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Digital Education – OpEd

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The majority of us have become dependent on technology and its presence on our life, such that we integrate technology to a perfection in every walk of our life. Systems within the schools too are no exception and are demanding changes. This is probably why technology integration in the learning environment is necessary. Learning improves and classrooms get a boost thanks to the comfortable integration of technology. There’s a way in which technology can be successfully integrated in classrooms such that it is beneficial to the students.

Digital education has taken over the traditional chalk and blackboard method in a big way. Educational institutions are now utilizing technology to make teaching a more interactive and simple affair. Virtual classrooms, e-lectures, web conferencing and online courses, inter alia, are plethora of options giving education a digital future. No doubt, there has been a surge in the number of education start-ups in India over the last two years, but only a fraction of them survive as product delivery remains a challenge for most. Since high-end technology is not feasible, we have had to set up a class with basic equipment and internet speed. Teachers could be located anywhere; all they need is a webcam and internet.

E-learning, however, comes with its share of glitches. The set up requires high speed internet connection which needs to be on even if classes are not being held. However, it got a lukewarm response from both parents and students. The parents preferred to have a more real teacher-student interaction for their children. Even then, using technology for education is a great tool if harnessed properly.

The typical Indian classroom was once characterized by students sitting through hour-long teacher monologues. Now, technology is making life easier for both students and educators. Schools are increasingly adopting digital teaching solutions to engage with a generation of pupils well-versed with the likes of Play Stations and iPads, and trying to make the classroom environment more inclusive and participatory. Technology makes the teaching-learning process very easy and interesting. For instance, earlier it would easily take teacher one full lecture to just draw an electromagnetic cell on the blackboard. Though s/he could explain the cell structure, there was no way s/he could have managed to show them how it really functions. This is where technology comes to teacher aid — now s/he can show the students a 3D model of the cell and how it functions. Instead of wasting precious time drawing the diagram on the blackboard, teacher can invest it in building the conceptual clarity of the students.

Recently, schools in tier two- and tier three- cities are increasingly adopting the latest technology. More than half of the demand for digital classrooms is from such small cities. Schools in these smaller cities realize that it is difficult for their students to get as much exposure as students from tier one cities. Apparently, they proactively subscribe to solutions which richly benefit both the teachers and students by simplifying the syllabus…. Even parents want the best for their wards and are not averse to paying a little extra. They see value in these initiatives by schools to modernize the way teaching is imparted today.
Educomp Solutions, Everonn Education, NIIT, Core Education & Technologies, IL&FS and Compucom are dominant players in this sector. New entrants include HCL Infosystems, Learn Next, Tata Interactive Systems, Mexus Education, S. Chand Harcourt (India) and iDiscoveri Education. Except for S. Chand Harcourt, which is a joint venture between S. Chand and US-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, all others are Indian firms.

Take Smartclass from Educomp Solutions, one of the first Indian companies in this space. Smartclass is essentially a digital content library of curriculum-mapped, multimedia-rich, 3D content. It also enables teachers to quickly assess how much of a particular lesson students have been able to assimilate during the class. Once a topic is covered, the teacher gives the class a set of questions on a large screen. Each student then answers via a personal answering device or the smart assessment system. The teacher gets the scores right away and based on that, she repeats parts of the lesson that the students don’t appear to have grasped.

State governments are also giving a boost to the adoption of technology in schools. Edureach, a division of Educomp, has partnered with 16 state governments and more than 30 education departments and boards in the country, covering over 36,000 government schools and reaching out to more than 10.60 million students. Edureach leads the market with 27 per cent of the total schools where ICT projects have been implemented. As of now, Edureach has created digital learning content in more than 14 regional languages for these projects.

In line with this increasing interest in technology for school education, there has been a rush of education-focused tablet computers in the market. The most high-profile of these has been Aakash, which was launched by Kapil Sibal, than Union Minister for Human Resource Development in October 2011. The Aakash project is part of the ministry’s National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NME-ICT). It aims to eliminate digital illiteracy by distributing the Aakash tablets to students across India at subsidized rates. While the project itself has become mired in delays and controversy, it has generated a lot of awareness and interest among students around the educational tablet.

Meanwhile, DataWind, the Canada-based firm that partnered with the Union Government for the Aakash project, has also launched UbiSlate7, the commercial version of Aakash. India has huge opportunity for low-cost tablets.

Technology firm HCL Infosystems launched the MyEdu Tab, which is priced at around US$230 for the K-12 version. The device comes preloaded with educational applications and also books from the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government organization. “MyEdu Tab” has content offline and can be accessed over the cloud. It allows students to learn at their own pace. With a topic revision application and a self-assessment engine, students can evaluate their skills and knowledge on their own. Teachers can upload content, which can be accessed by students and parents for tasks such as homework and progress reports on their respective devices. The parent can monitor the progress of his or her child through the cloud-based ecosystem.

Micromax, a leading Indian handset manufacturer, also launched an edutainment device called Fun book. Micromax has also partnered with Pearson and Everonn to make available relevant content for students. Digital learning facilitated through tablets will revolutionize the educational space. Everonn has invested in developing content and services targeted toward tablet audiences.

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) resulted in significant cost savings and plays a huge role in education. In the state of Kerala, it has already had a huge impact in both saving costs and providing state-of-the-art access computing to students in government schools. FOSS has a huge number of packages for school students, many of which can be ported to local languages and used in schools. It is also helping disabled students in a big way, by enabling them to access digital resources using audio-visual aids.

ICT Interventions have had brought about significant improvement not only in student enrolment but attendance too and reduces student dropouts. Computer-aided education has improved the performance of children in subjects such as English, Mathematics and Science, which are taught through computers using multimedia-based educational content.

According to the “Indian Education Sector Outlook — Insights on Schooling Segment,” a report released by New Delhi based research and consultancy firm Technopak Advisors, the total number of schools in India stands at 1.3 million. Of these, one fifth was private schools. But nearly one-tenth of the private schools have tapped the potential of multimedia classroom teaching whereas in government schools, it has barely made any inroads. The current market size for digitized school products in private schools is expected to grow at a CAGR {compound annual growth rate} of 20 per cent to reach the over US$2 billion mark by 2020. However, the market potential might get as big as US$4 billion if the total population of private schools adopts multimedia. Apart from this, the current market size for ICT in government schools is expected to grow five times by 2020 due to level of penetration in government schools, which is around 750 million US$.

There are, however, several logistical issues. Delivery of equipment to rural areas is a big challenge in itself. There is lack of basic infrastructure — either there are no classrooms or there are ones with no windows…. Some schools don’t even have toilets. Moreover, the power availability in these areas is often poor and has had to deploy generator sets in majority of schools. But despite the challenges, educationists are optimistic. They believe that “ICT” can have a huge impact on our education system resulting in increasing the reach of education at costs low. With increasing penetration of mobile phones and Internet kiosks, the potential is indeed immense.

Though the schools in India are going through technological transformation, one key question is how big a role technology will play in the education sector. There are four parts to learning — lectures, library, laboratory and life. But Technology- fifth part plays a critical role in all these. Despite numerous studies on the impact of ICT in education, the outcomes remain difficult to measure and open to much debate. It needs to be understood that technology is only an enabler and a force multiplier and cannot be treated as a panacea. We believe that impressive gains in teaching-learning outcomes are possible only through an integrated approach rather than a piecemeal intervention.

However, there is a need of caution in considering potential investments in educational technologies. These are very exciting times for online and distance education technologies, but there are risks facing parents, educators and policy makers in evaluating the opportunities these new technologies and their proponents represent. There is recent growth in high-quality, free, online educational courseware offered on websites like the Khan Academy and the Math Forum, as well as the work of the Open Learning Initiative in developing intelligent cognitive tutors and learning analytics. But such technologies, available from a global network of resources, only provide value when understood, chosen and integrated into a local educational community.

Interventions by governments and NGOs must be inclusive of local community concerns and aware of local political complications.  Spending on technology requires deciding the outcome of integration of technology in classroom. What is your vision for successful integration of technology? Spending without vision would mean unnecessary spending to improve a system that you have barely understood. Aging systems in schools can desperate integrate technology. One need to know how the current system works like and what kind of improvisations are planning to bring in with the new technology integration.

Only then we can rope in technology within classrooms. The technology should be capable of empowering students. They should be able to analyze, think and create new things based on the technological improvisations brought in by the school. Unnecessarily restriction on technology use makes students unable to innovate and create. Most technology integration in classrooms makes this sort of mistake. School staff as well as students needs to rope in more than just explaining the module during their training. They must be provided hands on training as well as in-depth training on the various modules of using the technology. Make technology training comfortable for them. Integration of technology is an ongoing process which will need varied kinds of training at different times. The technology integration should take care of the varied skill levels displayed by people and take care of it.

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth is Founder–Director of Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies

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