By Venguswamy Ramaswamy
India’s digital divide became apparent with the pandemic shutting the doors of educational institutions. But this drove an unparalleled scale of innovation to meet the challenges of inclusivity in education. Numerous novel ways are being devised, experimented with and are being successfully adopted by stakeholders in their attempt to deliver high-quality education to everybody. Keeping the ground realities of India in mind, the ‘phygital’ model of delivering education at scale may be the right answer. The model attempts to seamlessly integrate the digital capabilities along with physical assets.
Ramkumar, who lives in a village near Asansol, one of the coal-mining hubs of India in rural West Bengal, was disappointed that he couldn’t attempt one of the prestigious national examinations owing to the current pandemic and lack of internet connectivity. Fortunately, his disappointment at being deprived of an opportunity to begin a career was short-lived. A dedicated team working towards digital inclusivity solved his challenge by providing him with a tablet device equipped to take his assessment responses with no connectivity and still manage to assure the sanctity of high-stake assessments. Ram connected the device to the network 2-3 days before the examination at a nearby location in the community with network availability and downloaded the test, after which the device got auto-configured. On the day of the exam, Ram was able to access his test and give his responses on the device with no connectivity. He submitted at the designated time along with the rest of the participants across the nation. The system allowed him to upload his logs and video feed by connecting the device to the nearby network within a few days of the examination.
Ramkumar, in this case, represents millions of people in India scattered in far-flung areas who are being brought into the mainstream through the digital system of technology by bridging the digital divide through innovative ways. Phygital systems are opening up new opportunities for the sector with providers innovating to overcome the constraints forced by the existing system and pedagogies.
The question, if (only) digital is the way ahead, gets answered in the above example. The ongoing phygital technology drive is propelled by an understanding among the government, researchers, policymakers and technology companies that India is far from being an inclusive nation. Its people are divided in terms of access, affordability and awareness of getting digitally connected. The aptitude for innovation in the technology and bandwidth space is also fuelled by an awareness that the return to the ‘erstwhile normal’ may not happen soon.
The phygital model of education will blend the strength of physical delivery such as hands-on and project work with digital delivery methods such as live lectures, gamified learning, simulation-based training and more. We need to build a system where students do not just have access to audio-visual lessons and e-books but also have access to physical devices and centres nearby to take hands-on training or learn something that can’t be learnt online, sitting at home. The evolving technologies and phygital resources will help students to continue their education as the nation is trying to come to terms with the pandemic. This blended learning model will not only enhance students’ learning experience but will also encourage them to explore, access open learning resources and other learning domains independently, and foster innovation.
The process of going phygital has democratised access to education in all sections of society. A case to be noted is an initiative undertaken at a girls’ school in Pune where the school was unable to connect with its students for online classes due to connectivity. Students’ only access to the internet was through the phones available with their fathers who were out for work for 10-12 hours every day. To solve the issue, TCS iON devised a smart device that could run without bandwidth for the day. Students used the device to download school content in the morning with the support of their fathers’ mobile network and then access classes during regular hours without internet connectivity. The device was formulated in such a way that students were not made to feel the difference between a virtual downloaded session and real-time online interaction.
Apart from being accessible and affordable, phygital classrooms are empowering teachers to reach out with innovative ways to impart lessons to students through augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Educational institutions are also conducting events such as convocations and shows through phygital experiences for students and other stakeholders.
Phygital learning can successfully enable higher literacy rate across India, foster self-learning, provide an environment to explore and allow learners more autonomy over their subjects. Systems devised to work in a phygital environment will help students continue their education more effectively by integrating the learning from school and home during pandemic times and beyond.
The author is global head, TCS iON