Bridging the digital divide in education

The NDEAR vision doesn’t build a new “app”, but connects what already exists

Specifically, we believe that much of the success of the NDEAR tech infrastructure will lie in getting the ‘non-tech’ elements right. There are four fundamental issues that implementers and enablers will have to factor in.
Specifically, we believe that much of the success of the NDEAR tech infrastructure will lie in getting the ‘non-tech’ elements right. There are four fundamental issues that implementers and enablers will have to factor in.

By Varad Pande & Aishwarya Viswanathan

While the pandemic has accelerated education online, it has also exposed a deep digital divide, with more than 30% students not having access to online learning. This has increased the focus on building inclusive solutions in EdTech. A ray of hope in this context is the National Digital Educational Architecture (NDEAR), the blueprint for which was recently released by the government. Set up as a digital pathway to the policy goals envisioned in the National Education Policy, 2020, NDEAR takes on a ‘Open Digital Ecosystem’ approach, where a set of principles, standards, specifications, building blocks and guidelines seek to enable different entities to create elements of the digital education ecosystem. At its core is the principle of interoperability, i.e., enabling disparate education related tech systems to “talk to each other” seamlessly, rather than operating in silos, thereby multiplying the possibilities of impact.

How will this change the life of a student? Here is just one example of how NDEAR could potentially help: Consider a student, Manisha, whose parents are relocating from Bengaluru to Dehradun. Manisha is worried that she may be behind her new peer-group especially as the curriculum of the Uttarakhand state board may be different. Her parents are stressed about completing the paperwork for the school transfer. And teachers in her new school are concerned about how to accommodate her learning needs. NDEAR can help ease this transition in multiple ways. To catch up with the rest of the class, Manisha can access curated learning material specific to her needs via the DIKSHA platform. Her parents, with access to her student ID, can complete the transfer process entirely online in just a few steps, by instantly sharing verifiable school records and test results. As for Manisha’s new teachers, access to her online learning passbook can enable them to have a better understanding of her needs, while being able to support her, for example, in ‘catching up’ on Hindi language skills using online teacher manuals and other personalised tools enabled by NDEAR.

What is unique about NDEAR is that it is not about building a new “app”, but about connecting what already exists, and reimagining how technology can be leveraged to upgrade the entire education ecosystem for deploying tailored EdTech solutions speedily, sustainably and at population scale.

While this tech enabled vision is inspiring, its success or failure will be determined by its implementation. Specifically, we believe that much of the success of the NDEAR tech infrastructure will lie in getting the ‘non-tech’ elements right. There are four fundamental issues that implementers and enablers will have to factor in.

First, it will be important to ensure that NDEAR’s implementation improves and not worsens access to education in the context of India’s digital divide. As per 2019-20 UDISE+ data, only 38.5% of schools across the country had computers and 22.3% of schools had an internet connection. Therefore, it is crucial that the NDEAR vision is supplemented by concerted policy efforts to equip schools with the necessary ICT infrastructure, like Kerala’s KITE enabled interventions. And in the interim, while the tech infrastructure is being built, it will be critical to drive access to NDEAR services through multimodal channels, including television and low-tech mediums such as SMS delivered through basic feature phones, such as in Jharkhand’s DigiSATH initiative which leverages WhatsApp, television, the DIKSHA app as well as offline learning to connect all stakeholders.

Second, to ensure adoption of NDEAR enabled solutions and build the legitimacy of digital learning, it will be important to recognise the role parents play in both monitoring and facilitating their children’s learning, and engage them meaningfully. An attempt has been made in Himachal Pradesh through the government’s e-Samwad application where schools send regular SMS updates to parents to establish a direct channel of communication.

Third, NDEAR will need to ensure that the data rights of children remain secure. The potential of EdTech solutions delivered through NDEAR will depend on their responsible deployment, which would include responsible collection, sharing and processing of data. Since children will never be fully cognisant of the privacy risks that the digital world entails, the compliance with the upcoming Personal Data Protection Bill, with additional safeguards given the target audience of this platform, will be important. There are good frameworks for this both in the United States and the European Union that can be leveraged.

Lastly, given the pace at which digital learning is growing, NDEAR’s development should be firmly anchored in an ‘accountable institution’ that can guide its quick development while providing independent oversight needed for the management of the platform. The proposed National Educational Technology Forum may be a good forum for this, and such an institution should have representation from tech and domain experts as well as teachers and parents to help ensure the NDEAR architecture delivers tech solutions that are truly student-centric.

NDEAR presents an audacious vision to leverage the power of tech to enhance India’s education system. This vision must now be matched with the right non-tech, student-centric enablers and safeguards to achieve its potential.

Varad works at Omidyar Network India, and Aishwarya works at The Quantum Hub

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