In my last column, I discussed the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT), in the context of the dismal state of Indian education. I suggested that this National Mission, like many others of the Indian government, is too scattered and diffused to be effective. It begins with two broad basic goals, namely, providing digital access and generating content, but the translation of these into specifics has been poor. I promised to examine the report of an evaluation committee that reported on the NMEICT, and I begin with that here.
One of the positives noted by the evaluation committee is some progress on content and connectivity. But a closer examination makes it clear that much of this progress came from initiatives prior to the NMEICT. Furthermore, all the achievements have been in the context of university education, something which needs improvement in India, but clearly not the root of India’s educational problems. As the reports of the ASER Centre make clear, India is failing in primary education. Learning outcomes in basic literacy and numeracy are getting worse instead of better.
This is a large-scale disaster that the NMEICT effort completely ignores. Even within the limited field of higher education, the evaluation committee report makes clear that content creation has been uneven and poorly coordinated.
With respect to access devices, particularly the notorious Aakash tablet, which was supposed to be available in the millions for $35 (now equivalent to about R2,000), the evaluation report expresses mild concern about delays in development and production, but events subsequent to the report have suggested that this was largely a misguided effort. I shall shortly return to the reason for my conclusion. With respect to other services such as the SAKSHAT portal (now defunct) and the creation of digital tools, or processes such as selection of projects and monitoring of progress, the report notes, in relatively mild language, what comes across as mostly a complete dysfunction of the NMEICT. The evaluation committee’s recommendations are not bad: They outline a set of structural and programmatic changes that would provide more coherence and quality control mechanisms. My sense, however, is that these recommendations will lead to very minor improvements in the real problems.
First, once students reach university, if they have broadband access, they can already access an enormous amount of content in English. Much of what India is producing is simply similar content, delivered with an Indian accent. What university students mostly need is excellent broadband access, and that is an infrastructure project that is much larger than the NMEICT. The real educational need in India is at the school level, especially primary, but also secondary. This is the level at which educational resources are the scarcest. The scale of the problem, in terms of content and access, is seemingly beyond solution. But there is a solution that can be implemented rapidly and successfully.
When the NMEICT was started, it would have taken considerable foresight to see what was coming in digital technology. But now it is clear. The progress in portable computing devices such tablets and smart phones, with open platforms such as the Android operating system, has created an ecosystem that makes much of the NMEICT’s original program irrelevant, including the plan to create a low cost access device. Another key piece of this ecosystem is the universe of apps. This term covers a great variety of digital tools, often for entertainment or managing daily lives. But many apps are designed for information access, such as news, or for education. There are millions of apps, but they are mostly for consumers in advanced countries.
If the NMEICT focused on just one thing, catalysing the production of educational apps for primary and secondary school students in India, this would have a huge pay-off. Digital educational apps can and are easily configured as games, which incentivise learning. They provide positive feedback and reinforcement, and the best ones are easy to figure out without instructions. In a world of absent or poorly-qualified teachers, apps on cheap mobile devices can revolutionise Indian school education.
The economics of apps is simple. Scale is crucial, which creates incentives for developers to create big hits, whether revenue comes from a small charge for downloading or from advertising. This can push developers in the direction of the lowest common denominator of content. This is where the government can provide financial and other nudges, defining classes of needed content, rewarding quality content, and providing public ratings. It can push firms such as Google and Amazon to support such efforts as part of their corporate social responsibility strategies. This all means scrapping NMEICT in its current form.
If the government were to adopt the approach I recommend, it would represent an alternative approach to government policy, something I have recommended in other contexts. Instead of trying to do many things directly, the government can succeed by focusing more, and by using leverage rather than direct effort. That is a controversial change, but digitally-mediated education may be the politically easiest arena to try it out.
The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz