Covid-19: How tech can ensure equity in education
Every day at 9 am, my daughter sits in front of a laptop in her school uniform and attends classes over Zoom. Even her extracurricular activities, such as music competitions and debates, are organised over the video-conferencing app. But for sports and in-person interactions, there is little she misses out on. Her coaching institution, too, has moved to an online platform.
However, not everyone is so lucky. Not far from my house, children in ragged clothes wander aimlessly, often crowding around a new customer, hoping for a few coins. The municipal schools are closed, and hence there is little to engage their attention.
Between the two extremes of the elite private and government schools lie many low-cost private and public schools which suffer from varying level of deficiencies in education technology and pedagogy. As per Unesco’s estimates, over 280 million children in India have been impacted by school closures due to Covid-19.
The government has succeeded in getting children into school with nearly 100% enrolment, but one-fourth drop out after class 8, and over half after the class 10. The drop-out rates for girls and those from the marginalised sections are higher. The learning outcomes, whether measured by the National Achievement Survey 2017 or the Annual Status of Education Report 2019, haven’t shown much improvement.
Even lower middle class parents have been taking their children out of government schools and putting them in low-cost private schools. Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas aside, government school systems suffer from poor information technology (IT) infrastructure and IT-trained teachers. The School Education Quality Index (SEQI) Report 2019 by NITI Aayog indicates that in states such as Kerala too, half the elementary schools do not have computer-aided learning, and even in the best-performing states such as Tamil Nadu, one-third of secondary schools do not have computer labs. The survey includes private schools, too.
The usual explanation of poor students in cities and rural areas not having computers/smart mobile devices and high-speed broadband has often been cited for the inability of government schools to get on to the blended online learning bandwagon.
However, every third person now has a smartphone, and rural India has 227 million active Internet users — a clear lead of 10% over urban India. Over the years, there has also been a push by the government towards technology-enabled learning; self-learning online portals such as Swayam, e-Pathshala and Diksha have come up and school books are available online. Doordarshan, too, has started special education broadcasts, which are also available on YouTube. Government school teachers use WhatsApp to send small videos and exercise sheets.
The effectiveness of these interventions in enhancing learning outcomes, though, remains uncertain. Research says that the academic content delivered through a passive one-way communication does not engage a student’s curious mind. On the other hand, active learning can lead to improved cognitive outcomes.
Additional factors such as unavailability of separate rooms for children as well as noisy surroundings in homes have been mentioned.
But given these extraordinary times, where physical presence is not possible, the blended online delivery of school lectures by teachers remains the most effective way. Results from J-PAL’s Educational Technology Evidence Review from 126 studies on the role of technology in education indicate that blended learning, ie. combining online and in-person instruction can deliver as good an outcome as in-person class experience. This, however, requires teachers to be trained in technology-enabled active learning pedagogy.
The State could even have a component for tech-enabled learning as part of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan for IT infrastructure, devices, teaching-learning material, teacher training and engaging quality teachers in the district. If what gets measured gets done, the NITI Aayog and ministry of human resource development will have to increase weightage for computer-aided learning and computer labs in SEQI, which allocates 10 out of nearly 1,000 grade points. Given that technology tools often make it possible to collect data on how something is working, the National University of Educational Planning and Administration could be asked to undertake evaluations, which help policymakers and administrators make better decisions regarding investment in education technology solutions.
In India, where the availability of quality teachers, away from capitals/district headquarters and especially in subjects such as math and sciences, remains a challenge, blended online learning has a distinctive advantage of removing the physical barrier between places where teachers are available and where they are needed.
It can also help take education to girls, to those from marginalised sections and those in remote areas. It may not solve the problems of the school education system, which requires incentives for schools and teachers, autonomy to principals, well-functioning school management committees, teacher accountability, and management systems including transparent transfer policies. However, it could address India’s most persistent challenge of ensuring quality education in government schools and take us closer to Sustainable Development Goal 4 of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education.
Alok Mishra is director, Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog
The views expressed are personal