Not by Technology Alone

29 Nov

Technology is an enabling tool to promote education. But it must be put to use in such a manner that the benefits reach every class and student in the country

Build it and they shall come, and behold, the light shall dawn upon them. That seems to be the promise of technology in education in popular urban myths. Led by the spectacular discoveries in the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ experiment a while ago, where Sugato Mitra, while working at NIIT, had a computer built into the outside wall of his office so that the children who played in the streets outside could access it. The self-learning skills of the children were impressive and have been suitably replicated across the world.

The current investment in the Aakash tablet seems to be built on similar beliefs — give them the tools and they shall do the job. The grand-scaled Massive Online Open Courses and the Khan Academy videos have certainly increased the reach of knowledge, while upping the quality stakes considerably. The challenge now is to convert these into employable, reliable skills and knowledge.

That is not the case yet. It may well be true that in remote areas, or in impoverished ones where teachers and classes are almost non-existent, the pure technology solution has a role. But it is equally true that the role of a teacher as a guide and facilitator are central to the learning process. There is ample evidence to prove that pure learning alone does not have as great an impact as blended learning does. It is only reasonable for there to be greater value to a diversified approach where technology supports the learning process. And utterly unreasonable to expect ‘technology’ to create agencies of learning. Technology itself is just an agent.

Has classroom engagement increased due to the intervention of technology solutions? Clearly yes. Gali Gali Sim Sim’s interventions in very young children have delivered marked and measured improvements in literacy and numeracy levels, as have the interventions of the Shiv Nadar Foundation and Azim Premji foundation amongst others. There is evidence to show that a well-designed technology centric support system that is implemented well has improved learning in the classroom. Often its greatest value is in giving structure and motivation to a teacher’s experience, sometimes its value is in allowing the learner to take charge of their own learning.

Learning via technology is about diversifying the learning experience beyond local constraints. While the cost and reliability of the provision must impact the decision to invest, it is also true that it can supplement local efforts if done well. It is possible to design content for different types of learners. Technology can add contained kinesthetic experiences, add audiovisual experiences that can build for both interaction and reflection. It can do many of the things a good teacher would do, but often may not have the energy or the motivation to do — in such a way that the learner controls the pace and process. It can also enable the learner to chose the proportion of peer learning or solitary they want to work with. The interesting thing that we have learnt about e-learning is that it empowers both the learner and the teacher.

Indian realities force us to admit that bringing technology into the school classroom is going to be challenging at worst and exciting at best. On one hand we barely have enough electricity in far flung areas, where education is ill served. We do not have the internet connections, nor again the electricity to run the giant servers a national network will require.

We barely have functional libraries to create hubs for self-directed learning. Schools, even where functional, are not seen as community learning hubs yet, nor do we have community colleges. On the other hand, we have vast and deep mobile phone penetration and locally negotiated norms for sharing property such as phones. Solutions need to be designed for these needs, and they must not depend on a single device.


This Op-Ed was published in the Pioneer Newspaper on November 29, 2012 and was entitled ‘Turn on the Lights, Dawn will come”

The key paragraph, the conclusion however was omitted: Here it is


With such a diverse and scaled set of challenges it is interesting to note that a single device is being seen as a panacea, albeit an unproven one. Fixating on one device, its specifications, cost and where it was manufactured is rather a waste of time when the quest should be for stronger models based on national priorities. Devices will keep improving, there will always be the next one, prices keep coming down and becoming smarter. We should continue to work to deliver value at accessible price points but a solution cannot be built around a single device or device type. Focus on needs, design models, implement well. Technology is just another tool in the toolkit, as is language.




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