Digital Technologies are by nature disruptive. They have impacted almost all areas of our thoughts and actions. But if there is one sector, they are going to literally turn on its head, it is education. The very concept of education as we have understood for generations is undergoing a tectonic shift on the back of emerging digital platforms, products and services. A word of caution, however. The enormous potential of digital innovations to transform learning, teaching and training could end up as the proverbial flower bouquet in the hands of the mischievous monkey, unless all the stakeholders – Government, Teachers, Parents, Students, Industry and Educational Institutions – comprehend the enormity, complexity and impact of the fast unfolding changes.
Considering the current state of education in India, the roll out and scale up of digitally enabled learning should ideally be the priority of any Government. The sheer size of the target population, the gargantuan skill gaps that hold back employability of large sections of population and the inadequate physical and intellectual infrastructure make the challenges of educating our teeming millions indeed daunting. Digital delivery of need-based learning and development is the only way to fast track our human capital enhancement and prepare the country for taking advantage of the demographic dividend, lest the situation degenerates, as many experts fear, into a demographic debacle.
According to ‘Teach for India’, a pioneering NGO for voluntary teaching, “4 percent of our children never start school, 58 percent don't complete primary schools and 90 percent don't complete school". The Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in tertiary education (i.e. post-higher secondary stage) in India is 26.9 per cent, which is significantly lower than that of China (48.4 per cent) and lower even in comparison to Asian developing nations such as Indonesia (27.9 per cent) and the Philippines (35.3 per cent). Whereas the number of the graduates that India produces are indeed massive, the quality of higher education and the international competitiveness of our graduates, post-graduates and PhDs leave much to be improved.
Even till the early years of the 21st century, the gap between India and China in terms of the number of top-ranked universities and in terms of the gross enrolment ratio in higher education was marginal. Since then, China has moved far ahead of India. In terms of number of PhDs awarded, international standard publications and patents granted to University-based research, India fares far lower than China, let alone US and Japan. The proliferation of mundane PhDs with the sole purpose of meeting the entry-level eligibility for University teaching jobs hardly reflects quality and acceptability at global intellectual property standards.
The situation is even more dismal when we look at the K-12 school education, especially the state of the public education system which caters to the mass of young population who cannot afford the cost of private schools. Roughly, over 80% children in our country (and over 85% in rural India) study in Government schools. As of 2016, there were over 1.3 million schools, 250 million children, 70 million teachers and 1 million support staff in public school education. Apart from the schools covered by National Curriculum-CBSE or ICSE- there are around 30 state level boards administering the content, assessment, delivery and infrastructure of school education. The quality of education and governance do vary across the different Boards and even different schools and the overall standards and effectiveness leave much to be improved.
According to the Annual State of the Education Report (ASER) for 2018 conducted by Pratham, an NGO dedicated to the cause of raising the standards of our school education, only 11.2% of Grade 3 students in UP and 18% in Bihar could at least read a Grade 2 text and do basic subtraction assignments. As against this 44.7% students of Grade 3 in Kerala and 40.5% in Punjab could do the same assignments. While the figures for all states are a warning of how our education system fares badly, the awful difference between the better managed and poorly administered states is indeed a reflection of the deplorable governance gaps in some of the most populous and poverty-stricken provinces in India.
Spending on education by India was 2.7 percent of GDP for the financial year 2018, down from 3.1 percent in FY13. This needs to be increased substantially to ensure that we catch up with the infrastructure needs and governance deficiencies of public education.
It is in this context that we need to look at the immense potential of leveraging the technological advancements to transform both the school and tertiary educational edifice of India. Of course, the caveat is the vision and political will of our political leadership across the States.
Let us identify certain defining shifts in the way the world learns that are already evident- more prominently in the developed world but also in many emerging economies as well.
Firstly, education is changing from being teacher-driven or instructor-led delivery to a learner-driven mode. Digital technology throws open a variety of easily accessible learning modules through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which can be accessed from anywhere by anyone who has the interest and commitment to develop. Several leading Universities globally are investing huge funds, efforts and intellectual property to leverage digital platforms to deliver learning to all those who are keen to learn. The learner can choose what, when and how he or she wants to learn. So here is digital disruption impacting core learning, one of the basic requirements for building a knowledge driven society. The ongoing digital revolution in education is driving the informalization and democratization of knowledge acquisition and skilling. What a far cry from the time Eklavya had to lose his thumb for trying to acquire archery skills from the great Guru without authorization!
Secondly, education is moving away from “knowledge imparting” to “skill development”. Industry 4.0 requires job seekers with digital skills to work in a networked eco system on the backbone of high-speed data highway and enabled by a pervasive 5G mobile network. In this scenario, education needs to provide digital skills of a variety of types- ranging from digital awareness and operations to digital governance and quality assurance. Education of future should focus on equipping most people to be digitally skilled- as the users, developers, administrators, integrators and quality assurers of applications, programs and solutions.
Thirdly, education no longer represents a phase in our life but a life long mission. As technology brings in continuous changes and innovation, we are getting transformed into a learning society where we need to keep running to remain where we are. Of course, path-breaking thoughts and actions would come from those who dare to dash.
A fourth trend in education, which will be tremendously augmented with the help of digital technologies and tools in the coming years, is that learning is getting personalized. As an example, let us look at a Grade 2 class in a typical Indian school in the government sector. You would find a significant difference in the learnability quotient among the students. This difference is not only in terms of IQ levels, but also depends on the learning support that the students experience in and outside the school and a host of other socio-cultural factors. Ideally every child should be enabled to learn in alignment with individual needs and level of learning ability. It is impossible to do such customization in a public school, one would argue. Well, it is now becoming increasingly possible with the deployment of digital technologies to map the learning differences and styles of individual students and to align the personalized learning support through a graded structure so that students who need more support can be provided the same. With a personalized delivery, the student can schedule and implement a learning program to meet his individual needs but within an overall core learning framework. The core leaning would be calibrated to a well-defined National Competence Framework. Based on a continuous assessment and feedback system, students can be assigned appropriate learning tracks instead of treating everyone alike. The role of teachers will in future be redefined as facilitators, guides, mentors and supports who help the students to learn at self-paced, intrinsically motivated mode.
Let us briefly touch upon some of the areas of the educational value chain likely to be impacted by emerging smart technologies. Developments such as data analytics, robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, block chain, virtual, augmented and mixed reality as well as a host of applications built around emerging technologies can impact the way learning is experienced, delivered and administered.
In the holistic educational value chain, digital technologies can enhance every aspect of learning such as content development, delivery, assessment, benchmarking, certification and academic administration.
Data Management systems and Analytics can be applied to streamline a range of educational administration activities such as registration, applicant screening, admissions and enrolment; evaluation, benchmarking and grading; attendance management; session scheduling and management as well as faculty rating. Robotics Process Automation and Blockchain can enhance the efficiency of handling large amount of data points involved in National test like UPSC, NEET, JEE Exams etc. to ensure secure, speedy, error-free and reliable processing.
Smart technologies like Internet of Things (IoT) and Immersive learning technologies such as Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality (VR, AR and MR) have wide applications in creating experience-driven learning content and delivery as opposed to text and lecture driven instruction. By creating a learning environment where students experience, feel and co-create products, applications and processes learning can be made much more effective.
There are massive infrastructure upgrade initiatives currently going on in the public education system. Remarkable work is being done in Kerala, Delhi and many other States. It is heartening to note that over 1.5 lakh teachers in Kerala across primary, secondary and higher secondary schools are scheduled to be trained in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) starting the coming academic year to prepare them for smart classroom instruction.
Across India we need to upgrade the digital skills of teachers and students to enable them to effectively use smart classrooms, tinkering labs and other facilities. Great amount of work also needs to be done in digital content upgrade. Incentivization of the educational system for digitization, financial support for infrastructure upgrade, expert facilitation and handholding by a committed bureaucracy with passion for transformation are key ingredients of success of these initiatives. Upgrading our education infrastructure is too big a task to be dealt in isolation and we need to involve the private sector and global technology leaders to fast-track the much-needed projects.
Let us look forward to the day when no Indian, young or old, ever will miss opportunities to learn, develop and grow for want of resources. Open-source learning with high quality education governance aided by the technologies would push India to be a learning society and to break faster from the bondages of discriminations and exclusions. Tomorrow beckons.
*Ravi Kumar Pillai is CEO and Principal Consultant at Cherrypick India, Trivandrum and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org