Reimagining School Education Post-COVID: Winning Beyond The Crisis

While technology has disrupted many sectors and spaces around us, formal education has largely remained untouched by technology except for the privileged few.

It is often said that the only difference between the classroom of 2020 from that of a few centuries ago is perhaps that the teachers don’t wear robes and the kids do not sit under trees. While technology has disrupted many sectors and spaces around us, formal education has largely remained untouched by technology except for the privileged few. When it came to large government school systems and underprivileged populations, ed-tech interventions have always been the footnote on a page largely occupied by mid-day meals, toilets, teacher training and timely book delivery.  

However, this is changing in previously unimaginable ways under the burden of COVID. As schools shut down in mid-March, over 250 Mn school students lost access to schooling. In the last 4-6 weeks, not only the top-end private schools but also central and several state governments have been forced to rise up to the challenge and come up with multi-modal remote learning strategies involving TV, Radio as well as digital mediums like curated YouTube playlists sent over Whatsapp. Within weeks each state has seen lakhs of students (hitherto untouched by digital education) adopt this content, thereby exposing the massive demand for digital education even from the low-income segment. While in percentage terms it is not yet significant, millions of viewers within weeks for a completely new offering is something most tech companies will be envious of.  

And while this conversation began with the ‘transient’ – the immediate response; within just 4 weeks, school systems and leaders are already beginning to speak the language of the ‘transformational’ – what can ed-tech mean in the long term even for poorer kids, for rural kids?   We are already seeing the beginnings of long-term behavioural change. As students and teachers, especially those from public schools interact with digital education for the first time, they are mesmerized by the potential power of it. “Why did we wait for COVID to go digital” is a common refrain. A child is suddenly seeing the value of learning about the solar system through a beautiful AV clip as against the chalk and talk approach alone. A teacher is seeing how digital can make her life much easier in class and also at home if she found a way to access it.  

There are three different ways in which Ed-tech can fundamentally transform learning for government school students and teachers, even at the bottom of the pyramid.  

The connected classroom:  Imagine each class with a simple TV or a laptop and projector – costing 30-40K! Thanks to the immediate response efforts, a massive and well-curated online library of local language learning content are coming together across the country. For every chapter in every book of every subject, for every competency defined by NCERT’s NCF – ranging from forming two-letter words to understanding the solar system to do fractions – we now have beautiful engaging audio-visual content and exercises available on a hard drive or a pen drive or YouTube channels.  As students and parents have engaged with this content, 90% plus have said they loved it and found it to be effective. Imagine this content playing in the classroom along with a teacher also using the blackboard! Will the kids learn and absorb more? Amortised over 3 years, is that Rs 500 per child investment worth it? This is less than the amount of money spent on serving the child a mid-day meal every day.  

Ubiquitous learning – anytime/anywhere: Today, for first-generation learners – learning comes to a halt as soon as they step away from the 4-5 hours spent at school. There is no one to teach at home, nothing to learn from except plain old school textbooks. On top of this, actual learning time inside schools barely crosses 50% of the school day, and student attendance hovers at 60%.  

Imagine having access to relevant digital content at home on your parents’ smartphone! In the last few weeks, many states have created thousands of parent Whatsapp groups. Imagine that the teacher takes 10 minutes to send 2-3 videos and exercises over WhatsApp every day linked to the topics she taught in the classroom. This could even include some gamification, quizzes, and more. Learning could expand from 4 hours a day to 6-7, and to weekends! Most importantly, access to the wide world of digital education content puts choice back in the hands of the consumer and provides access to a truly liberal education. 

A Virtual University for the Educators: The unfortunate reality of our government school system is also that the quality of existing teachers is below required standards. Thanks to a plethora of factors ranging from archaic recruitment practices to under-regulated teacher training institutes, many states have a teacher base where a significant percentage lack basic knowledge of concepts or associated pedagogies themselves. Leveraging high quality digital professional content and making them available for active consumption by teachers is, therefore, the need of the hour. Unless we invest in the skill development of our teachers, other efforts are likely to be futile. 

The changes described above are not revolutionary ideas but can herald a revolutionary impact. With a requisite will, they are doable with limited effort and investment. Governments will need to take 5 specific steps.  

Firstly, governments will have to sanction a one-time investment of ~1000-2000 crores on digital devices for a medium-sized state. Most states have a 10000 crore+ education budget. Between central, state, CSR and development bank resources, this isn’t a large amount. Secondly, states will need to provide the necessary supporting infrastructure. 20-30% of schools still lack access to electricity which should be unacceptable in the third decade of the 21st century, especially when the nation has been on a 100% electrification mission for more than 5 years. This is not a financial problem but one of governance. Thirdly, there is a need for collaboration between ed-tech organisations to address the existing gaps in digital learning content – particularly in local language content, language pedagogy, and teacher professional development. Given the breakthrough growth of the ed-tech sector, this will only require support and direction from central bodies like NCERT, MHRD and NITI Aayog.  

Fourthly, states will also have to invest in mitigating the potential negative impact of the digital divide. This can be achieved through collaboration with telecom companies to invest in wider and deeper data and internet coverage as well as putting in place policies to invest in free data packs in select geographies. Lastly to emerge as a leader in the ed-tech space, especially in the developing sector context,- incentivizing the private sector to pursue innovation in ed-tech particularly in the field of AI-driven adaptive and personalized learning pathways will be critical.

Winning beyond the COVID crisis involves recognizing that we’re at the doorstep of an opportunity to create a paradigm shift, to ‘democratise’ education in a manner that has not even been fathomed so far. COVID 19 will end, but can the new learning journey go on? 

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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