Digital first – Building the infrastructure for a nation of learners
At a time when India’s education system is reeling under severe shortcomings, institutes and educators are beginning to realise the massive power of technology in addressing the crisisbrand stories Updated: Jan 11, 2018 11:16 IST
Nearly a decade ago, when India took part in the Programme for International Students’ Assessment—a test of students’ scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading at the school level—the results sent shock waves through the country. Out of the 74 nations that participated, India was ranked 72nd. In another blow to the country’s education sector, the Economic Survey 2015-16 tabled in Parliament noted that between 2007 and 2014, there was a sharp decline in the number of children in Class V who could read a textbook of Class II, in both government and private schools.
Are these findings indicative of the quality of education imparted in the country? Alternatively, do these signify the need for new and revolutionary teaching tools? ‘Digital India’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme launched in 2014, to transform the country into a “digitally empowered society and knowledge economy” aims to address the issues that plague the education system with the power of technology.
Extending supporting to the campaign is technology giant Microsoft, whose vision is to empower every student to achieve more. Its various education and skill development programmes have benefitted lakhs of teachers and youth across the country. For example, under Project Shiksha, Microsoft partnered with 12 state governments to build ICT skills in nearly 8 lakh government schoolteachers, thereby impacting roughly 38 million students.
Similarly, under Project Saksham, which was conceived to bridge the digital divide in higher educational institutions, a total of 71 universities have been impacted so far. The initiative has been instrumental in changing the perception of educators towards adopting a more engaging learning environment. After all, integrating technology into the classroom is an effective way to boost students’ creativity, increase collaboration, and accelerate learning.
The government, too, has realised the potential of technology in transforming education. While referring to the Digital India campaign, Modi once said, “So far, the government’s focus was on spreading education across the country. But the time has now come to shift the focus on quality education.”
Let’s take a look at some of the key initiatives that form a part of Digital India.
Connectivity in all schools
With internet penetration in rural India pegged at only 16%, students can never have access to the plethora of education material and tools available online. The Centre has joined hands with various telecom service providers as well as global technology firms to set up internet services in all remote areas.
Another significant project is the multi-gigabit National Knowledge Network (NKN), which is aimed at establishing a unified and strong network backbone for all educational institutes in the country to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaborations. The government also aims to provide free Wi-Fi in all schools by 2019, and has been distributing tablets to rural students and students of central universities.
In July this year, the government launched the Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM), an online portal that provides study material to students free of cost and where courses are taught via digital classrooms with the help of internet and satellite connectivity. The app for SWAYAM was designed by Microsoft, and the firm has also supported the platform with its technologies.
“Digital modes are cheaper, more easily accessible, interactive, and offer flexibility for people to learn at their own pace. We need to work together to ensure that they are widely adopted for teaching,” the then President Pranab Mukherjee, while launching the portal, said.
The programmes offered on SWAYAM are from the school to the post-graduate level, in subjects such as engineering, management, science, arts and recreation, mathematics, languages, humanities, library sciences, energy, and sustainable development. The government hopes that SWAYAM, which was formulated to tackle the problems of poor infrastructure and lack of teachers in a lot of educational institutes, will see at least 1 crore members in the next three years.
In 2016, the government launched a web portal that provides free courses on soft skills, languages, digital literacy, and entrepreneurship. In line with the ‘Skill India’ initiative, these modules ensure that candidates are armed with the required skills when applying for jobs.
Simultaneous to the launch of SWAYAM, the government kick-started SWAYAM Prabha, a group of 32 direct-to-home (DTH) channels that telecast lectures delivered by experienced and sought-after teachers from reputed educational institutions. For example, for students pursuing higher education, SWAYAM Prabha broadcasts programmes in disciplines such as arts, science, commerce, engineering, law, and medicine.
The channels also telecast content that focus on training for schoolteachers and learning aids for children that help them to understand a subject better as well as prepare for competitive examinations. These programmes are repeated multiple times in a day, thus allowing students plenty of convenience. Further, a digital portal called Online Labs that hosts science experiments for students of classes IX-XII has come up. With the use of high-quality technology resources, these demonstrations provide hands-on training to students whenever and wherever it’s needed.
Imagine having an online platform that hosts educational content from 148 institutes (40 of them foreign) in more than 100 languages. That’s the National Digital Library of India (NDLI) for you. Started in 2016 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in association with the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur as a pilot project, NDLI is an asset for students wishing to pursue a career in research and innovation. With 1.26 crore content resources in subjects ranging from computer science and philosophy, to religion and agriculture, NDLI is a national pride. In keeping with the changing times, some of the well-loved fairy tales and short stories are also available as audio books. Leading digital libraries such as the Tainacan Project (Brazil), National Library of The Netherlands, National Library of South Africa, and National Library of Nepal are keen to tie up with NDLI.
In another initiative aimed at digitising education, the government launched eBasta, where school books are available online. Teachers and students can choose from a variety of resources--- text, simulation, animations, audio books, videos— when using the platform. A similar programme is ePathshala, which hosts educational resources in three languages—Hindi, English, and Urdu.
The government also runs ‘Sugamya Pustakalaya’, an online library for people with print disabilities. With the Lancet Global Health Journal estimating the number of visually impaired people in India at close to 9 million, it is imperative that the differently-abled do not lag behind when it comes to receiving quality education.
Scheme for girl students
To address the challenge of lower girl enrolment rate in engineering colleges, the Central Board of Secondary Education, under the guidance of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, launched the Udaan scheme in 2014.
Under the programme, selected candidates of classes XI and XII are assisted with free study material in pre-loaded tablets to help them prepare for IIT-JEE. The students also attend virtual classes, and receive mentoring support. According to the CBSE, “The project has been envisaged as the first step towards achieving this larger goal of addressing the quality gap between school education and engineering entrance, by addressing the three dimensions of education-- curriculum design, transaction, and assessment.”
Academic and scholarship repositories
In another significant shift towards the digitisation of education, the government flagged off two online knowledge repositories—the National Academic Depository and the National Scholarship Portal. While the former is a storehouse of all academic awards, certificates, and marksheets in the digital format, the latter enables students to obtain information in regard to all scholarships provided by the government—right from the submission of the application to the verification, sanction, and disbursal of the fund. At a time when many deserving students in India are unable to afford the cost of higher studies due to financial challenges, such portals serve as level-playing fields. When documents are available online, students also don’t need to run from pillar to post or carry out tedious paperwork.
Push to Digital India
India currently faces a dual challenge of paucity of trained employable workforce and non-employability of large sections of the conventionally educated youth. Further, with the rapid emergence of technologies such as cloud and data sciences, jobs are not what they used to be. Students need to be digitally-literate to be able to seize any opportunity that comes their way. As economies grow, we need to equip the emerging workforce with the right skill sets.
With Microsoft’s venture into the education sector, this dream might soon turn into reality. Simple platforms like OneNote, Office Mix, and Office 365 have laid out a world of possibilities for both students and teachers. Using such tools, globally recognised schools, under the leadership-focused initiative ‘Microsoft Showcase Schools’, have reached new heights.
Sample this: in 2015, Microsoft India launched Edu-Cloud, a cloud computing-based offering that aims to enhance digital learning and teaching in schools and higher education institutions. Students using Edu-Cloud have access to digital content and free access to Office 365 from Microsoft on their Windows-powered tablets. In addition, they have access to eDevelop, a learning management solution developed by Microsoft’s partner Mobiliya.
Soon, the company plans to launch CloudSpark, a programme that will enable higher educational institutes to access the facilities offered by cloud servicing platform Microsoft Azure on NKN. This means customers can enjoy safe and reliable connectivity, with major savings on bandwidth costs. Using CloudSpark, institutes can also provision a lab for any number of students in a matter of minutes.
“The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover, to create men who are capable of doing new things,” Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once famously said. Indeed, our education system needs to prepare students for the real world-- a world where they can think on their feet and solve problems rationally. Only technology can enable that.
Join a global community of over 100,000 educators who are using technology in the classroom today to prepare their students for the world of tomorrow. Register with Microsoft in Education today.
— By Zinia Bhattacharya for HT Brand Studio