Despite almost 100% enrolment in primary schools, learning outcomes remain remarkably low. Edtech has the potential to provide innovative, cost-effective methods to transform education and can play a powerful role in achieving universal access to quality education for all children by 2030; the aspirational goal set by India’s New Education Policy
The most promising aspect is its ability to personalise content for individual students. This addresses one of the most binding constraints on teachers: a heterogeneity of learning levels in the classroom. According to the 2018 ASER report, about half the children in Class 5 cannot read a simple Class 2 level text. Edtech can be used to “Teach at the Right Level” (TaRL) by analysing patterns of student errors and providing immediate feedback. This approach has been rigorously evaluated through field experiments by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), in partnership with Pratham Foundation, and found to have significant positive results.
In one J-PAL funded study, an online self-learning platform was used to deliver customised content in Hindi and Maths to children from low-income neighbourhoods in Delhi. Designed as an after-school programme, 619 students had access to the software for six days a week, for 90 minutes a day. Each session was equally divided between individual self-learning on the platform and support from teaching assistants. After four-and-a-half months, the test scores of children who had access to the software showed marked improvement compared with those that did not. Moreover, these gains were achieved at a lower cost per child than in the public school system. This demonstrates the enormous potential of technology-aided learning to produce cost-effective outcomes, where state capacity currently falls short.
Edtech can also enrich the classroom experience by consistently delivering high quality audio-visual, interactive content that may supplement the teacher’s own knowledge and effectively capture student attention. One initiative by a few non-profit organisations has been to distribute repackaged smartphones to teachers in low-income schools and training them to use the technology to enhance lesson planning. This low-cost smart-class platform enables teachers to show students relevant images, videos and other content from the Internet. No amount of theory can substitute for a simple video of the human body’s circulatory system or planets revolving around the sun!
Technology can also play a crucial role in delivering holistic learning. Significantly, the NEP replaces report cards with “holistic progress cards” meant to reflect each learner’s uniqueness. Developing creative assessments to test socio-emotional skills can further help reorient the entire education system towards holistic learning. Simulations and games can help develop and assess social, ethical, and emotional capacities and dispositions. There can even be edtech enabled hands-on assignments to support vocational learning. Tracking the progress of learners in real-time, can bring large benefits in terms of student support, within and outside schools.
Finally, technology presents a big opportunity to nurture the parent-school partnership that emerged during the lockdown. Research suggests that a large percentage of variation in learning is a function of the household. However, parents often fail to take necessary steps to support their child’s learning, due to an information gap and an overestimation of their child’s capabilities. Simple, timely, text messages with information, questions and reminders can help overcome these barriers, and improve the engagement of low-income parents in the their children’s education. This inexpensive intervention can not only have a powerful influence on learning outcomes but also reinforce the culture of learning in the community as a whole.
Leveraging technology in education has the potential to transform learning as seen during the physical closure of educational institutions. The digital infrastructure now in place in some schools will be used to deliver a higher quality of education by blending offline and online learning. Unless edtech is given an unprecedented push in public schooling, its massive promise for cost-effectively improving learning outcomes will be traded for a widened gap between differently-privileged children. In a digitally-driven world, it is only appropriate that technology is the disruptor that promotes equal opportunity and this is what we must strive for.
The writer is a former Legislative Assistant to a Member of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow and Master’s Candidate in Public Policy at the University of Chicago, the U.S.