The future of school education lies in learning beyond classrooms
In India, schools were shut in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Almost two years later, many states reopened schools but were forced to shut down again due to Omicron. While health care is a priority, we must acknowledge the staggering quantum of learning loss due to the closure of schools. Eighty per cent of children (14-18 years) reported lower levels of learning than when they were physically in school (UNICEF 2021). On average, 92% of children have lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes. On average, 82% of children have lost at least one specific mathematical ability from the previous year across all classes. (Azim Premji University 2021).
Despite the setbacks, 2020-21 will go down as a milestone year for school education in India. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, India’s third education policy after a gap of 34 years, was approved in July 2020. NIPUN Bharat, a nationwide mission to ensure every child acquires foundational literacy and numeracy skills, was launched in July 2021. The National Achievement Survey, conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education in November 2021, included classes 3, 5, and 8 from private schools for the first time, in addition to government schools. As a nation, we challenged our assumptions about what education is and how it could be delivered in the absence of normal schooling.
The EdTech sector became the mainstay even though, so far, it had only been on the margins and used on an ad hoc basis. The integration of technology in education to ensure children continue to learn at home was a testimony to the sector’s transformational potential.
Drawing from what we’ve learnt in the past couple of years — and given that repeated school closures are here to stay — these shifts (and their acceptance) could lead to a learning revolution in 2022 and beyond: Digital innovation; learning beyond schools; and multi-sector collaborations.
We saw the widespread adoption of and innovation in EdTech in the last two years. Rocket Learning, a non-profit EdTech organisation, and Convegenius, an EdTech social enterprise, have both leveraged WhatsApp to engage parents, teachers, and students. While the former uses WhatsApp groups to create a digital learning community where one parent’s participation encourages other parents, the latter uses a chatbot to assess learning levels and accordingly provide remedial content. Going forward, such personalised EdTech will be key — customising education delivery, based on the learning levels of the child.
In addition to personalisation, we need to innovate to produce content that is high-quality, contextual, and available in vernacular languages to cater to every child in Bharat. We also need to ramp up access to devices and internet connectivity, challenges that were laid bare when the country switched to online learning. Innovating for Bharat is the only way EdTech can be integrated to serve every child, and not just children in metropolitan cities.
As EdTech penetration deepens, so must its know-how among teachers. They need to be trained in using EdTech solutions effectively to improve learning outcomes.
Expanding access to education is just as important as innovation. Around 26% of students still do not have access to a device, as per the Annual Status of Education Report 2021. The report also revealed that access of households to devices and internet connectivity did not necessarily translate into the device being used by the child for learning. The Kerala and Haryana governments have committed to distributing devices to children for learning to address the issue of access to devices. However, meaningful partnerships between the public and private sector players might help resolve this even more quickly and on a larger scale.
In India, a decentralised model of education might better reflect local education needs and improve access. Governments could potentially collaborate with content companies to improve software or corporate social responsibility and private companies can consider large-scale device distribution and strengthening internet connectivity. Globally, we should be discussing mutual learnings to develop a consensus on how education is likely to change. There is a lot to learn from the approaches of other countries on how they foolproof education.
The pandemic disrupted and challenged traditional teaching-learning methods. It taught us that learning can go beyond brick-and-mortar classrooms, be more engaging and interactive by way of videos, activities, and discussions. We are steadily embracing the concept of “learning from anywhere, at any time”. In early childhood education particularly, the distinction between formal and informal learning is blurring. The NEP 2020 has provided a clear pathway for informal learning to be adopted in school curriculums.
Haryana demonstrated how learning could extend beyond classrooms, informally, when schools shut. Volunteers were identified from within the village(s) to conduct 90-minute-long mohalla classes for five to 10 children at least thrice a week. We need to put more resources and efforts into identifying and building local capacities at the community level to ensure continued learning.
Parental engagement and participation in children’s learning. too, increased during the pandemic. ASER 2021 shows that 75% of children received help either from parents or older siblings at home. Rocket Learning’s WhatsApp model too witnessed regular participation from parents. We must ensure that we do not lose this momentum of increased parental involvement. There is enough research and evidence which establishes that parental involvement helps children learn better.
Repeated school closures based on local or regional Covid-19 considerations is likely be the new normal for a while. Even when schools are open, they will not be operating at full strength until everyone, including children, gets vaccinated. And we need to adapt to this reality. We need to see better access to, and integration of, EdTech in the third consecutive pandemic academic year. Governments, education departments, teachers, philanthropists, researchers, EdTech entrepreneurs, and the education ecosystem must collaborate in a more concerted manner to ensure continued learning. We need to innovate, and keep parents and the community energised to support children’s learning outside classrooms.
Ashish Dhawan is founder-chairperson, Central Square Foundation
The views expressed are personal