Digitizing Education in India: Educating the Educators

I don’t know about you, but I am going to feel absolutely lost without access to my smartphone. From booking cabs to flights, groceries to restaurant food, calories burnt to calories consumed, reading the news to watching movies, there is simply an app for every activity we undertake in our daily routines. And then there are apps to even make those routines for us! Such is the power of digitization and IoT that man is quite a slave to emerging technologies. But hang on! This post is not a rant against how humans are surrendering to machines, nor is it an attempt to promote any new app in the already appified world. It is more in lines of my bemusement regarding why the wave of digitization has still not caught on to one sector in particular- Indian education.

You may argue that ed-tech startups like Byju’s, CueMath, Simplilearn, UpGrad, Talentedge are already making their presence felt in the digital learning space. But the fact that we can still count them out on our fingers is more a cause for concern than content. And while it is predicted that the paid user base for Edtech market is likely to grow six times from 1.6 million to 9.6 million between 2016 and 2021, generating a potential revenue of $1.96 billion[i], there are several impediments on the way which could prevent the potential from becoming a possibility.

To say that India is still in the nascent stages of digitizing education is an understatement. Our cultural mindset makes us way too comfortable with the traditional brick and mortar system of education rather than readily adapt to digitized and unbundled education format. Thus, it is essential to familiarize students with digital disruption in their early learning years, rather than to wait for them to embrace digitization during their tertiary education years. Smart classrooms that teach with virtual reality study material rather than textbooks and have interactive learning platforms are gradually making their place in urban private schools. Coaching apps like Byju’s and Khan Academy are also playing a major role in bridging the digital gap and enhancing personalized, self-paced education. But to reach out to the bulk of young student population that resides in rural India remains a challenge.

It is not that only private schools are making headway in this regard. More than 650 Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas across rural India, 28 government schools in the state of Tamil Nadu are among those that have Smart Classes set up by Samsung India, covering over 2.5 lakh students. Additionally, the program has trained over 8,000 teachers on the use of interactive technologies.[ii] This is a fantastic example that goes to show how collaboration across the ecosystem, between government, educators and the private sector can lead to positive learning outcomes. While this is highly encouraging, we need to proactively work towards converting these isolated case studies to regular trends.

The other cause of concern in the rural parts of the country is the particularly high pupil-teacher ratio and the predominance of single teacher schools. [iii] In many parts of the country, there is a severe shortage of teachers in both elementary and secondary schools. Technology can be of help here as well. Interactive digital tools and remote learning can ensure that the quality of education for children studying in these schools is not compromised. However, to make this possible- local, state and national governments need to rise above their respective political agendas to deliver on required physical and digital infrastructure.

What else can be included in the classroom of the future? We could take inspiration from global success stories. The startup Wonder Workshop makes computer programming and coding fun for children to help them become innovators of tomorrow. [iv] The Cyberchase Shape Quest mobile application uses augmented reality to design puzzles focused on geometry, spatial reasoning and problem solving, for children in the age group 6 through 9. [v]

Once digital learning successfully becomes a part of every student’s early education, it will be much easier to incorporate digitization into the DNA of subsequent education curriculum. While this will ensure demand for digital learning picks up in higher education, supply-side dynamics will heavily depend on not only the efforts by the universities alone but also a favorable regulatory environment that allows greater private sector participation and investment. Parameters to assess university performance should undergo a paradigm shift from input-based indicators such as student enrollment ratios to output based indicators such as employment outcomes of graduating students. [vi]

Digital learning will open avenues for quality education- anytime and anywhere. Lifelong learning and the ability to pick up technical and vocational skills through cost-effective online courses and MOOCs helps bridge the skill gap and prepare students to be a part of the workforce in the digital economy. This is of particular relevance in light of the fact that employment in high skilled occupations in India increased by 6.3% between 2002 and 2014. [vii] Courses on platforms such as CourseraedXTalentedge, and Udacity can help workers upskill themselves on SMAC (social media, mobile, analytics, and cloud), even after their formal education is over.

Thus, collective efforts of educators, government, start-up entrepreneurs, NGOs, and the private sector are required to overcome the digital divide that currently exists. This will ultimately help harness and cultivate the true potential that our human capital has to offer. Here’s to moving from the digital hype to the digital hope.

[i] Meha Agarwal, “Online Education Market In India To Touch $1.96 Bn By 2021 – Decoding The Impact On EdTech Startups,” Inc42, June 01, 2017.

[ii] Aditi Gupta, “Digital learning in India | How smart classrooms are changing the face of education,” The Statesman, August 04, 2018.

[iii] Ajay Kavishwar, “Digital education among students in rural areas,” Forbes India, April 02, 2018.

[iv] https://www.makewonder.com/

[v] https://pbskids.org/apps/cyberchase-shape-quest.html

Mitali Chatterjee
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Mitali Chatterjee is Assistant Vice President at Swiss Re Institute. She specializes in the domains of higher education, innovation in the public sector and the impact of emerging technologies across various levels in the government. An alumnus of IGIDR, she has also worked with RBI, ICICI, IGIDR, Accenture and Deloitte India(Offices of the US) in various research and analysis capacities. Opinions expressed are personal and not representative of her organisation.

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