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Familiar bridges to new technologies

The passage of the Right to Free & Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (aka RTE) and its substantial validation by the Supreme Court marks a historic epoch in terms of renewed emphasis on education as a development driver of the nation. But closer scrutiny of the current state of affairs also indicates the low point from which Indian society needs to leap out in a short period of time. As repeated discussions on the RTE Act indicate, the two major challenges are of providing quality infrastructure and trained teachers. While the former is perhaps a function of budget allocations and proper implementation, the second is a herculean challenge as almost all research indicates that the capability of most in-service teachers is miserably below par. There is also a major supply side problem. And it is here that carefully chosen new education technologies implemented with intelligence and judgment can provide workable solutions.
However, the plain truth is that the choice and application of new education technologies in terms of teaching aids and learning resources — though well-intentioned — has been random at best, and lopsided at worst, resulting in squandering of precious resources. There is an irrational belief that the mere implantation of ICT (information communications technology) and new- fangled devices such as the much touted Aakash tablet will instantly improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Certainly, there is no doubt that in ideal conditions, a combination of interactive white boards, tablets and computer labs with quality content can make a huge difference. But in contemporary India, this utopian premise fails on several counts. Among them, infrastructure deficiencies — electricity, internet penetration, bandwidth availability and most of all, lack of awareness and inadequate training invested in teachers and students. Even if these problems were somehow to be magically resolved, India just does not have the financial resources required to implement such solutions uniformly in 1.30 million schools and 31,000 colleges countrywide.

Therefore a better option is to utilize familiar technologies with which people are already conversant and which are impervious to media and other hype followed by neglect and fade out. Three such proven technologies, with which the majority of the population is familiar and comfortable, are print, radio and television.

Eyebrows are likely to merge into hairlines at the inclusion of print as a new technology. But the fact remains that before the advent of the internet, print technology was, and in many ways remains a revolutionary, cheap and efficient way of disseminating information and knowledge. But its implementation in the field of education has been ineffective with substandard pedagogy being the major cause. Yet print technology has been very effectively utilised by NGOs such as the Eklavya Foundation and Pratham which have successfully used well-designed textbooks, magazines and low-cost kits to drive science and social sciences learning — proof that the print medium has far from exhausted its possibilities.

Another proven technology not fully applied to deliver and disseminate education is the radio. As a communication medium, it can operate for long hours without electricity on ordinary dry cell batteries. A good model to emulate involves the integration of radio in classrooms, keeping interactivity as the central goal. Known as IRI (interactive radio instruction), it has tremendous scope in developing nations such as India. For instance, the dot-EDU India Technology Tools for Teaching and Training (T4) project (funded by USAID) has proved successful in improving the quality of elementary education in seven states — Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Delhi. Well-known radio-based English teaching program ‘English is Fun has been a huge hit in Bihar.

The third easily accessible and proven technology which again has tremendous education delivery potential in emerging countries is colour television. Unlike the print, radio or purely audio technologies, TV can bring lessons to life and create immersive learning environments. In Mexico, a very successful TV project called Telesecundaria has made a significant impact on learning outcomes in primary-secondary schools. In Brazil, a similar project named Telcurso, has successfully targeted school dropouts to self-learn and write certification exams. TV has a proven track record even within India where it has been proactively used for distance education, though once again the quality of content has been mediocre. Moreover storing lectures/programmes on DVDs or in hard disks can facilitate sustained education delivery in classrooms.

In short, easily available and proven educational technologies — print, radio and television — should be fully utilised to serve as bridges to interactive technologies such as computers and tablets linked with the internet. While harnessing new technologies should perhaps be the ultimate goal, for the time being a middle path offers the best hope of realizing the laudable goals of the Right to Education Act, 2009.

(Manish Upadhyay is co-founder and COO, LIQVID and Amitava Maitra is an independent edtech consultant)

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