The pandemic, education and technology – a catalyst for re-thought

 Sarah Berry, Head – Communications, CDF

Over the past year, Covid-19 has caused huge disruptions across several domains, and education is no exception. According to the WEF (World Economic Forum), 320 million young learners in India have been adversely affected by the pandemic and have transitioned to e-learning.

After the Central government imposed a national emergency lockdown countrywide in March 2020, the majority of private schools switched to online teaching-learning. However, even private which had the resources were confronted with multiple issues including adaptability of teachers to tech platforms, stress due to excess screen time and physical and mental health and well-being. Since then with the passage of time, teachers, students and parents adapted; innovative pedagogies helped enhance attention spans to a certain extent; exercise, yoga and meditation were recommended to combat long hours of sitting, and tech paraphernalia helped navigate the effects on the mind and body. But scores of questions remain: what about peer-to-peer interaction? What about the space called ‘school’? What about all interactions that were organic to the school space, and boosted the non-curricular circuit?

Ideally, technology should serve as a supplement to teaching-learning. In blended learning rather than substituting the relationship between the four pillars of the education system — schools, teacher, students and parents — adaptability of technology to specific streams/areas in education is essential. This is one of the objectives for the National Educational Technology Forum (NETF) proposed under the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020. Educators should be cautious about over-dependence on technology. Mushrooming of informal tuition centres and increasing inflow of money into ‘edu-tech startups’ highlight the weak links of the existing education system.

At the same time, there’s a flip side to switch to online learning. Education technologies that incorporate hardware and software innovations that reduce the cost of transmission of education can decentralise education delivery and democratise it; provide feedback enabling customised learning enable the dissemination of knowledge across regions and communities by leveraging appropriate digital platforms like print, broadcast, telecast, telecom services, and Internet streaming. Also virtual classrooms don’t have the capacity constraints of brick and mortar institutions.

The crux of the matter is that a number of changes have been introduced and sieving these for maximum benefit is the challenge. It’s noteworthy how the pandemic and the National Education Policy (NEP) have coincided to give technology an important place in education provision. By leveraging this experience, we have the opportunity to design new models for supplementary education. Simultaneously, the opportunities for teacher training via digital platforms are widening. In the past academic year, 200,000 CBSE teachers were trained to teach online. The Diksha (school education) and Swayam (higher education) learning platforms of the Government of India (GoI) have also been providing Mooc (massive open online courses) for teachers. State governments have collaborated with GoI to make training available in regional languages.

However, a number of critical questions remain unanswered. How can technology be used to customise education for marginalised groups like children with special needs and disabilities, and each child having differential learning needs? Currently, edu-tech may be an attractive business option for start-ups to venture into, but what would be its future in the next ten years? Would it be bogged down by an over-supply of fast dying-out options? The “new normal’ has also prompted us to explore ways and means of measuring the progress of individuals apart from marks and results – through an Educational Quality Index. How can we make technology a part of progressive social change in India?

An important point remains: India is a diverse country, with more than 50 percent of its population below the age of 25 years, for whom education is largely associated with rote learning. Customisation of education for each and every child is not possible. Therefore, enabling and empowering children to think, apply and act for a better tomorrow is the paradigm shift that needs to be encouraged, so that our children don’t study for degrees and diplomas but can also devise solutions to the numerous tedious problems the country is facing, and will continue to face. At the end of the day, education is not just transmission of information, but the training of the mind to think constructively and creatively.

The above article has been compiled based on discussions in a Round Table organised by the Centre for The Digital Future (CDF) of the India Development Foundation (IDF). This project is supported by Facebook’s Data For Good initiative.

Also read: Pandemic-induced school closures affected 25 crore Indian children: UNICEF

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