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Rescuing education in India, starting from basic digital infrastructure

The spread of smartphones in India has hidden the fact that broadband internet access, wired and wireless, is far short of what the country needs for distance learning

The starting point has to be the basic digital infrastructure.

In 2020, India released a new National Education Policy (NEP). This was in the early days of the pandemic, and there were some adjustments made to the NEP in the face of the disruption of education resulting from the deadly coronavirus and ensuing lockdowns. But the nation’s educational institutions were unprepared for adapting to a world of distance teaching, learning and testing. The NEP was all about promoting a more flexible, encompassing and tailored approach to education—a far cry from India’s archaic education system comprised of rote learning, rigid testing, and excessive filtering. Digital technology was perhaps only a small piece of the NEP. But the pandemic has brought it to the forefront of the conversation on educational reform in India.

Even though the pandemic is receding, and educational institutions are opening up again, the loss of learning at all levels in India, from preschool to university, has been staggering. It may not be any worse than other developing countries, but it has certainly been much greater than in developed countries. It is imperative that the government do as much as possible to help students make up this learning loss, otherwise the economic and social impacts of the pandemic will persist much longer than they should. A focused and creative approach to helping students catch up is vital for the country. If it is done well, it may put the country’s educational system on a path that also addresses the weaknesses that the NEP was designed to overcome.

The starting point has to be the basic digital infrastructure. One government policymaker (Amitabh Kant, Indian Express, June 30, 2021) has cautioned that there is “a danger in providing digital infrastructure without a plan on how it’s to be deployed or what teaching-learning approaches it would support.” This is true up to a point, but I would argue that bandwidth is the primary and most binding constraint for expanding access to quality education in India. As Kant notes, there are hundreds of ed-tech startups in India. To the extent that these are for-profit ventures, they cannot be the entire answer to India’s educational needs. But there are also reputable and mature nonprofits, like Khan Academy, which has already developed a considerable range of content in more than one Indian language. It will be interesting to see if the government can avoid strangling innovation in this sector with over-regulation, or if it will waste resources on duplicating existing content, instead of vetting and certifying it.

But back to infrastructure: the spread of smartphones in India has hidden the fact that broadband internet access in India, wired and wireless, is far short of what the country needs for distance learning, collaborative work, and other important activities for a modern digital economy. The government should be opening up access to spectrum, and catalysing investments in wireless and wired networks to provide much broader public internet access, beyond what is controlled by the mobile phone companies.

The second most important constraint is a lack of cheap access devices. A decade ago, a previous government wasted time and resources on the dream of an indigenous low-cost tablet designed and built from scratch. This effort was a disaster. But now, reasonably good Android tablets are available for the price of smartphones, and a subsidy could make them affordable to many more people in India. In particular, a programme of collecting and refurbishing older tablets (and laptops) for India’s millions of teachers and students would not be exorbitantly expensive. It would be a small fraction of the annual expenditure on MGNREGA, for example.

The third constraint that has to be overcome is teacher training. In fact, if tablets or laptops are made available to teachers, and they are taught how to use them effectively, including how to access appropriate content, their status will increase, along with their own human capital, and they can be an effective channel for their students to access digital learning materials. In the same article, Amitabh Kant has made the point that teachers have to embrace and leverage digital technology.

If all this sounds too simple, it is because the conceptual steps are indeed straightforward and obvious. The difficulty is in the details of implementation, including allocating resources where they will have the most impact. Public digital infrastructure, low-cost access devices and trained teachers are the three fundamental components of rescuing education in India. With all three in place, everything else will follow.

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

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