By Vineet Nayar
For the last few years, India has been celebrating a near-100% enrolment rate: Almost all children are getting admitted to school. But for every 100 who enrol, only 70 finish school (Source: The Hindu Data Point, 4 January 2019. Data sourced from udise.in). This means 30% children drop out of schooling. The reason is not far to see. With eight out of 10 children not able to divide numbers and six out of 10 unable to read class 2 text even in class 5, they see no future for themselves in this system.
Three things need to be kept in mind while thinking about solutions: First, with 144 million children, India has among the largest number of public school-goers—so, even small-seeming percentages translate into large numbers. Second, to complement huge numbers of school-goers, we have a large teaching workforce (8 million) that has brought pupil-teacher ratios close to acceptable norms. Third, starting at the Centre, India has a layered education administration system—a functioning value chain that is well-resourced.
These features need to be underscored as opportunities is because there is a far-too-common tendency to flag the problems within the system. Unfortunately, these gain quick and lasting public attention. While it is true public education has many holes, it cannot be defined by just its holes. It also has huge inherent strengths. Let’s not forget that offering every child education in the remotest corner of our country as an entitlement is a fairly new civilisational feature—class was a real barrier to obtaining an education as recently as 100 years ago. There is no alternative in the medium-term to what we have in place today. We need to bring in disruptive innovation to make the system deliver better rather than replace it with a theoretical model of privatisation of rural education.
It is best to adopt a human-centric design approach with the help of three critical questions:
1. Where does learning happen?
Learning is what happens in the interaction between the teacher and children in a classroom setting.
2. Who impacts learning the most?
The person most responsible for making learning happen is the school teacher.
And so, finally:
3. If learning happens in the interface of the child and teacher, how do you enthuse, encourage and enable the teacher to create a 10x increase in learning outcomes?
By putting teachers first. There are many different approaches to solving the learning outcome problem. However, what makes sense is to focus on the innovation at the interface of a child and teacher by putting teachers at the heart of our plans.
With this lens, when one goes back to look at the opportunities, one can clearly see five design choices to leverage the best of the digital approach to create a disruptive, inclusive innovative programme:
Audio over video: Digital education is dominated by interactive video. But public schools don’t have uninterrupted access to electricity, internet connectivity and expensive digital gadgets. In comparison to video, which was expensive at the point of delivery, audio was available, affordable, needed low skills to use and, most importantly, it left space for a child to imagine.
Offline over online: It is easy to push out content using the internet, but internet connectivity is an issue for most rural locations. Even if it is available, teachers do not want to use their data packs for downloading teaching content. We had to make usage and access easy for teachers. Offline apps with compressed videos that do not need active internet connection seemed to be the answer. These could be installed on teachers’ phones using peer sharing during face-to-face training events.
Smartphones over computers: The access to computers is not easily available in public schools in villages, small towns. If at all available, not everyone knows how to operate them. But the penetration of low-cost (entry-level) smartphones is high, even in remote locations. So, choosing to keep the mobile phone and not the computer as an access point for our stakeholders makes good programme sense.
Personalisation over standardisation: The unfortunate truth of our times is that teachers are not respected. They are treated as one big mass of people who are uninterested in teaching. Every year, a new programme will be forced on them. This needs to change, perhaps through personalising interventions aimed at them. The Sampark Smart Shala App, for instance, not only addresses teachers by their first names but also uses the formal term of address ‘jee’, which denotes respect.
Multimedia workbooks over dead textbooks: Despite the high quality of textbooks, they continue to be dull and boring, with too much content and no creativity. The Sampark Smart Shala multimedia workbooks are equipped with QR codes. Learners can scan the code on their low-cost smartphone to see a lesson come to life via an animation or video.
The education system, still a robust value chain, is the only hope for millions of school-goers and their parents who simply do not have the resources to go private when dissatisfied with the quality of public education. The policy needs to recognise this and reorient its focus accordingly.
Carrying on as before is not an option; we are moving towards the next big tech revolution, with AI and robotics. India has huge ambitions, and to keep pace, its children need to be educated well. We need a disruptive approach that will break through the ennui of ‘business as usual’ and establish ‘quality education for all’ a norm, not based on privileged access only.
(The author is founder-chairman, Sampark Foundation; Twitter: @vineetnayar)