Column: Educating India digitally

The National Mission on Education through ICT should be re-engineered to do a better job

By now, we know several things about the Indian education system. First, it is extraordinarily inefficient. Public expenditures, regardless of whether they are adequate in aggregate, do not achieve results. Second, Indians desire education. They recognise its importance, and are willing to pay for quality. Third, quality is difficult to judge, and public policy fails to help overcome this problem. Fourth, access to quality education is very unequal.

By now, we do not need more studies documenting these problems, unless they go beyond proximate causes and start to develop concrete solutions. We know that teachers in government schools often do not show up to teach, especially in rural areas. We know that the incentive systems in government bureaucracy, extending beyond the ministry of human resource development (HRD), are major contributors to the dysfunctions of the Indian education system. Under the guise of maintaining standards and combating inequality, the education bureaucracy makes it harder for private providers to fill the gaps created by government failures.

We also know that India has little time to fix these problems. The supposed demographic dividend is on the cusp of being a disaster, unless the education system is fixed. This fix cannot be done in a conventional manner. Hiring more school teachers or professors without overhauling the entire incentive system will not work. That overhaul will take too long, especially for the extensive primary school system—without dealing with the formative years of education, nothing else can be fixed. There is more scope for rapid change at the university level, especially by bringing in talent from abroad, but even there, India’s politics will make change difficult.

The most promising solution lies in giving Indians digital access to knowledge, and to structured learning. There is nothing sacred about the conventional classroom. Indeed, we know that it has always been just a part of the necessary learning environment that included peers and parents. The digital revolution has reached the point where technology can provide more than passive information that has to be processed unaided by the individual to turn into knowledge. Instead, there are learning games, video lessons and myriad possibilities for interaction, that fundamentally change the way education can take place.

Of course, I am saying nothing we do not know. The question is what is being done. There is some progress in doing things, like the Khan Academy making video lessons in subjects like mathematics available in Indian languages. I found over 300 mathematics lessons in Hindi online. Unfortunately, the Khan Academy relies on volunteers to do this dubbing of the videos, which means that progress is slow. There are other challenges. The material may not fit into Indian curricula. It may not be structured to help Indian children meet the goals of passing examinations. These are the difficulties of having to deal with the existing system, supplementing it but not bypassing it. By far, the biggest challenge is lack of access, using that word to cover financial as well as technological feasibility. I made this point in my last column.

Aside from the paucity of digital infrastructure, educational policy also matters. Given the government’s important role in the education system, how it goes about building capacity for digitally-mediated education is crucial. Indeed, the HRD ministry has a National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) as a centrally-sponsored scheme. The NMEICT, on its web page, has a clear statement of two goals: providing connectivity, along with provision for access devices, to institutions and learners; and content generation. But translating this into anything meaningful does not seem to have happened. A 100-plus page Mission Document is available on the web site: it is undated, but appears to have been written in 2009.

In 2013, an evaluation committee for the NMEICT produced a 182-page report. This report begins by listing 48 specific objectives from the mission document. It goes on to an evaluation, which is politely worded, but seems to me to conclude that little has really been accomplished (the report says “modest success”, so my interpretation is harsher). It calls for the NMEICT to be reinvented or re-engineered so it can do a better job. How to do this is not summarised, but has to be extracted from scattered recommendations in the report. I will examine this in my next column.

Here, I conclude with two observations. First, Indian policymaking does not do a good job of prioritising among major areas of concern. Within the government, in the 1990s, telecommunications would have stayed in its perceived status as a luxury good, if not for external events and pressures from outside the government and the intelligentsia of the time. Second, even when the government has a policy thrust (whether ICT for education, or water resource management or farm policy, or urban infrastructure), it tends to make laundry lists that do not translate into the combination of budget, organisational and societal support that would lead to prioritisation and successful implementation. These are not universal problems, but happen too often not to deserve attention for structural reform.

The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz

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First published on: 08-05-2015 at 00:47 IST