By Ajit Kanitkar:
Evangelism means: “Zealous advocacy or support of a particular cause.”
There has been a hopeful but ungrounded optimism among many thinkers and practitioners in the last few years, with them believing that technology can fix all the problems that we as a country are facing.
The proponents of this belief system, especially around digital technology, think that problems of agriculture, health, nutrition, gender injustice, education, governance can all be solved expeditiously if the country embraces the digital revolution; that the digital revolution will awaken the country from the slumber that it is in.
I have my own grave reservations and I believe that there is a limit to what technology can do.
Initially, I thought that I was naïve in stating this apprehension but soon, I ended up reading a publication of Toyama (2015). Toyama’s central thesis is what he calls “The Law of Amplification”. He states, “Technology can only amplify human effort.” So at the core is the need for a human effort. Technology cannot substitute human effort, nor can it drastically change the aspirations or directions of that effort.
Unfortunately, in the zeal to promote digital interventions especially in the education and health sector of the country, we are forgetting the basic fact that technology cannot substitute the brick and mortar functions that are so necessary to operate on ground.
Take this situation into consideration – A group of IIM-Udaipur students, as a part of the course Indian Social and Political Environment (ISPE) taught by a group of faculty (including this author), were required to stay in a village for five days to experience village realities. During their stay, the young enthusiastic students went to the local school, and in an attempt to solve the problem of staff shortage, showed the 19 school children a video lecture of a mathematics session that had been downloaded in their local language. When the 15-minute video was completed, the school children had blank expressions on their faces. They had not understood anything.
Needless to say, a laptop could not act as a substitute for a teacher in the room who would engage with the children.
In another experience, I happened to visit an urban slum in Jogeshwari in Mumbai in 2016, where a reputed nonprofit was working on a project that would integrate technology and learning in schools. The nonprofit had managed to impart training to the students in the use of basic computer operations and software like Word, Excel and PowerPoint and students and teachers alike were excited to learn a new skill. However, what we realised was that while the children were computer literate, the intervention could not promote basic skills in thinking, critical analysis and processing multiple sets of information.
Hence, while the nonprofit was proud to share the projects that students had done using the internet, in reality, the projects were nothing short of a cut-and-paste effort. They had learnt to download the information from the Google search engine and nothing more. Any additional processing or thinking was missing even after the students had spent close to one year in the project.
Digital interventions cannot replace basic infrastructural requirements.
If the rural school does not have sufficient number of classrooms and are perennially understaffed with one teacher teaching four classes, no amount of digital intervention will make any significant dent in the quality of learning. Similarly, if nursing staff in the primary health center does not report for duty in a remote village, a biometric attendance system at best can point out his or her absence but cannot assure availability of health care. In a similar vein, if farmers do not get timely supply of quality seeds, no amount of video based education on better farming practices is going to help them.
One also needs to be sensitive to the structural and socio-cultural practices that are deeply ingrained in the Indian society. While the cellphone revolution has brought the world closer to the women, it hasn’t necessarily changed their place in society.
In some areas of the country, male members routinely scrutinize the call logs of women in their families; in others women are also not allowed to use their cell phones after seven in the evening. How can digital technology overcome these deep rooted gender perceptions and stereotypes?
To conclude, one might have to repeat the often repeated clichés. While digital technology is necessary, it is not at all a sufficient intervention and a panacea for the development deficit as claimed by the digital evangelists. If the digital evangelists could accept this basic hypotheses, they would be doing a great service to the developmental sector!
*All views expressed here are personal.
About the author: Dr. Ajit Kanitkar is a Development Consultant working with the Tata Education and Development Trust for the last one year and a member of the research team at Vikasanvesh Foundation. Prior to this, he was Programme Officer at Ford Foundation, and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, both in New Delhi and a faculty member at IRMA in Anand.
This article was originally published on India Development Review.