An important challenge for the Indian economy over the next few decades is to exploit the “demographic dividend” of having a large share of the population of working age. This dividend will only be earned with a well-educated workforce which in turn requires a strong school system.
In recent decades, India has increased school enrolment but struggled to deliver actual learning. An annual survey conducted by the NGO Pratham spotlights large learning deficits in basic reading and arithmetic. Only half of Class V students can read texts meant for Class II. More than half the students in Class VIII struggle to do simple division. Behind these abysmal outcomes are major structural problems including ineffective and sometimes absent school teachers, particularly in rural India.
Education technology (Edtech), mainly information and communication technology, can address these problems by delivering better lessons, training teachers and motivating students. In recent decades, the cost of computing has plummeted to the point where edtech is feasible even in relatively poor countries. Tablets cost as little as Rs. 2000 and India has the cheapest mobile data plans in the world.
At its most basic, edtech can help to deliver high-quality lessons in a variety of formats: text, video, games and interactive tutorials. On any given day, there are thousands of teachers who are teaching the same topic. Some do it well and others poorly. A well-made video can use the very best teachers and support them with graphics and animations. Once this video has been prepared, it can be watched potentially by millions of students over many years. The video can be supplemented with interactive quizzes which provided instant feedback to the student.
A deeper benefit of edtech is the ability to tailor lessons as per the progress of the student. For example Mindspark, a computer-assisted learning software developed by an Indian company, delivers lessons through videos, games and questions on computers and tablets. The software analyses each student’s learning level, pitches content suitable for this level and adjusts the difficulty according to the student’s progress. A study by MIT’s J-PAL evaluated a version of Mindspark targeted at 619 students in government schools in Delhi and found significant gains in Maths and Hindi. The initiative was also cost-effective with a monthly cost of around Rs. 1000 per student and an estimated cost under Rs.150 if the program was scaled up.
Another application of edutech, backed by research, is simple behavioural interventions delivered through technology, often just SMS messages. While the benefits of these interventions tend to be moderate, their cost is extremely low making them ideal for a low-budget school system. For example, automated text messages to parents about their child’s performance were found to increase both attendance and exam performance.
Edtech can be both a complement and a substitute for teachers. In a school where the teachers are very poor or frequently absent, edtech can provide a baseline of education inputs for students to study on their own. However edtech can also help improve teachers. For example, Kenya’s literacy program Tusome, uses coaches equipped with tablets who visit classrooms, evaluate student reading skills, provide tailored advice to teachers and upload assessment data to administrators. The ideal situation is to combine good teachers with technology, for example in a “flipped classroom” where students learn the material on their own through videos and other instructional material while class time is devoted to problem-solving and project work with a high level of interaction between teachers and students.
Taking advantage of the edtech opportunity will require deep collaboration between the government, private sector and NGOs. Technology companies like Byjus, well- funded by venture capital, are already investing heavily in technology-driven education but their business model is oriented more towards well-off families who can pay for their services. If these technologies are to serve the vast hinterland where they are most needed, public funding is needed at least initially. NGOs and universities also have important role in trying out new ideas and rigorously assessing existing projects with randomised evaluations. Once a critical mass of research validates particular edtech solutions as cost-effective methods of delivering learning, public funding can help scale them through the whole school system, possibly in partnership with the private sector.
In many ways, India is the ideal country to deploy edtech. The fixed costs of developing new educational material can be spread across a vast system of more than 260 million students. India’s large cost-effective software industry and comparatively decent telecom infrastructure also make it a good candidate. And certainly the potential impact is immense. If edtech can deliver better learning for today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce it could help accelerate economic growth for a generation.
N Sawaikar is core faculty in Economics at the S.P. Mandali’s Prin. L.N. Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research (WeSchool). His interests include the technology sector and its role in economic development. Views are personal.
[This article has been reproduced with permission from Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research (WeSchool)]