 children enrolled in class I, not more than 26 reach class X, barely 13 qualify for higher secondary education and only six qualify for college education, raises serious concerns with regard to the means adopted in the teaching-learning process and of accountability which is rarely addressed. At a conservative estimate, the total public expenditure on primary education since independence has exceeded $150 billion. If even after spending that amount we are still a largely illiterate country, surely some serious rethinking is called for.

Conventionally, while acquisition of knowledge takes place in institutions facilitated by teachers, such formal arrangements are neither sacrosanct nor limiting. New Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) which provide alternative provisions for access to education without compromising the achievement of comparable goals through different and more appropriate arrangements and means, enable the expansion of the scope, scale and quality of learning. The increasing and continuing explosion in knowledge and information means that teachers cannot possibly be the sole repositories of what gets passed on to students and how.

Recognizing that different persons have different combinations of intelligences – be it the capacity to use and understand language, represent the spatial world in the mind or the ability to relate to other people who with other intelligences respond differently to different kinds of content, language, music or people – requires a change in the teaching-learning process from the traditional one-size-fits all to differentiated teaching. Education in the digital world of today can actually make that meaningful shift by ensuring that if students do not learn the way they are taught, they can be taught the way they learn. This pedagogical shift, when integrated into educational software and appropriate technology, can make learning exciting and enjoyable while securing successful learning outcomes in shorter time frames.

 

The experience of IL&FS Education and Technology Services Ltd (IL&FS ETS) for example is indicative of the power of technology to create opportunities for the deprived, poor and marginalized in an otherwise digitally divided world. Coupled with an outcome-based training of teachers, and over 10,000 digital multimedia lessons developed specifically for different states and curricula on the basis of pedagogical principles of multiple intelligences and differentiated teaching, as much as one-third of teaching time has been saved by hundreds of ordinary teachers in thousands of rural government schools who have turned out extraordinary results by using the freed time to go beyond the syllabus, expand the scope of learning and build a new breed of confident learners.

Encouraged by such success and recognizing the need to scale-up technology-based, cost-effective, group learning in the classroom, IL&FS ETS developed ‘K-Yan: The Vehicle of Knowledge’, which integrates all the multi-media requirements of a classroom – high end computing and storage, TV, DVD, CDR/W, Audio and Internet into a single, portable box. Loaded with customized multimedia rich teaching aids, K-Yan facilitates group learning in a classroom environment wherein topics taught in a contemporary manner are rein-forced by interactive media-rich digital content.

Standing out as probably the first equipment of its kind in the world, the K-Yan has set new standards in the delivery of teaching and learning. Featured by Outlook magazine as ‘an educational tool that will radically change the way Indian students, especially the poor, are being taught’, it has also been rated ‘one of the 10 cutting edge Indian technologies that could transform lives across the world’, exploding the myth that benefits of technology are only a privilege of the rich. Equally, with the training of 4,800 teachers in 563 schools of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, equipped to not only handle technology-enabled teaching but create over 800 multimedia lessons after the completion of a training programme – lessons developed by them have since been replicated by the government for use across the state, helping create levels of motivation and esteem never experienced before.

 

While there is hardly a more topical issue in today’s world than the impact of technology on society, a key challenge facing decision-makers is how to harness the potential of these revolutionary technologies to the complex goals of human development and education. Not surprising, therefore, that investment in education emerges as a major priority for political leadership anywhere, raising in its wake questions about reforms and innovations needed in education, underlined with how to spread the benefits of improved relevance, efficiency and value for investment of education to all citizens.

Against concerns that previous investments in technologies such as language laboratories, radio and educational television failed to yield commensurate benefits for education, the rapid advance of new ICTs and their promise of more cost-effective and feasible solutions to the problems of education for the deprived and marginalized can raise justifiable skepticism. Nevertheless, there is unanimous agreement that in the face of the inexorable advance of the knowledge and information age stimulated by the rapid developments in ICT, changes in education are inevitable with quantum leaps in investments in integrated solutions using technology for education replacing incremental expenditure on hardware, hitherto used as a measure of incorporation of new technologies.

 

With the convergence of technologies – the computer, CD-Roms, video and web conferencing, Internet, broadband and television for instance – it is possible for cradle-to-grave learning to become a reality. The digital world today enables children to learn anything from maths to music from teachers across the country and the globe. Students in higher education can attend lectures and tutorials from their homes and community centres; youngsters with profound disabilities have found unprecedented inclusion as universities and colleges have built learning networks opening new opportunities for homemakers just as educational software and digital collections have reinvented museums and libraries.

However, the challenges today are not about technology itself but relate to the role of technology in promoting systemic changes in education and how it can enhance the way we deal with key issues of access and equity, management and efficiency, pedagogy and quality as we prepare citizens for an era of globalization dominated by technologies related to knowledge, information and communication with its innovative ways of producing, storing, transmitting, accessing and using knowledge and information. Technology only acquires value to the extent that it proves useful for and is beneficial to human purposes. In the context of education, nothing is more important than the need for sound policies and pragmatic strategies relating to investment in technology for education.

Knowledge and information is now widely accepted as a new form of wealth, a driving force for the development of individuals, communities and nations. The challenge, therefore, is to enable the population in general to have access to the skills for coping with and the ability to function effectively in this age of information and knowledge, empowering them thereby with improved life-chances and quality of life in a global world.

 

If India has failed to harness the potential of technologies in education, it is in no small measure due to the fact that the knowledge, experience and skill base of the private sector has not been adequately and usefully drawn upon. What passes off as collaborative frameworks in India, apart from a few serious and dedicated efforts, are otherwise deployment efforts in training without securing outcomes, often linked with hooking teachers and students on to proprietary software (against free and open source software), education software which is not customized, or hardware and technologies which are obsolete. When ulterior motives and other business interests drive such initiatives, it is to be expected that lasting and relevant outcomes fail to be achieved, and technology in education is viewed with suspicion.

Introduction of technology that is aimed at significant change, however, requires to be managed and this ‘management of change’ cannot be overlooked. Traditional mindsets need to be reoriented, roles redefined, systems reviewed and institutions renewed and energized. It is only then that benefits of change start becoming evident and outcomes realized. It is here that private sector interventions can play a significant role.

 

What comes to mind is the V-Governance initiative of IL&FS ETS with the Government of Gujarat, resulting in possibly the world’s largest ever experiential, action-oriented, change-management programme covering 250000 government employees over a span of two years. If this initiative has resulted in an ownership by government and earned it a shortlisting as a strong contender for the 2006 UN Award for Public Service, it is indicative of what a private-public partnership can achieve.

However, the huge inadequacies in government school infrastructure – an inadequate number of schools and classrooms, nearly one-fifth of rural schools operating without any building at all and another one-fifth functioning with only one classroom and one teacher for up to five classes, lack of toilets, drinking water, apart from electricity and other even more basic infrastructure related to learning environments, such as in situations where 9.5% of the total schools in 2004 that impart elementary education do not have a blackboard – is in itself so alarming that use of technology in education which can address many of the issues of too few teachers, uneven quality of teachers and other staff and lack of prior or continuous training for school teachers, and thereby significantly improve and enhance the teaching-learning process, has not got the attention it deserves. On the other hand, scattered around India are pockets of expertise and examples of projects that have proved their worth beyond doubt, but have sadly remained what is referred to as ‘pilots’.

 

No longer, however, is there a need for proof of concept. IL&FS ETS for example, has consistently established that even in the most disadvantaged and deprived schools, student performance levels can be improved by as much as 75-100% over a three year period through professionally project-managed, cost-effective, integrated and appropriate solutions of technology, content and training. IL&FS ETS has envisaged replicating and scaling up such success across the country in a professional, project-managed mode through a collaborative framework, even financed if necessary and with specified performance guarantees, to enable every government secondary school in India to be appropriately ICT hardware-enabled, teachers trained in that technology, as well as have in their hands, curriculum-mapped, digital multi-media content. All this is possible, within 18 months, at a one-time fraction of the staggering NEIPA estimated Rs 9000 crore annual cost of failure for the secondary and higher secondary grades!

As if elementary and secondary education in India is not challenging enough, higher education in India which is fragmented, scattered, and takes place in institutions called affiliated colleges, many of which are tiny and a trace better than higher secondary schools, would appear to present near insurmountable problems only because it continues to be viewed conventionally. With major universities burdened with the academic administration of affiliated colleges and an affiliating system which does not exist anywhere in the world other than the subcontinent, higher education in India takes place largely in the ill-equipped, understaffed, affiliated colleges as can be seen from the fact that 89% of undergraduate students, 66% of post-graduate students and 82% of faculty are in the affiliated colleges.

If Japan, a relatively small country, has 684 universities, 512 of them private and the US 2364 universities, 1752 of them private, by comparison the number of 348 universities and 17625 colleges with an enrolment of 10.48 million in India is woefully inadequate for a country of our size, given demand for higher education and for meeting the emerging needs of advanced research or the manpower with higher education needed for achieving a developed nation status by 2020. Higher education in China with the highest enrolment in the world (nearly 23 million) is organized in about 2500 institutions. Average enrolment in a higher education institution in India is only 500-600 students against that in US or Europe with 3000-4000 students and China with about 8000-9000 students.

 

As advanced countries move towards mass higher education, with more than 50% of the relevant age group (18-23) entering higher education, India compares very unfavourably with only 6% of the relevant age group entering the portals of higher education. Indeed, if we are to become a developed nation, India would need to at least quadruple its access by 2020. Even if the percentage goes up a single percentage point, the existing network of universities and colleges with its current rate of increase will be unable to cope with the influx, leave alone the effect of providing for socially-just quotas.

Clearly, government by itself will not be able to meet this gap and private-public partnerships on a selective basis and with adequate safeguards to ensure access, quality and equity will be necessary. This is even more imperative when one considers that financing of higher education by the government has been marginal, remaining at less than half a per cent of GDP, the expenditure per student declining rapidly over the years. Predatory foreign education providers have long since seen this lacuna as an opportunity to rake in megabucks as is evident from the now obvious cocacolonization taking place in education in India across all segments.

 

Franchising of branded kindergartens and pre-schools, international school certificate examinations, twinning with sometimes unheard of colleges and universities who offer certificate and diploma courses, are all indicative of the ‘foreign’ attraction gullible parents and students are drawn to in the face of inadequate domestic opportunities, in the process shelling out hundred times the cost of what is equally good but in short supply in India. Surely a wake-up call for anyone concerned with education in India. To make up for lost time, inadequate financing and access, and to rapidly leapfrog, traditional strategies for higher education will require to be complemented with technology strategies as a crucial intervention in the process of renewal of higher education in India that will allow it to rise to the challenges of access, cost, flexibility and quality.

Quotas and all the controversy they have raised, can become irrelevant when supply of additional, alternative and employment and entrepreneurship-oriented courses outstrip demand. Towards this end, e-education holds great promise. While distance education in India, started initially as correspondence and supplementary education, has expanded rapidly to encompass 12 open universities and 106 dual mode university distance education institutes/centres catering to 2.8 million students, a 2006 NIEPA report points to the haphazard growth and uneven and unsatisfactory quality. Yet, systemic reforms in this area with the help of the private sector, which provide an enabling framework for technology-led interventions related to the quality of learning experience, curriculum enhancement, inclusion of students with special abilities and needs, efficiency, resilience in responding to market needs, fostering of research, networking and cooperation can improve, enhance and revolutionize the outcomes of a cost-effective, e-education based higher education system. It is a blended approach of click and mortar that can synergize the use of emerging technology with existing institutions.

 

Elsewhere in the world, budgetary cutbacks in the face of enormous learner demand have forced institutions to examine emerging technology and explore innovative projects and partnerships, including open source software solutions to help create engaging content, pedagogical activities for synchronous and asynchronous learning that are rich in collaboration, interaction and motivation. Despite the frustrations, various technologies for learning continue to emerge. While colleges and universities globally tend to use asynchronous or delayed technologies with an instructor as the basis of e-learning, and thereby include tools like online discussion forums, electronic books, online exams and grading, online mentoring, web-linked shared tools, student profiling and course material, synchronous presentation tools which include application sharing, web browsing, audio and video streaming, chat rooms, surveying and polling are all gaining ground as emerging and enhanced pedagogy.

 

Just imagine the transformation of teaching and learning that can take place through technologies already available and deployed successfully. Assistive technologies, for instance, can support students with special needs or circumstances aiding those with visual, auditory, speech, physical and other impairments. Many of these technologies, critical to those with special needs, can often impact everyone, as speech recognition software has demonstrated. Course and Learning Management Systems that have helped the corporate training sector extensively can help deliver content, track learners, conduct assessment and build competencies for the education sector as well.

Digital libraries with links to text, video, images, animation etc. have long since expanded the content of a class beyond standard textbooks and resource materials, opening up opportunities for student-led exploratory learning. Instructor portals wherein professors and support staff can find and share information that might help them teach better or connect their class with other classes around the globe have revolutionized the concept of teaching. And as learning becomes increasingly mobile, flexible and available on demand, wireless technology, rapidly proliferating in campuses abroad, has freed instructors and learners from hardwired classrooms to ‘hot spots’ or space where such connectivity exists.

These are no longer great expectations for India and if they have not been met, it has largely been due to the fact that the education sector in India, as in many other countries, has become a victim of technology providers who often end up passing off solutions created for commercial purposes, repackaged as solutions for education. In contrast, organizations like IL&FS, recognizing that infrastructure for education needs to be developed specifically for the sector, have set up dedicated education companies to research, test and use technologies appropriately and, in the context of education realities, to secure outcomes consistent with the overall goals of the education system of the country.

 

The more recent controversy of quotas, while justified on grounds of equity and social justice, has understandably generated concern at what is seen as the depletion of available seats for meritorious students in the general category. Such students have perforce had to seek opportunities abroad to meet their aspirations. A special Supplement on Higher Education (Economist 2005) highlighted the magnetic power of the world’s top universities and the under-supply of university places in the developing world, with India being a significant exporter of students in absolute numbers. It would be revealing to assess the social cost of so many bright students who migrate for higher studies in the absence of opportunities in India, the foreign exchange outgo because they contribute money to their host country while they are studying, and the resulting brain drain because so many of them end up staying permanently. Such social costs along with the costs of failure of the existing education system in India, would make investments in technology in education and the cost of professional management of such interventions pale into insignificance.

It is not as if India has not recognized the challenges it faces on the education front or failed to respond to them. India’s Edusat for instance, the only dedicated education satellite launched in September 2004 was configured to meet the growing demand for an interactive satellite based distance education system for the country through audio-visual medium, employing direct to home (DTH) quality broadcast with its footprint covering the entire country. The wide range of delivery modes such as one-way TV broadcast, interactive TV, video-conferencing, computer conferencing, web-based instruction and broadband availability, should by now have demonstrated enough results in quality and quantity across all segments of the learning population. As with so many initiatives, its revolutionary potential has not yet been realized largely because it has not been approached as a major project management intervention requiring coordination and collaboration with all stakeholders. In a private-public participation mission mode, with clear deliverables set out, the results would surely be different.

 

Other sectors in India have long realized the benefits of professionally managing complicated, large investment projects of national significance based on private-public participation and on the principle of starting small, thinking big and scaling fast. Most revolutionary of all, in recent times, is the establishment of 1,10,000 Common Services Centres (CSCs) across the country with an equitable geographical spread based on a PPP Framework within 18 months. An initiative of the Department of Information Technology, Government of India, as a part of The National e-Governance Plan, the project aims at providing government services at the door steps of the citizens. The CSCs would also be the platform for fundamental transformation of the ways in which development challenges would be met in rural India. Services like e-governance, education, telemedicine, agriculture, social inclusion, entertainment and so on would aim to save costs, create income opportunities, provide relevant education, enhance social development and improve the quality of life in rural India. If synergized with initiatives of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, an unparalleled opportunity to millions of students across all segments can unfold, reaching education to the unreached and making the impossible in Indian education possible.

 

The time has come for the education sector to realize the benefits of professional management through PPPs, so that relevant and quality life-long education is made accessible and available to all citizens. As the 11th Plan approach paper states: ‘The 11th Plan provides an opportunity to restructure policies to achieve a new vision of growth that will be much more broad based and inclusive, bringing about a faster reduction in poverty and helping bridge the divides that are currently the focus of so much attention.’ While it recognizes that ‘Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has a great potential for enhancing learning levels and improving quality of education’, managing this professionally, with help of the private sector engaged in education, may make the difference between rhetoric and the achievement of desired results.

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