Digital Education: Can India Afford To Miss This Bus?

While India takes, or at least plans to take, steps towards the future of education, similar perspectives in education policy and content designs are now becoming visible in other nations as well

Photo Credit : Reuters,

Amidst the World Bank projections that set India to be the world’s fastest-growing major economy, a big question that one can’t help but ponder over is whether India can leverage its current demographic dividend, emerge as a global powerhouse in the international arena and hold up this trend of accelerated growth. Or will this demographic ‘dividend’ become the biggest curse of the 21st century in light of the fourth industrial revolution that we are undergoing in the form of big data, cyber systems, robotics, and artificial intelligence? 

It does not take much effort or time to gauge the current state of India’s education system—one look at the reports on learning outcomes, like National Assessment Survey or ASER, or a short trip to government schools, which cater to the bulk of Indian children, away from the metropolitans will suffice. The current average spending on education, which in recent times has been around 3.5% of the GDP, ensures that our schools are massively under-resourced and far from being capacitated to fulfill the educational needs of coming times. Further, committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, India is liable to achieve quality and gender parity in learning outcomes until the secondary education level, ensure technological and vocational skill access, and, among several other things, provide access to trained and qualified teachers to all learners, especially including the socio-economically and spatially marginalised ones. There is thus an immediate need to revamp education in the country, to not only achieve the SDGs, but also empower the youth to face the disruptions in the coming times.

Technological transformations carry the potential to completely transform the state education in India through digital education. Through ‘digitisation’ in education, there lie tremendous opportunities to boost efficacies of educational processes like teaching-learning methods in classrooms, by several factors. Through this work stream, learners may be positioned to acquire age and grade appropriate academic competencies, not just rapidly, but also in technology interactive and joyous ways. Education of ‘the digital’ is the other aspect of digital education that is critical to making today’s learners future-ready and be empowered to face technological disruptions that will come our way in the near, if not immediate, future.    

The obvious advantages that digitized education offer over traditional methods are interactive and user-friendly interfaces, all-available repositories of curricular and supplementary resources, and enhanced visualization tools that are especially critical for science subjects. The massive surge in the number of tech-based education products mapped to various education boards is thus not surprising. Technological interventions have showcased impacts in terms of faster acquisition of knowledge through digital contents. Yet, the biggest challenge in actualizing these projects at scale, at the school level, is the investment required. This is associated with the minimum prerequisite infrastructure, which is usually a desktop at the classroom level, which the teachers use to teach and/or tablets that children may use in groups of two or three, and the high purchase and license costs of the technology products. The current funding envelopes of government budgets would vastly be insufficient, given that it is failing to cover even the most basic requirements in education.  

Although challenges regarding access to technology and gender divide in technology exist, with the advent of affordable mobile phones and internet packs, even in the remote and disempowered geographies of a country, technology may itself overcome this issue of access. Affordable technology thus can become a vehicle for digital education and reach up until the final mile. This may even resolve the conundrum described previously, to an extent. Yet, there is another caveat to this approach; tech-based education programmes must ensure that they protect the learners from the unsupervised use of technology platforms that may put the use of technology for education into doubt. Digital education programmes must ensure that with the rise of technology, the role of teachers, parents and the community is not undermined. Rather tech platforms must supplement these actors in transacting academics, while not ignoring the social and normative objectives of education. 

The most common prediction about technology disruption that commentators allude to is that bottom-most pedestal of the job market, in terms of skills, will be worst hit. The ones who are unskilled or semi-skilled, also the most vulnerable and ones who received the least opportunities and exposure, will be the ones to become obsolete with advances in technology. Coding and expertise in tech platforms, for instance, might become a prerequisite for several professions. Not too long ago there was a demonstration of a hotel where cooks programmed a robotic arm to make signature dishes, thus reproducing the taste with perfect precision. There is no telling by when such technologies might be mainstreamed in India. Thus, educational planning and policy need to be agile to deliver education to the digital world. It must enable learners to become digital natives—beyond just ‘reading’ in education, implying the use of digital platforms like WhatsApp or games—start ‘writing’ and creating in technology and digital platforms. The academia does offer age-appropriate open source digital creation platforms, the only lack is the needed emphasis to realize the importance of institutionalizing these contents in our formal education ambits for all learners, beyond the elite private schools in the metros. Although initiatives like Operation Digital Blackboard and NITI Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) are underway, yet to be seen are the outcomes derived, fluency of implementation and measures taken beyond simple physical provisioning. 

While India takes, or at least plans to take, steps towards the future of education, similar perspectives in education policy and content designs are now becoming visible in other nations as well. Estonia, for instance, has introduced coding in its public education system from the primary level. The UK, the US, and Canada might follow suit soon and the others might do too. The big question then becomes can India transform its current education system to match up to the needs of the rapidly changing requirements of the industry and nature of demands of the job markets, or will it find itself in a catch 22 of obsolete and inferior skill attainments, inability to swiftly renew the delivery mechanisms due to sheer bulk of population and decline in relative efficiencies in the economy, vis a vis other nations, that may arise due to technology disruptions. India did miss the first three industrial revolutions due to colonial exploitation and post-independence era struggles; can it really afford to miss the bus again?

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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