For Rajniti Manjhi, an enthusiastic twelve-year-old from Daulachak, a quaint low-income village in Bihar, the local government school was the only place to learn. So to say, he was one among the few children who pursued schooling in the tiny Musahar community. His own friends had gone to work in the construction sites or picked waste to bring extra bucks for the household. Rajniti’s parents who worked in a brick factory understood the importance of educating their son and did their best to nurture his passion to study. But when the pandemic hit and schools switched to functioning online, the dedicated parents were in limbo. They were already out of work and with the little money they had they could not afford to get a device for Rajniti to continue schooling online. When they could not find a way out of their predicament, Bharatiya Jan Utthan Parishad, a local NGO that has been working actively in the region to facilitate the continuation of formal education for children stepped in enrolling Rajniti in eVidyaloka’s Digital School along with the local student cohort. Raj is now a happy seventh-grader at eVidyaloka who has big, colorful dreams for the future.
Public school education in India comprises 70% of the $240 million K12 market that is sizeable, diverse and complex in nature. In order to support and supplement the school that has limited infrastructure, many corporates run CSR programmes dedicated to the needs of the public school children. There is no one-size-fits-all technology platform or a single edtech solution since the need varies from school to school and place to place. But each social organisation, with its individual goals works out a tech platform to deliver curated content to its students belonging to different economic, geographic, cultural and ethnic identities with different needs and learning capacities.
Among the big grassroot organisations that have also adopted technology during the pandemic are Teach For India that has reached over 33 million children, Pratham Education Foundation that has reached 1000 communities and 111,458 children, and 700,000 more learners through Youtube, POS, partners and apps. DIKSHA (Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge-sharing) is the complete public digital learning and resource platform for both teachers and students by the Government of India that is built on Sunbird, a free-to-use, open access platform. DIKSHA is available across eighteen languages, various curricula for all states and UTs of India and can be accessed by both the teachers and students and caters to the differently-abled too. Sunbird, developed by Ekstep Foundation to enhance learning opportunities for millions of learners serves as a building block for creation of specific, customised platforms and solutions to support various use cases. In addition, there are many tech-driven initiatives that deliver content using devices, portals, platforms and TV channels. But despite the several efforts, there is no meaningful delivery that is scalable and sustainable as yet.
The ed and tech marriage
Affordability is most important for a tech solution to make an impact. In addition, “The instructions should be in both English and the vernacular language and cater to the state board curriculum. “Only a child-centric approach works here,” says Venkat Sriraman, co-founder and executive director, evidyaloka, a digital school that has used hybrid teaching methodologies and a network of community connectors reaching children across 150 out of 230 villages in India.
“Effective instruction depends on the collaborative efforts of the mutually interdependent public education ecosystem that comprises the policy, curriculum, textbooks, teachers and administrators and their vital roles,” says Shankar Maruwada, co-founder and CEO of ekstep, a not-for-profit foundation that aims to extend learning opportunities to millions of Indian children through a collaborative, universal platform. “This ecosystem if made to walk to technology is not as effective if technology is made to blend with it.”
Technology is a vehicle
In public education, technology helps the teachers and the system to reach and deliver. In fact, public edtech has had the most diverse of innovations using best forms and deployment of technology to deliver at large scale. Some, on the other hand, have been able to deliver even with the simplest and most basic of communication tools.
“A strong rapport between committed teachers and students can make good use of existing tech platforms and tools. My students connect through government-donated laptops or their android phones,” says Satish Viswanathan, who put together Munnetram, a Google Meet classroom to help out with finance subjects for government school students from low-income backgrounds. In the last two years, Satish has delivered 1,500 teaching hours holding classes every single day to fifty students. Thanks to the passion he has inculcated in the students, some have signed up for his classes for Chartered Accountancy exam coaching and already given the preliminary. “The need should dictate the choice and functionality,” says Satish. “At scale, the reality is much more complex. In the last few years, DIKSHA has reached 180 to 200 million students. But not all have devices or connectivity,” Shankar tells us. “The solution needs to reach the child in whichever way he or she is accessible,” Sriraman concedes.
Last year during the pandemic, the closure of 1.5 million schools in India had brought learning to a standstill for 247 million children. India already had six million children drop out of school for reasons other than the pandemic. It was then some existing providers such as Chudar programs, an initiative of Eureka Education Foundation, who were holding supplementary, after-school sessions for classes 6 to 8 in Mathematics, Science and English decided to step in with freshly tailored content, using tech to distribute it to the students remotely. These students have access to basic tech- they can use their parents’ android phones to connect. Chudar put together a Whatsapp group to share short, easy-to-understand, explanatory videos every day on curricular concepts in Mathematics and Science and practice videos for spoken English. Children had to watch these videos and answer the questions uploaded later. Some even took to share recordings of readings particularly after the English diction video classes and science experiments. “Children adapted to the out of classroom, textbook learning quickly and effortlessly. The best part was the children interacted with us enthusiastically throughout. We received close to 2000 messages each day from them and our initiative has benefitted 5600 students in 2021-2022 so far,” says Padmini Srinivasan, Director of content and curriculum, Chudar Programs. Through their tab-labs initiative, Chudar volunteers also travelled to the villages, organised groups of children and taught curated video lessons, in person.
“These gamefied, interactive and interesting lessons helped to keep the learning going for these children,” says Padmini. After a very productive tenure, Chudar is up to scaling the model to the next level.
On the one side when the not-for-profits catered to these niches, the market has started exploding. Private, direct-to-consumer edtech giants are entering into the public school system with their test preps and AI/ML-driven learning analytics and assessment tools. The edtech industry is booming with $5 billion private equity investments, with the entry of a lot of domestic start-ups that are emerging as unicorns with steady user growth. But in public school system, a school is more than just a place to learn and mingle- it is also a shelter, where good, nutritious meals are provided and a happy place that offers a window to the outside world.
Looking through the futuristic lens
The pandemic has certainly modified the role of technology in public education making us realise that the concept of schooling and learning can also be outside the classroom and textbooks. Will this change the future permanently?
“Nothing can alter or take away the role of quality educators. But so far the system has worked only on qualifying youngsters. It is time to look at the outcome instead of the output,” says Tamilselvan Mahalingam, CEO, FutureCaptains, a career success platform that enables students to identify and pursue careers that befit their abilities. “A healthy and blended model that does not hamper the social exchanges and interactions of children and their world will be the future,” says Padmini.
Whatever the means of delivery, Sriraman says it is important to achieve effectiveness in learning and also measure it. The first step to that would be by enforcing school-teacher accountability. “Customising the curriculum delivery to the child based on their learning level, pace and natural inclination either by equipping the teacher or the system is also important,” he tells us.
The new curriculum proposed under NEP 2020 with lesser portions and lessons that interweave fun and skilling with formal education is viewed as an important first step in ushering change. For relieving the bottleneck in innovating technology deliveries in public school education, says Shankar, “Creating more digital philanthropic highways will help us reach out and address more needs.” He hints us of the future.
The public school system with its stable framework and dedicated teachers has remained relevant despite its gaps and lacks. With the reach of technology and the arrival of the pandemic, the system will see many more interesting diversities and innovations, particularly in the space of learning assessments and empowering the local community with digital technology and access so that the learning environment for the children is supportive beyond formal schooling.