May 21, 2020

Article at Times of India Blog

View original

Covid-19: Opportunity to equalize India’s EdTech story

Shivangi Saxena and Swarnima Bhattacharya are WEF Global Shapers with the New Delhi Hub. Shivangi is works with the NITI Aayog in Monitoring and Evaluation, and Swarnima is th ... MORE

Covid-19 prompted schools and colleges around the world to close down. By the end of March 2020, over 180 countries had closed down schools, affecting over 1.5 billion ( 87.4%) learners. This hurried transition prompted educators around the globe to move their classes online.

Who is left behind?

While the affluent schools could make the transition to EdTech platforms, there is a huge section of the population that has been isolated from this wave of Edtech solutions. The students in government public schools, the students in the primary schools in smaller towns and villages and the students seeking personalised coaching, vocational training are the worst affected.

Several associated factors, which enable learning, are severely compromised at this time such as the health of the learners, increased domestic responsibilities especially for girls impairing the atmosphere of learning, unavailability of mid-day meals in some contexts, and more.

The tech divide is considerable?—?while Internet penetration is as high as 80% in some Southeast Asian countries, it is only at 39% in Vietnam and other African countries. Lack of smartphones and low bandwidth internet are additional concerns. According to a recent UN report, only 29% of all internet users are female, which indicates that transitions to digital learning may compound the gender gap in education, especially considering that girls seldom have exclusive or prolonged access to the phone that is at home.

Another problem that cannot be solved immediately is the lack of preparation for the new reality. A report by EdTech Hub and Digital Pathways at Oxford highlights how sudden school closures left little time to adapt the curriculum for online instruction, especially because no one can still say how long national lockdowns will last.

Therefore, while elite private education institutions and deep pocketed clientele might find it relatively easier to make the transition, under-resourced communities will likely be on the other end of the gap.

What can be leveraged?

The global pandemic presents a unique situation wherein rapid transformations can be made in India’s education story powered by technology. Internet penetration in India is projected at nearly 735 million by 2021. The smartphone user base with 502.2 million users in 2019 is expected to grow, with the addition of approximately 180 million new users by 2021.

The short term immediate solutions can be the deployment of ed-tech applications which take into account the low internet bandwidth and patchy connections. The applications can focus on offline content which can be reviewed without a stable internet connection by the learners in the remote corners of India. By utilizing off-the-shelf content (video lectures, printable notes, app, etc.) and coupling it in a low-bandwidth application, a lot of time and effort can be saved. The “Content, not Container” approach can be transformative, if EdTech innovators focus on enhancing content accessibility through more easily available and accessible tech.

The major impediment to e-learning has been lack of vernacular content. English has been the preferred medium for digital educational solutions, unintentionally excusing vast numbers. It will be beneficial to focus on low tech, mass solutions such as SMS, WhatsApp or YouTube videos in regional languages. Africa has shown positive results of using Community Radio for broadcast learning, supplemented by personal check-ins via SMS and WhatsApp. Some examples include textTETEA in Tanzania, and Eneza Education in Kenya, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire. In India, the Ministry of HRD data shows that there are only 17% English medium schools and the rest divided between Hindi medium and mixed (Hindi, English and regional language). The need of the hour is to develop and propagate the use of educational content in regional languages. The existing EdTech solutions can prioritize the translation of key modules into regional dialects and deliver educational content with the help of grassroots organizations.

The pandemic offers a chance to reduce the Gender Divide in education. India, ranking a 112th in WEF’s Gender Gap Index?—?educational attainment component, can leverage the digital solutions to enrol out of school girls. Targeted IEC campaigns, curated content borrowing from behavioural science and interactive media can be used to incentivize girls to re-join the education journey. Grassroots organisations like Feminist Approach to Technology are digitally upskilling young women from low-income communities and providing them with tools of employability.

The digital medium of education will also make education accessible to differently-abled students as most of the mobile devices possess inbuilt accessibility features. Coupled with a national awareness campaign, advocating the benefits and the flexibility of e-learning solutions, the education system can be made more inclusive.

Advancing on the digital infrastructure front, the Government has laid the optical fibre network Bharatnet connecting 150,000 villages. It comes at an opportune time when the services of Bharatnet and Wi-Fi Choupal (wifi hotspots) can be used to access the educational modules by the students in remote villages. Leveraging community owned tablets and smart devices for education can also aid learners in the time of lockdown.

Charting a way forward

The availability of teachers and especially those of specialized subjects has been a long drawn challenge. This has been solved by the advent of innovative apps which make virtual guidance accessible from teachers and mentors available to students. There is an immense benefit to be drawn from focusing on teacher empowerment – Diksha portal is a promising example of making teachers equal partners in the EdTech journey.

The continued focus on skilling programs can be achieved by shifting classrooms online. The Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) virtual centres can connect the trainers and the students for vocational courses. Provision of e-certification, regular assignments and circulation of recordings on messaging platforms can help bring skilled personnel in the job market.

Policy Push

Early this week, the Finance Minister announced PM eVIDYA program for multi-mode access to education under and highlighted the equity in technology-driven reforms in education. In May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too highlighted the focus on providing universal access to quality education and emphasised the use of technology in the education sector.

Technology presents boundless opportunities to bridge the gap. The measures, however, need to be planned for both the short term (quick deployments, content curation) and long term (focus on digital literacy and infrastructure).