This was first published in Bureaucrat Express, a print magazine dedicated to India’s IAS officers and other bureaucrats. I thought of resharing it for my other readers over here. (If you want to share your articles on education, edtech or anything else, write to me: firstname.lastname@example.org).
It has been promised for a long time that technology will change education for better – make it more affordable and accessible. The promise of educational technology is more important in Indian context because we have a massive deficit of access to high quality education at the primary and high school level due to a number of seemingly insurmountable challenges, ranging from geographical distribution to socio-economic condition of the learners who attend a majority of Indian schools. Also, the cost of educating one of the world’s greatest populations has been steadily increasing, and there is expectation that technology may make education affordable for those who are so far unable to benefit from the same.
This article will explore some macro-level models of education technology being used and technology focus areas, drawing examples from India and other countries.
There was a time when experts talked about education technology in terms of audio, visual and experiential technology. They also spoke about hardware technology, software technology and system based technology. These are now jargons of the past, as rapid strides made in the last decade in domain of education technology, sometimes called edtech, has made old concepts obsolete.
It is estimated that about a billion people globally are now benefitting from education technologies. Global investors have invested billions of dollars in education technology developers and the result is showing. In the US, edtech is a burgeoning industry growing at a breakneck speed.
India has not been exactly far behind, with a crop of Indian entrepreneurs working on edtech targeted at indigenous problems. For policy makers, it is very important to understand where the edtech industry is headed and how it’s potential can be tapped into in order to change the stark realities prevailing in India with respect to education at the grassroots.
Classroom based technologies
The earliest innovations and successful edtech business models were created around providing softwares and hardware to make the classroom experience better. A lot of this is about making multimedia based study material, and having computers and screens in classrooms where audio-visual material can be used to teach. However, progress in ed-tech has led to much more than just multimedia content in the classroom. Let’s take a look at some of the popular technology in use today.
This is what one of India’s most well know edtech company, Educomp excelled in. Educomp enabled classrooms have been a big success with elite schools and students. Educomp is now a listed company. There are many other entities working in this area, providing hardware and multimedia content to make classrooms more lively, more interactive and to reduce dependency on quality of teachers as finding good teachers is one the biggest challenges especially in rural areas.
Apart from hardware providers, and financing bodies which finance such projects, role of content developers is extremely important for this model to succeed. India has a lack of content creators working on creating multimedia learning material in regional languages while there are some content creators when it comes to English and Hindi language although limited.
The new government at the center has been emphasizing on e-learning to be introduced in all schools, but the biggest challenge is of sourcing suitable multimedia content which is regularly revised and updated. If a number of high-quality content creators cannot be found to work on study material on a sustainable basis, e-learning will remain only a pipe dream in India.
Education Resource Planning or ERP softwares have been adopted in private schools, but government schools are yet to make any meaningful use of these softwares. This can be a very important source of growth in efficiency and resources utilization in government schools as far as India is concerned. There are several indigenous ERP softwares developed by Indian entrepreneurs that can be roped in for this purpose. The major efficiency gain can happen in terms of scheduling of classes, planned budget allocation and continuous communication with students through mediums like email, automated calls using cloud telephony and SMS. Mumbai University was an early adopter of this technology.
One major fault of the school system is that it does not measure progress of students systematically. The progress report is a tool of the past, much more innovation has taken place in this area. For example, if a student is performing well in every subject except Geography, the school authority and parents should ideally be able to see all the data (exam scores, continuous evaluation performance, class participation, attendance etc.) related to the student’s performance. It is very easy to collect such data and create automated reports, graphs, alerts and action points for the benefit of principals, education policy makers, even individual teachers. Students who need special attention can be easily identified, and performance of teachers can become measurable as well. As management guru Peter Drucker said, what can be measured can be rapidly improved.
Not much work has happened in India around this, but this is a major opportunity to improve the education system in India. Most importantly, the big data collected through such performance tracking can be used by policy makers to strengthen the whole education system, measure the effect of grants and public money being spent much better than present standards, and make much better policies. Many states and school districts in the US have adopted this kind of technologies.
Getting students to do their homework is probably the most difficult thing for a teacher. Much of punishments are doled out for failing to submit homework or not doing assignments, and is a serious reason for concern. What if homework could be made more interesting, such games for young kids to be played on internet and smartphones? Even for senior students, reading, retention and application can be tested online, and data over the year can be collected to measure the track record of a student if assignment, correction and doing the homework can be taken online on a software based platform. This is what many software have achieved. Even several Indian edtech entrepreneurs are working on this aspect, and many private schools have adopted such systems. Such systems can also be part of an ERP or broader performance tracking systems.
Classroom based distance learning
This kind of technology became very popular in late nineties and remained in use throughout last decade. Satellite beaming of live classes or VSAT, study centers equipped with hardware where students interacted with a teacher teaching remotely became very common for a lot of private sector tutorials, especially for testprep. Even Indian government has tried to promote this model in the past with help from IITs, and EDUSAT was a venture in this line. However, while low cost and high speed of internet have made this technology more viable and VSAT unnecessary, infrastructure cost of study centers and real estate prices work as a restraint on this model.
Social platform for a classroom to interact online
Peer to peer learning can be very important, and a class should continue to interact and learn collaboratively even after class hours. This idea led many social learning platforms to come up. My own experiment in this space, in the year 2010, was CLAThacker which without any significant investment snowballed into a community of students preparing for law entrance exams from small towns where there were no coaching centers. They created learning resources, notes and shared with each other. This was learners from small towns conversant with computer coming up with a solution for themselves. This is the power of a social learning platform.
Many social learning platforms like Grockit, remixlearning.com have achieved tremendous success. In India, pagalguy.com is a good example, but there are not too many other instances of social learning, especially for primary and high school education. The school boards can definitely do a lot in this respect.
Classroom emulating online environments
Apart from technology that helps to enhance the classroom experience itself or is being used within the classroom, another major domain of technology is online learning environments where one can learn, give exams, attend lectures, get access to study materials and interact with faculty as well as other students.
Online learning management systems
These are computer-based learning environments that are used to deliver content, track progress of learners and sometimes to administer exams. This is quickly changing the horizon of possibilities when it comes to affordable access to high-quality teaching. Live classes with teachers can be conducted on such platforms, and pre-recorded material can also be uploaded. However, broadband penetration is important for this technology to become relevant, and recent progress in broadband availability in India has made this accessible for a significant number of Indian citizens.
This technology is now widely adopted in the private sector, with companies like Blackboard and WizIQ emerging as key players. At iPleaders, we have assisted top National Law Universities to adopt this technology, popularly called LMS (learning management system). However, adoption of this technology for primary and high school education remains very poor. Neither are there many teachers, not students opting for this technology except for in higher education. However, the government may use this to provide supplementary material, standard lectures, and deliver other content on a regular basis directly to every student in a state or even the country as long as they can have access to a computer.
Mobile based learning management systems
Typically in India, more people have access to smartphones with internet as opposed to computers with broadband connections. This is a big cause of investing significantly in mobile based learning technology. In the higher education courses administered by iPleaders, we see almost half of the users preferring to use our courses on smartphones and tablets while the rest prefers computers. There is no doubt that putting learning resources in the phone itself turns it into a very useful tool.
Mobile based courses have to be optimized for a smaller screen, lower computing power, and slower internet. This is a difficult task, but several Indian startups have got this right.
Gamification of learning
Gamification is one of the most appreciated approaches to technology-driven learning and is a potentially revolutionary idea. The biggest challenge in education is to engage students in a meaningful way, and make them genuinely interested in the subject. Gamification attempts to make this possible by reducing drudgery of studying and chances of getting distracted by embedding a lesson itself inside a game. Also, introduction of leaderboards, awarding of badges on completion of tasks, showing daily graphs of progress, breaking down learning in small tasks and so on tend to make a lot of students more interested in studying. Gamification can increase learner engagement to incredible levels, to the point of learning addiction. This is a phenomenon similar to a Facebook addiction, which is also a gamified platform.
Course development environments
Open education resources – course development systems
While there are very good course delivery platforms available, software that helps the teacher to create and curate courses effortlessly are fewer in number. However, this is a very important aspect as well. If good teachers are enabled to create courses that can be used by other teachers elsewhere, the shortage of quality content discussed earlier can be solved to a great extent. Keeping this is mind, some organizations have tried to create software that helps teachers to create a course. Google has taken some initiative in this regard. However, Projia is a leader in this space with its software that can help a teacher to rapidly find open education resources without copyright restrictions. While I am yet to know about primary school teachers or high school teachers doing this in India, National Institute of Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development has adopted Projia’s technology for some courses. Even we have experimented with this technology with success at iPleaders.
Adaptive teaching platforms
Not all students learn in the same way. Not every student’s weaknesses and strengths are the same either. Still, all modern education systems deliver the same content for everyone. Can this be changed? Can customized study material and teaching be delivered to every individual student according to what he needs? Adaptive learning platforms can adapt its content and delivery according to the needs and abilities of the student using the platform. This is a very advanced idea and can change the life of many students. Perhaps a technology like this can reduce the aversion a large number of students develop towards studying from an early age.
Rapid content authoring systems
Creating engaging content is very difficult. However, rapid content authoring systems help educators to create online content very quickly. Powtoon is a prominent example of a rapid content authoring system which helps to create simple animated videos very fast by anyone who knows basic functions of a computer. Without this technology, a teacher would have had to hire an animation studio to achieve the same.
There are many rapid content authoring tools available in the market for very reasonable prices at present, but adoption in Indian education space remains low. At iPleaders we use several rapid content authoring tools, including Powtoon, Articulate, and Camtasia.
It is a great idea to train Indian teachers to use such rapid content authoring tools and to give them incentives to create great e-learning content – this will make the e-learning eco-system in the country flourish.
Classroom delinked technology
There is also a lot of technology and e-learning business models that do not rely on traditional education system or the classroom at all. A great example is that of Duolingo, a language learning app available on android that is used by millions of people to learn several languages for free. I am myself an avid user of the same and have learned Spanish up to intermediate level using this app in about 6 months. Let’s explore some of these technology that is thriving in the global education market today.
Educational apps are very popular with millions of android and iOS device users all over the world. It is not unusual for parents to let toddlers or primary school going children to play educational games and using apps on iPad or android tabs, and even mobile phones. My tiny nephews spend hours on their mother’s iPad playing memory games, word games and puzzles that improve language skills and knowledge of grammar, and even learning foreign languages. It is amazing how stress-free the entire experience is for both parents and children.
There are apps that can help one to increase reading speed, or reduce the fear of maths. There are apps developed to make children more hygiene and health conscious which are being adopted by state governments in the USA for use of school children.
The fact that the price of tabs and smartphone is coming down significantly over the years and mobile internet is becoming very cheap – is very significant in this respect. How amazing it will be if Indian kids are able to learn skills and improve their linguistic, mathematical and cognitive abilities effortlessly and get access to world class education at a very low cost through apps.
However, what needs attention at the moment is that Indian kids get access to content that is relevant to India, localized in its context and something that Indian children and their parents can connect to and solve their problems with. This is where a significant gap remains and Indian entrepreneurs and teachers must be encouraged to participate in the process of developing such India specific apps and content.
Schools should also find out a way to use this wealth of educational resources available for almost no cost (in many cases) and the government can take an important role in expediting access.
The cost of printing and physically distributing textbooks to every nook and corner of a country like India is a major constraint on universal access to education. It has been shown through business models in US that it is much cheaper and cost effective to give selective access to chapters in a textbook through online software. Even publishers have noticed an increase in revenue through such models as they avoid piracy of textbooks – which happen to be widespread in India. Recently, Oxford University Press sued the Delhi University over this issue, and the matter is pending litigation.
If online textbook depository model can be implemented in India for school students, they may get access to millions of books on which no copyright exists for free On the other hand, new textbooks which are still protected by copyright can be given to them online at low costs.
Exercise and skill development apps
It is one thing to study, but the most monotonous and discouraging part is repeated practice. Many things like language skills and mathematical skills are learned and retained only through repeated practice. Computers and mobile apps can be a great aid for this. Take Duolingo as an example, I have been using this to develop my language skills in Spanish and French. There are apps in this category that are being built based on CBSE or ISC syllabus, for practicing maths or solving other topics.
Diagnostic tools and differentiated lessons
This is an amazing technology which is still under-utilized, especially in India. In other countries, this is being used in the testprep space and this is taking over all other teaching models inexorably. The idea is that not everyone needs to same lessons. Some people already know certain things, have certain weaknesses or can learn at different speeds. Hence, it is not appropriate and very inefficient to teach the same material to every student. One size does not fit all, and software can first diagnose what is the existing level of a person on any subject through diagnostic tests, and then create a customized study plan. I would eagerly look towards implementation of this technology in India, starting with the testprep industry.
This is a great way to make alumni associations actually work. The alumni can join a social network restricted to the alumni, interact with current students, other alumni, and faculty. This can be a great way to enhance recruitment networks for any institution, source of mentorship, as well as funds or donation for the educational institution from the alumni. This is relevant for both schools and colleges, and can generate great value for the institution as well as its alumni.