From Learning Poverty To Learning Abundance
The need to embrace disruption in education to close learning gaps.
Ever since ancient humans first discovered fire, we as a species have been using technology to scale up, advance society, and bring about prosperity or abundance. In no era has this been more visible than in the period after World War II, when millions and millions were lifted out of poverty on the back of the rapid application of technology to solve real-world problems. However much of this approach was geared to a world transitioning from an agricultural base to an industrial base. As we approached the end of the second decade of the 21st century, many of these solutions seemed unsuitable for the transition from an industrial world to an information world. And this is especially true of the way we impart education and build up skills for an evolving world. The COVID pandemic, and the pause that it has introduced into our education systems at all levels, allows us the chance to reimagine this system as one that brings an end to learning poverty and allows us to build learning abundance.
Learning Poverty is a term coined by the World Bank in 2019 to articulate disparities in education. It essentially refers to children who by the age of 10 cannot read and understand simple text. Learning poverty is exacerbated by poverty, war, and now, the pandemic. The World Bank says that the COVID pandemic will push into poverty about 72 million children worldwide. There are over 330 crore students in India, and with a question mark still hovering over vaccination for children, a second-year in lockdown seems imminent. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation called the Loss in Learning due to the Pandemic, conducted with over 16,000 students across 1137 public schools in 5 states, showed a significant drop in learning because of the pandemic. There was a significant loss in language and mathematical ability (Figure 1: Source: Field Studies: Loss in Learning during the Pandemic).
How do we ensure that our students don’t slip into learning poverty or unlearn what they have learned and can get ahead despite the COVID years? With the second wave hitting India, and predictions for the third wave, how do we ensure that more children do not slip into learning poverty and that we build technologies and systems of access to allow this and future generations of learners to experience learning abundance?
This is not the first time that we have looked to technology to deliver learning objectives. In the years that followed World War II, the power of early television was harnessed by nations like Australia and India to provide education and learning to different age groups. We see variants of this approach in Doordarshan stepping in to help students by broadcasting curriculum-specific lessons in each market; we see private players like the Khan Academy providing concept-based learning, and then there are apps that behave almost like virtual tuition teachers. Yet all of them have the same flaw – they have tried to replicate the traditional mode of ‘one to many’ teaching; the only thing that has changed is the mode of delivery.
And this is the opportunity provided by the COVID lockdown. We have the technology today to customise learning to the individual student, allowing her to learn at her pace. We really do not have to teach all 60 students in a class identically – not accounting for their interests, aptitude, social reality, or cultural context. There is no reason why students today can’t explore, both deeper and wider, subjects and interest areas that will expose them to a greater range of influences and experiences, allowing them to glimpse the wondrous and awe-inspiring things in their world. There is no reason to be limited by geography or curriculum when all the information in the world is available on a smartphone. There is no reason why we can’t use technology to democratize education. There is no reason why the learning that exists in various pockets across the world cannot be evaluated, classified, and deployed for learning across geographies. You just need to curate most of what exists into easily consumable chunks to provide the learner with a great learning experience, putting them on the path to learning abundance.
This is the future, and the only debate is whether it is the near future or a distant one. The first gap that needs to be closed to achieve this future, is access. We usually understand access as technology and bandwidth. The questions we ask are: are there enough devices; are these devices sufficiently functional to provide a ‘good’ learning experience; and is there enough bandwidth. But access is more than that – how are you going to design this so that it works well for both someone from a posh home in the metro and a child who lives in the mountains in a remote village? How do you account for differences in language, dialects, and reference points? While this would have been a mammoth task using traditional media, it is definitely more doable using interactive media. The second aspect that we talk about is availability – and this usually refers to the teachers. There is no reason for us to say there are no teachers available when we can deploy the best teachers from all over the world to bring about a sea change in education. It is because our frame of reference tells us that education is imparted in a traditional classroom, with a teacher at the front, and students looking at her –we are unwilling to see the possibilities that technology offers. If we break the tyranny of space and time and look at structured anytime learning for a student, would we be able to achieve learning abundance?
For many students, both in school and at college, the pandemic has been a jolt. It has not just stopped them from going to school—it has also had a major impact on what they have learned. When we build back better after the pandemic, we have to be mindful of the fact that we have to build a more equitable education system that gives the child in the most remote village the opportunities to achieve their true potential. And this means reimagining how our children should be learning and deploying all the technologies available to help them learn better.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house
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