Using technologies that are affordable and accessible can help India bridge the digital and knowledge gaps which are widening due to multiple factors such as gender discrimination, income disparity and cultural practices, among others, says the President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL).
COL, an intergovernmental organisation established by Commonwealth Heads of Government, has been working in India since the early 1990s and is currently focusing on providing cost-effective means of increasing access to quality education through open, distance and technology-enabled learning.
But what role can technology-enabled learning play in a country like India where the majority is yet to be connected to the internet, and where, for a large number of people in rural areas, regular electricity supply seems an impossible dream?
COL has an answer and it is called Aptus, a low-cost device that allows educators and learners to connect to digital learning platforms and content without the need for an electricity grid or internet access.
“This device has the potential to support skills development and learning at scale,” Professor Asha Kanwar, who took over as COL President and CEO in 2012, told IANS.
COL also works with a range of technologies to reach learners, including online learning, mobile devices, and low-cost technologies such as audio and video, radio and TV.
“COL has supported several state open universities and dual-mode institutions in India in quality assurance, systems development and the adoption of technologies. This has resulted in strengthening open and distance learning provisions in the country which impacts hundreds of thousands of learners, especially those from marginalised communities,” Kanwar added.
Another focus area for COL in India is the empowerment of girls and women who are lagging behind in education achievements due to factors such as early marriage, cultural norms and gender stereotypes, as well as distance from schools.
“To address this challenge, COL has engaged in innovative approaches that involve the girls, their families, and communities. We train girls in skills such as computer and mobile operations for livelihoods. For most of them, this training represents their first contact with a computer,” the professor said, adding that community engagement is critical to getting the girls to the training programmes.
“COL’s partners consult local government officials and key influencers in the community and collaborate with relevant ministries such as health and labour,” she added.
In fact, one of COL’s flagship projects is “GIRLS Inspire”, targeted at skilling women and girls in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Mozambique and Tanzania.
Since the project was launched two and a half years ago, COL has reached over 35,000 women and girls, of whom nearly 7,000 have increased access to income-generating activities — besides helping avert 453 child marriages.
“India has a large population of over 1.3 billion, 65 per cent of whom are below the age of 35. If you look at the unemployment figures of the youth, you’ll find it is as high as 10 per cent. To school and skill this young population requires alternative approaches,” Kanwar said.
“This is where distance education and technology-enabled learning can help — not only to expand access, but to reduce costs and improve quality,” she added.