Is self-learning the answer to India’s learning challenges?

An image of resourcefulness in the face of need and of a hunger to learn.   | Photo Credit: Sakeer Hussain

Every era in the 20th century has one iconic picture that captures the spirit of that generation in that particular time. For me, the one that exemplifies this age — and the pandemic — is that of a young college student perched precariously upon the tiled roof of her home, peering into her computer screen. It tells many different stories: of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought education in the country to a grinding halt, of connectivity lost mid-sentence, of resourcefulness in the face of need, but, most importantly, of a hunger to learn. It is a poignant reminder of how access to online learning in is critical to ensure that India’s demographic dividend does not become its demographic disaster.

According to the World Bank’s projections, India’s youth population will be 34.1% of its total population in 2021. However, going by the India Skills Report 2020, employability has remained largely stagnant for the past three years. Of the approximately 20% of youth who enter India’s workforce with formal training, only 46% are job-ready. For women, the situation is even more fraught. Data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2018-19 reveals that women’s participation in the workforce is a mere 17.6% compared to 52.3% for men.

As youth in India look to carve out meaningful career pathways for themselves, their learning journeys today need to be in sync with what the future of work and employability will bring. While digital learning apps and ed-tech may offer solutions in terms of content and platforms, the key question is: are young people sufficiently equipped with the access and knowledge required to enter and successfully navigate these platforms?

The issue of access is already a pressing concern as the Digital Divide makes its presence felt. Data collected by the NSS 75th Round 2017-18 shows that just 23.8% of households in India have an Internet connection, while only 20.1% people within these households have the ability to use the Internet. The gender divide here is also significant: 14.9% for women as compared to 25% for men. Thus, women will face greater challenges in coping with a fast-changing education and career landscape.

In a situation where the social context for under-served communities is diverse, self-learning, both as a mindset and a practice, could be the answer to India’s learning challenges. Loosely defined as the ability of students to make informed choices about their own learning journeys with critical support from a guide, self-learning has the potential to fill this critical gap around learners’ agency to control what they learn, and when and how that learning takes place.

In the context of the pandemic, which has wrought unprecedented changes to the learning and employment eco-spheres, self-learning enabled by technology can be a key component to meaningful and empowered futures for young people from resource-poor backgrounds.

Learning is a complex phenomenon. It is much more than watching videos and listening to audio. In a scenario where there is self-initiated learning, how do we ensure its critical and reflective — i.e. cognitive — aspects are invoked? While online learning can never replace formal education and skilling spaces, it does have the potential to redefine the meaning of a classroom and to facilitate lifelong learning so that learners who have transitioned to the workplace are still able to reskill and upskill and thereby negotiate better opportunities for themselves.

Education must be a transformational process in every instance and not just the acquisition of more and more information or even mechanistic skills. The teacher’s role is critical in ensuring that this reflective process continues by facilitating meaningful interactions with the stakeholders. The role that parents and families play in creating a safe and supportive learning environment cannot be emphasised enough. While the lockdown allowed more parents to be involved in the learning process, it has also revealed an inherent distrust of fully embracing digital learning for their children. This reluctance is exponentially higher with girls, where predominant beliefs of how access to digital spaces can lead girls down the ‘wrong path’ hold sway.

With routine manual tasks becoming increasingly automated, the availability of large amounts of data creating new complex choices and decisions, and the blurring of physical and virtual spaces giving rise to new forms of working and collaboration, holistic and interoperable skill sets will become important. In response to the pandemic, ed-tech interventions need quick, scalable solutions to enable educators to address critical gaps.

Adopting technology for learning can be boosted when the efforts are backed by learning ecosystems. In many secondary schools and ITIs across the country, girls are not able to access digital platforms/devices whereas boys/men do not have the same problem. It has also been seen that girls who get even limited access to technology tend to make the most of it and have a higher motivation to learn than boys who take the privilege of access for granted.

We need to keep in mind that digital platforms can also create a bubble where young people can consume a lot of content. Learning will need to be made relevant by the learner in their socio-cultural context, as well as in opportunities to apply the learnings in the real world. Connectivity will also be key, not just in terms of infrastructure to bridge the Digital Divide, but also in addressing gender bias in access to online learning opportunities. If support systems can be put in place for first-time users, accompanied by the creation of shared spaces for engagement and the promotion of self-learning, the potential for technology to empower marginalised young people in India is endless.

The impact of the global pandemic on the economy and workplaces is still unfolding, but what is amply clear is that the future in terms of employment opportunities will remain hazy. Building core 21st century skills through ed-tech can be the boost that will allow for the development of meaningful and sustainable career pathways.

Aakash Sethi is the CEO of Quest Alliance

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 12:11:45 AM |

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