Opening a world of opportunities for India's children through ed-tech

India is home to one of the largest populations of out-of-school girls, with more than 4.1 million young girls dropping out of school
India’s education sector is beset with many contradictions. For example, though almost all children are enrolled in school (260 million as per a recent evaluation), many drop out before they reach high school. Again, of the ones that stay in the system, many are below grade level. It is not unusual to find a Grade 3 or 5 student unable to handle work meant for the first or second grade. 

The picture worsens when one accounts for gender. India is home to one of the largest populations of out-of-school girls, with more than 4.1 million young girls dropping out of school. 

While there are myriad reasons for these contradictions, one of the biggest problems for children in rural areas is access to quality education. Though there are government primary and secondary schools in most villages, teaching outcomes are abysmal. Also, many parents withdraw their children from school for economic reasons — to make them do either farm work or help with housework. The value of the education they receive in state schools is perceived to be low.

Although this is slowly changing — the government is merging dysfunctional schools, partnering with private players to improve delivery and outcomes – the change is far slower than what the country can afford.

This is where ed-tech (technology in education) comes in. Ed-tech can help with inclusion in a way traditional education cannot. The knowledge imparted through most ed-tech solutions does not distinguish between gender, religion, caste, cost or distance. It is democratic in nature and can be easily accessed. 

It has the power to transform communities in a way that the brick and mortar model can never hope to. Working in conjunction with resources aimed at teachers, ed-tech can deliver astonishing results in a relatively short period of time.

Source : CSF, New Delhi

So what are some of the barriers that need to be overcome for ed-tech to transform rural education? There are both supply and demand constraints, according to Gouri Gupta, director, ed-tech, at Central Square Foundation (CSF), an organisation that works towards transforming the school education system in India. A detailed overview of the ed-tech landscape by CSF points to the constraints in the way of adoption while elucidating the possible gains. 

First, very few start-ups and companies have explored the government school space. The top six ed-tech funded solutions in India charge upwards of Rs 20,000 per annum which becomes largely unaffordable for these students. In a country where 235 million households have a per capita income of $1,200, solutions need to be far more affordable than they are at present. New products designed to target those at the bottom of the pyramid are required.

Further, most solutions are targeted at higher education and for test preparation. Only 10 per cent of the offerings fall into the kindergarten to Grade 10 or Grade 12 space. Almost 75 per cent of the solutions that have come into the market target students over the age of 15.
Moreover, most of the products are in English and there is a dearth of products in the vernacular languages. This is one of the biggest barriers since in most states a lot of the state boards teach in their local language. Unless a product is language agnostic, it cannot reach large numbers.

There are more barriers to be overcome on the demand side – be it in schools or at home. In rural India, many students are first generation learners and therefore not aware of or exposed to any ed-tech offerings. A three or four-year-old child needs guidance from a parent to adopt anything new. But this is virtually impossible if the parent himself is illiterate. So, it would be naive to expect home-led initiatives to make a significant impact. 

In government schools, the penetration of ed-tech solutions is very low since state governments and other policy makers are unsure about what products to adopt and how to implement them. The constraints range from a lack of awareness and understanding to funds. So far, only 6 per cent of all government schools and 35 per cent of all secondary government schools have been covered under the ICT for schools scheme.

Amitav Virmani, CEO of Education Alliance, says that at present Ed-tech is more a “fad or buzzword” in most government and private schools. He says that there is a “mad rush of sorts” to try and adopt technology without enough introspection on what can be achieved through it. “The jury is still out on what value it is adding to overall learning,” he points out, adding that there is not enough evidence yet to show what ed-tech can achieve.

In the South Delhi Municipal Corporation schools, there are smart whiteboards and they can access content for lessons through the Internet that help augment the teaching materials currently available, Virmani says.

Some states have taken the lead in introducing ed-tech in their schools. Andhra Pradesh has been the most proactive.  The state’s school education department has been investing in tech-led projects in areas like student learning, teacher professional development, governance and management. Digital education initiatives such as virtual classrooms in around 4,000 schools, QR-coded books, digital classrooms in around 3,000 schools, APeKnowledge Exchange Portal, School Info Management system have been adopted­.

Virmani, who happened to visit a school in AP’s hinterland in November, says that he witnessed an “interesting blend of technology with traditional learning” there that is missing in most government schools in the country. 

The state is currently in the process of putting in place personalised adaptive learning (PAL) play books that will offer texts in Telugu. The government is financing the programme under the ICT@Schools scheme. It will spend about Rs 6.4 lakh per school on a one-time basis and Rs 2.4 lakh per school per year for five years according to the scheme. 

CSF, which has worked closely with the state on this project, is offering assistance for implementation and evaluation. “We are working closely with the AP government to gather learning from this exercise so that they can be made available as public goods for any other state to replicate in the future,” says Gupta.
The procurement of hardware for the PAL project is currently under way and is expected to be closed in a couple of months. More recently, CSF has embarked on an ed-tech lab project, an exercise aimed at demystifying the available products, filling the evidence gap and building pathways for adoption.

However, for most other states, ed-tech still means a computer lab with a few machines, often not in use. But if and when there is large scale adoption, ed-tech has the power to transform lives.
Series concludes. The first part of this series appeared last Sunday (December 22 edition)

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