Information technology (IT) is increasingly permeating into many aspects of education. With the innovation in delivering high quality visual content over the internet, greater access to computing devices and the increased reach and speed of broadband and 4G, education is ripe for disruption through technology. This is evident with the rising number of “Education Technology”, EdTech, startups and large venture capital investments that are mushrooming in this space. With the rapid inroads that technology is expected to continue to make into education, policy makers must find ways to leverage it, be mindful of its pitfalls and review existing regulation to ensure that it is up to date with the new technology driven reality. In this paper we examine the current state of education in India, potential for technology, its pitfalls and suggest ways forward for policy makers.
Current State of Education
Of the nearly 1.3 billion population in India, an estimated 54% are under the age of 25. Indian youth value education highly as it is seen as a key catalyst for upward social and economic mobility. The high demand for education has quickly outpaced the supply of quality educational institutions and trained teachers. This demand-supply gap along with a general lack of trust in the public education institutions from the primary to higher secondary school levels has created an enormous opportunity for private enterprise. A study by Geeta Gandhi Kingdon (2017) shows that between 2014-15, of the total elementary school enrollments in India nearly 49 percent in urban areas and 21 percent in rural areas were in private schools. These numbers are striking for two reasons. The first is that unlike most other nations where primary to high school education is largely a public enterprise, in India nearly half of the student population opt for private education. This is due to the perception that private schools will provide better education as they are able to hold teachers more accountable than public institutions can. Secondly, access to perceived higher quality in private institutions is inequitable between urban and rural India. Access to quality education is also inequitable by wealth. The quality of private institutions can vary significantly by the fees the institutions charge, as those that are able to charge a higher fee can afford better facilities and access to higher paid faculty. Across the world, spurred by the rapid increase in the access to computing devices, especially smartphones and tablets, and the reach and speed of broadband, private enterprises are seeing new opportunities in the education sector. This is true in India as well as evidenced by number of EdTech startups, approximately 3,500, in existence so far. Some of these have raised millions of dollars in funding and crossed billions of dollars in valuation.
Potential for Information Technology in Education
There are many aspects of education where technology has made a foray. The most compelling of those today is targeted towards self-paced voluntary learning to replace or augment the traditional teacher led classroom learning. Most of these are delivered over the internet and ones such as coursera, Pluralsight, Khan Academy, Udemy and Byju’s are popular and well regarded. There are still other online learning models which are more sophisticated and are increasingly becoming popular in schools. Take the case of Summit Learning, a Mark and Chan Zuckerberg backed learning platform which several school districts in the US quickly adopted. The platform is designed to replace the traditional teacher delivered learning model to one where students learn from an online training platform. The platform is designed to track each student’s personal goals and learning progress. The platform then relies on algorithms to tailor the pedagogy for the individual student. Students are expected to learn from the online platform and then reinforce their learning with the aid of in-class teacher assisted lab sessions.
Online learning platforms provide several potential benefits. They remove inequities in access to quality teaching by making the best teachers accessible to all who have access to the technology. Since the content is readily available, to be consumed at will, students have the freedom to pursue topics of their interest. Unlike the traditional classroom where the teacher must deliver content averaged out to the entire class, online learning platforms such as Summit Learning shift teaching from a teacher-focused to a student-centered approach. By analyzing each student’s individual grasp of a subject, the platform can algorithmically tailor the content and style to accelerate that student’s learning. This on the surface appears to be the holy grail that parents, and schools have always desired – a 1:1 student – teacher ratio, except in this case the teacher is a black-box algorithm. Summit Learning claims other benefits. They purportedly give students the skill of self-direction which they would rely on later in life as adults when teachers are not available to assist in later stages of life. They call this “learning to learn”. Summit was launched in California and targeted underperforming schools in low-income districts, and all these schools showed marked improvement in the students’ acceptance rates to universities. This is important to note since it demonstrates that technology was able to neutralize to some extent the teacher quality inequity between the low- and high-income schools districts, and in a way democratize opportunities for higher education.
In India, we have large gaps in access to the internet between urban and rural populations. Internet has seen a significant jump in adoption this past year in India and is estimated to be at 627 million users by the end of 2019. However, the penetration distribution has a wide gap in urban vs rural. In its ICUBE 2018 report that studied the Indian internet market, Kantar IRMB, estimates that while penetration of internet in urban India stands at 66%, rural is at 25%. Hence a large rural population, 75%, do not access internet and would be left out of any benefits that Information Technology may bring with it into education. Assuming technology does improve delivery of education, such wide gaps in access will further exacerbate the problem of inequity between the haves and have-nots, and between rural and urban populations with respect to education and the opportunities it brings.
Online education platforms are still at an early stage and there is little data on their effectiveness with respect to learning. In the case of Summit Learning, while the idea of delivering personalized learning seems appealing, several students and parents have protested and moved their children to other non-Summit schools. They claim that the learning from simply watching videos online is far less effective than actively interacting with teachers and students. Some parents even claim that their children show signs of depression after school and blame the symptoms on the excessive time that students spend with their computers. Another area of concern is the amount of data on students that the tech companies have access. In addition to their names and contact information, these companies would know the topics that each student in interested in along with his or her career goals and scholastic abilities. There is clearly a potential for misuse of this data. With the shift from teacher centered to student focused learning, technology has the potential to replace teachers to a large extent. Until now the demand has been for smaller student-teacher ratios, but with the aid of technology, schools can now try to increase class sizes and reduce their staffing costs by replacing teachers with laptops. This can lead to a significant job loss in the teaching profession.
As per the Indian Skills Report 2018, of the nearly 62% working age population in our country, employability score stands at a meagre 45%. The same report states “Qualified and skilled human resources are the most important propellant for economic advancement of our nation.” We need to urgently address the skills gap to be able to leverage the immense human resource potential in our country. The various internet-based technology learning platforms have the potential to infuse innovative approaches in the classroom and deliver targeted skills-based learning. Policy makers should formulate ways to leverage these technologies so that education is skill specific and its access is democratized across all sections of society.
Technology in education is still at a nascent stage. Given the advantages of online learning, policy makers are vulnerable to think of it as a panacea for all the ills afflicting Indian education system. This vulnerability is likely to manifest into a ‘one size fits all’ solution. This, however, is a thought which needs to be guarded against. Before importing what has been tried in other societies into the Indian context, policy makers must study the effectiveness of the various available technologies. There is immense diversity in the Indian education system. We have multiple education Boards. We have private schools in metro cities which rival the best in the world. On the other hand, our schools in many rural areas are reminiscent of the worst of third world countries. India is diverse in cultures, languages, wealth and access to technologies. Additionally, the skills needed in our country would vary from what other nations need. Using technology in such diverse milieu requires a carefully thought out strategy customized to meet the unique needs of each of the different social sectors in our nation. Regulators must factor in these diversities to ensure that the content is tailored, access is equitable and the individualized training that technology can deliver aligns with the skills that we need in our workforce. Hence, for technology to be successful in the Indian education sector, it must be subject to the exercise of social shaping (WILLIAMS, Robin and EDGE, David (1996). The Social Shaping of Technology. The University of Edinburgh).
As technology makes vast inroads into schools, it will likely disrupt the demand and role of teachers in schools. This is another area that policy makers must prepare for and ensure opportunities for reskilling teachers to be classroom moderators or into content creators for technology companies.
Regulation would also be needed to ensure that the data that EdTech companies might collect on students is safeguarded and not used beyond the intended goal of delivering education and skills. Besides preparing our young to be productive workforce, education offers many positive externalities to society. As in most other aspects of society, the tide of technology in education seems unstoppable. The government should embrace this new reality and leverage it to modernize its public and private schools. With the extensive network of public educational institutions, central and state governments can use technology assisted learning to reduce inequities in opportunities for education across our nation’s vast and varied demographic. India, as the rest of the world does, will be able to transform primary to high school education into a public enterprise rather than relegate it to a primarily profit-making private enterprise.
DUHANEY, C. Devon (2000). Technology and the educational process. International Journal of Instructional Media Vol 27(1).
Kantar IMRB (2018). 21st edition ICUBE™, Digital Adoption & Usage Trends.
KINGDON, G. Geeta (2017). The Private Schooling Phenomenon in India: A Review. IZA Institute of Labor Economics.
WheeBox (2018). India Skills Report 2018.WILLIAMS, Robin and EDGE, David (1996). The Social Shaping of Technology. The University of Edinburgh