By Abhishek Bhatnagar:
In this technological era, solutions and information related to almost any topic are available at the click of a button. Waves of technological modernisation have swept various sectors, with one technology overtaking and making the other obsolete in a matter of few years. In audio-visual communication, for example, the transition from cassettes and CDs to DVDs to USBs to wireless visualisation has happened in a matter of about a decade.
Similarly, transformative technologies are now sweeping the education ecosystem, with digitalisation of content and virtual learning becoming the buzz-words. Beyond the more obvious advantages that technology offers, interactive and user-friendly interfaces, one-stop knowledge banks (and other study resources) and enhanced visualisation tools (which are especially critical for science subjects) can address the current gaps in the Indian education system and its delivery mechanisms.
According to a UNICEF report, “The State Of The World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital Age”, a third of the world’s children do not have access to the internet. Naturally, most of these children are from economically, spatially and socially-marginalised backgrounds. Yet, with the advent of affordable mobile phones and data packs, technology interfaces are fast reaching the most remote geographies of the country.
This access to technology has the potential to bridge the social capital gap between urban and rural India. Social capital, simply put, is the presence and access to networks, groups and avenues that influence individual capacity-building and opportunities for growth. Social capital is the process which leads doctors’ children to opt for medicine as a profession – and marginalised children tend to seek modest employment due to limited social capital available to them.
With all its advantages, technology can also be a double-edged sword. This sudden surge in access to the internet has caught the ecosystem off-guard. The infrastructure for using technology for educational purposes remains weak, in the case of schools. There are also limited opportunities to monitor children’s online usage – a large share of India’s school-going children are first-generation learners, so their parents currently play a limited mediating role.
For example, in Hardoi, a district lagging in education even by Uttar Pradesh’s standards, there are a large number of young people wasting their precious educational years watching inappropriate content on their low-cost smartphones. These same phones could have served as a vital source of information and empowerment, but in most cases, they are not. Notwithstanding the misuse of technology interfaces amongst the youths from middle class urban families, a more targeted usage of technology can be seen that produce opportunities to enhance their academic outcomes. This may be used to better enhance the effects of mediation from the parents’, caregivers’ and academic faculties’ ends.
On the other hand, while considering digital platforms in the urban context, the aspect of child protection (physical and psychological) cannot be skipped. Unmediated usage of digital platforms has made children more susceptible to online bullying and private information leakages.
Another challenge is that the educational content on digital learning platforms is mostly available in standard languages, which children (especially early learners) from linguistic minorities may not connect well with. For example, in tribal areas of Odisha, educational IT-based tools may be available in Oriya (and mainly in English), which will, in all probability, not be read as by children from tribal communities which speak Santhali or Ho.
On similar lines, online content is frequently not socially contextualised to the needs of marginalised learners. A simplistic, and perhaps hyperbolic, example of this would be the real-life experiences of children who are taught to count by showing reference images of ice-hockey pucks, instead of marbles (in an Indian context). It would be difficult to imagine the psychological impact on a young first-generation learner, who comes from a socially-excluded background and is unable to correlate with either the language or the contents of the tool.
In this sense, technology may well bulldoze the ‘standard’ norm and catalyse the extinction process of marginalised languages, societies and cultures. Noteworthy here are the examples of virtual learning platforms that are straightaway applied in a blanket way to a wide range of social contexts – while remaining insensitive to learners’ specific needs and their backgrounds.
Technology interventions are often swept by the temptation of replacing teachers with digital learning platforms. Investment on teachers and their professional development is often being seen as optional – something which is easily replaceable by the online tool. Educational projects now look at technological tools to reach children directly. One must recognise that the purpose of education goes beyond the simple attainment of academic outcomes. Education aims at making the children and youth develop to their full potential and become model citizens. For this, a human touch is critical. Technology cannot replace this.
Good IT-based education programmes must support the professional agency of teachers. Furthermore, education systems should enable teachers to use information technology in their classrooms and enable them to mediate the usage of IT platforms in a more constructive and inclusive manner – to transform the face of the Indian education system.
Policies and technological interventions must aim to ensure the constructive use of technological platforms, viz. enhancing the quality of educational transactions by creating constructive spaces for engagement with not only children and adolescents, but also parents and teachers.
Planning and policy-making concerning the introduction of digital and virtual learning platforms in education may well take cue from the experience of the Swacchh Bharat. This may be a seemingly incompatible parallel, but it does suggest a line of action for the way ahead. While facilities have been put in place for both, the functionality of the infrastructure remains limited. At the same time, the access to provisions need to be supported by behavioural changes and hand-holding efforts to ensure the intended usage of facilities.
Just as the construction of toilets does not ensure the eradication of open defecation, the mere distribution of laptops and mini-solar panels will not change the nature of education in India or improve learning in a sustainable manner. Ensuring the access of technology without putting place supportive mediating and behaviour-change mechanisms in place risks may lead to the failure of IT interventions to leverage success. At worst, it can be dangerous if a child’s online usage is not mediated.
The author is the Senior Manager, Education, CARE India.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.