Dileep Ranjekar: 'There has never been a national vision to deploy technology in schools'
‘Tech has to be teacher driven in schools’
Civil Society News, New Delhi
MUCH store is being placed by online learning. Companies in the business of tutoring children are now being valued at billions of dollars. Word has been getting around that digitized learning is the way to bridge huge backlogs in education. But transforming the classroom through technology may not, however, be so easy.
In fact, going by experience, bringing in technology by itself will probably yield few benefits. Teachers are needed to use technology well and provide the human touch in the learning process.
There is also the possibility that clumsy attempts to push technology without adequate preparation may actually have the opposite effect by further weakening an already inadequate school system. It could result in widening of the gap between the rich and the poor who don’t have access to the required infrastructure or the resources to invest in devices.
Previous experiments show that for technology to deliver a better quality of education, it needs to be first espoused and comfortably used by the teacher.
To find out more, we spoke to Dileep Ranjekar of the Azim Premji Foundation (APF), which introduced digital learning resources as an attempt to provide alternative learning experiences for schoolchildren 20 years ago with limited results. Edited excerpts from the interview:
The Azim Premji Foundation tried putting digitized lessons in government schools, but it didn’t seem to work out to satisfaction. What was the learning from that initiative?
To begin with, they were not digital lessons but “digital learning resources” (DLR) to provide a learning experience which was interactive and self-paced. This was initiated in 2000 and continued till 2007 in the 10 percent of government schools which already had computers.
We were continuously taking stock of the effectiveness with which these schools were using the DLR. In 2007, we took stock of the programme through an external agency and got it well-researched for outcomes in four or five states. What we found was that in terms of learning there was no difference between the schools that had our digitized resources and those that did not.
There were some exceptions where there was a perceptible improvement in learning. But we found it was because teachers had actually understood the digital content and they were choosing to use it to supplement their pedagogy. Among the gains from the programme were better attendance and enrolment. There was community support and we found children being shifted from private schools to government schools.
So for the three important goals of enrolment, attendance and quality of learning, there were some positive results for two, but not for the third, barring exceptional cases.
The research revealed that 57 percent of the schools couldn’t use their computers either due to lack of electricity or maintenance issues with computers including simple things like a CD getting stuck in the computer.
By 2007, the focus of school education had shifted from attendance and enrolment to quality of learning. So we decided to probe further. Was the problem with the content of the DLR or the way it was getting deployed? Those were years when CDs were still in use and internet penetration was almost non-existent in schools.
To understand the real issues, we decided to do further research for a period of about two and a half years in three states: Odisha, Puducherry and Chhattisgarh. We said in some schools we would have no intervention. In some others we would focus on capacity building of teachers. And in a third category of schools we undertook both capacity building of teachers as well as letting them choose whatever digital learning resources they wanted to use as part of their teaching-learning.
Obviously, after two and a half years, the winner was the third category in which the capacity of teachers was enhanced and the technology they used was an integral part of their pedagogy.
So, the findings were very clear that the teacher is the pivot. The teacher’s capacity and understanding of what is education and how it should be carried out to get the best results with the children is the most critical issue. And unless the teachers integrated technology as an integral part of their pedagogical process, technology alone would not work.
One problem of the digital learning resources used by government schools was that teachers were not fully involved. There was a room, there was a computer and the classroom bell would ring and that period was a computer-aided learning class. But that was it. The teachers almost used it as relief for themselves.
How many states came on board for the computer-aided learning programme?
Eighteen states came on board as the DLR was available in as many as 21 different languages, including four tribal languages. Many of them were Hindi-speaking states. We had initially done a pilot in Mandya and Kolar districts of Karnataka. The government liked what it saw in the pilot and asked the Foundation to help implement the programme in over 500 schools across the state that already had computers.
We did not ask a single state to buy computers. The programme was for those government schools that already had computers but did not know what to do with them. Because, as far as we were concerned, it was not just about technology or computers but about an alternative experience of learning.
Much effort went into developing the DLR through visuals and storytelling so as to attract children. We must have invested around $2 million in the programme.
That was in 2007. We are now in 2021. Is the teacher better equipped to use digital learning tools today?
The majority of teachers are still hesitant and have apprehensions about using digital technology as a part of the educational process. It is because most of the teachers were not born in the technology era. The exceptions are the young teachers who got infused into the system during the past 15 years and who are comfortable with technology.
Infrastructure is a very real issue — infrastructure in the form of investment in technology, the availability of internet with the appropriate speed and bandwidth, etc. Electricity supply continues to be a problem. It is very unpredictable, especially in rural, semi-rural and many urban areas too. These constraints were more acute earlier, but they continue substantially.
Budgets for electricity and internet broadband are non-existent in almost all schools — it’s important to note that budgets provided by the government for teaching-learning material in many states is merely `500 per teacher per year — and that too has been discontinued by some states in the recent past.
Availability of high quality content in the local language is a big challenge. A few English-speaking elite (well-resourced) schools are able to go in for something the parents can afford to provide the required technological solutions to their children. A very minuscule percentage of students use content provided by only commercial organizations, not by organizations which are dedicated and focused on quality of education alone.
Are you saying that we don’t have a national strategy?
Absolutely correct. There has never been a national vision for deployment of technology in education — nor is it a part of teacher education. As a member of many government committees, I get amused when some very senior people, including ministers and bureaucrats, claim to have improved the quality of education in their states by merely providing computers. This is a very simplistic view. What do you do with that computer? How have you transformed the process of teaching and learning? How has the understanding of teachers improved in using these computers? What are the children allowed to do on the computer? What kind of technology are you using? There is no mention of all this.
It is all very simplistic and, unfortunately, even educated people who are not aware of the education process glibly speak of deploying technology to improve quality of education without reference to teachers. The reality is that there is not a single country where you have a valid example of technology in education being deployed on a mass scale to improve quality of education. We have travelled and observed education (including usage of technology) in many countries, including Australia, France, Japan, Singapore, the UK, US, etc and not found any experiment at scale.
The teacher can’t be replaced by the computer, but the computer or your digital learning can reinforce what the teacher does in a lead role? Is this what you are saying?
Exactly. I saw very interesting usage of technology in Finland. A real flower was projected as it is in the classroom. The parts of the flower could be magnified. That is the kind of technology we need to put in the hands of the teacher. In our own government schools, at some places where our digital learning resources were being used, I saw some fantastic innovations. But they had nothing to do with the vision of any particular government.
These are outliers.
Outliers that will fade away if not systematically encouraged.
There are companies in digital learning with fancy valuations. They are advertising and being written about all the time. A message seems to be going out that this is the way education needs to go. How do you see it?
Market forces do have an influence on everything, including education. But the sustainability of this current trend is seriously in question. We at the Foundation strongly believe that any technology intervention without a long-term vision, deep understanding of the education process and all teachers being involved in such deployment will not be sustainable. No short-cuts will help. In any case, only a minuscule population of the elite can afford the technology offered by these companies.
In the past few months, because of many aspects of the pandemic, divisions have grown between, let’s say, the elite and non-elite sections of society.
Let me quote the findings of research carried out by the Azim Premji Foundation across five Indian states, close to 26 districts and more than 1,500 public schools. This covered about 90,000 students or so. And the study brought out the non-effectiveness of online education.
An overwhelming majority of teachers and parents suggested that the online mode was inadequate and ineffective for education. And this has nothing to do with Byju’s and others, this is online education. Teachers shared their professional frustration with conducting online classes. More than 80 percent of the teachers expressed the impossibility of maintaining “emotional contact” with their students during these classes, thus eliminating the very basis of education, which is an emotional connect with learners. And more than 90 percent of teachers felt that no meaningful assessment of children’s learning was possible during online classes. It was just not possible.
Parents echoed the same sentiment with almost 70 percent being of the opinion that online classes were not effective for imparting learning to their children. They wanted the schools to reopen. The study also highlighted the massive, absolutely massive, digital divide. More than 60 percent of children could not access online education opportunities because of the non-availability of smartphones and difficulty in using apps. The issue of access was further exacerbated for children with disabilities. Ninety percent of teachers expressed their inability to deal with the problem of disability online.
Technology is not going to go away. There’s no question of us becoming less digital. What is it that you feel can be done to get teachers to utilize digital resources more effectively?
One thing I want to clarify is that, per se, we are not against technology. I and some of my colleagues really come from technology backgrounds, technology companies. What we don’t agree with is the glibness with which technology is deployed in schools. There has to be a vision for implementing technology.
An overall strategy.
There has to be a national vision that has to be mapped on the National Education Policy and the National Curriculum Framework. Anything detached from these two will have no future and no meaning.
It has to be designed for the last child.
Exactly. Including providing for ever-changing technology. You know, as the technology changes, what do you do? Having done this, the number one priority is actually improving the competence of teachers. Their outlook for overall education, their perspective of education, their alignment with the national policy documents on what education should achieve and how it should be transacted. We have to have very developed and very capacitated teachers who will look at technology as an additional, supplementary tool for making teaching-learning far more effective. So it has to be an integral part of the teaching-learning process and not be a standalone, it cannot be a one-off kind of thing, it cannot be used in an ad hoc manner.
So this brings us back to square one, that you first need a functioning educational system with a vision. And the biggest resource within the education system is the teacher because the teacher has to finally connect with the child.
Absolutely, absolutely. The government has opened schools to reach 97 percent of the population at the middle school level, and almost 99 percent at the primary level. Similarly, if the government thinks that technology is an important and integral aspect of education, it must provide for it in a meaningful manner, not just by placing computers and some smartboards and calling them smart schools. This is the same thing as smart cities, you know. Unless the city has certain very minimum things you can’t call a city a smart city.
If technology is considered to be an integral part of education, the government must provide for the same at its own cost — like it currently provides textbooks, mid-day meals and many other facilities free of cost.