Post-COVID-19, public education systems must use technology to ensure equal access to learning and administrative efficiency
With outbreak of COVID-19, over 90% of learners world-over and 250 million students in India have been impacted. Govts are leveraging online platforms to facilitate education, while also coming up with solutions like alternative academic calendars to make up for the loss of school hours.
With the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, over 90 percent of the learners world-over and 250 million students in India have been impacted. Governments are leveraging online platforms to facilitate e-learning, while also coming up with solutions like alternative academic calendars to make up for the loss of school hours. This marks a rare inflection point, where the entire system is being forced to recalibrate its actions and delivery channels. This situation also provides each of us with an opportunity to pause and ask an important question — how can we collectively reimagine our public education systems to be more agile, flexible and resistant to such global crises?
In the past decade, through schemes like RMSA, the government has focused on enabling ICT-based education, by ensuring access to hardware and promoting digital literacy. Through recent initiatives like NROER and EPathshala, the government has actively promoted the use of media in learning. What can we expect next? While governments and schools tread along this path of uncertainty, they are starting to rely increasingly on technology to navigate through this situation.
The NEP 2019 highlights the importance of integrating technology at all levels, specifically underlining areas like disadvantaged groups, teacher professional development, and educational administration. As the pandemic begs for a paradigm shift, the government's efforts can be oriented towards leveraging scalable and flexible digital infrastructures to empower key stakeholders at every level. For this, technology needs to be effectively channelised towards three critical levers: equitable access to learning, delivery of learning, and administrative efficiency.
Democratising access to learning opportunities
Government school students face a huge gap in access to high-quality learning content and digital infrastructure. High number of teacher vacancies, poor quality of teacher training, and heterogenous learning levels of students have only exacerbated the problem. Through providing internet accessibility in remote regions, accelerating affordable smartphone ownership, and strengthening supply of contextualised and engaging content directly to students, many of these problems can be addressed.
In the past, the role of parental involvement in student learning has been minimal. This pandemic has put the onus on parents to ensure that learning continues at home, for which parents may not be adequately equipped. With access to a smartphone and internet, they now have an opportunity to access free digital content offered by multiple platforms, and help children be engaged and use their time productively. For instance, DIKSHA, a platform by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, provides free vernacular content, backed by low bandwidth capability and strong offline functionality.
Smartphones are still a luxury for most households. However, almost 80 percent of the population has a mobile connection. For those who do not have access to a smartphone, channels like radio, television, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and SMS can effectively be deployed to provide age-appropriate content and instructions to parents and teachers. For instance, the Delhi government is leveraging SMS and IVR to provide parents with daily activities for students.
This still leaves behind a sizeable percentage of households that do not have access to any technological tools. This is where the government needs to play a more proactive role in systematically identifying and reaching the most vulnerable sections of our society.
Reimagining delivery of learning
From within their homes, teachers are also leveraging platforms like WhatsApp, YouTube and Zoom to conduct online classes, share audio-visual content, and review assignments. A teacher’s role is undergoing a revolutionising shift and that necessitates a reorientation of the support they require from the public education system.
As the role of a teacher transforms to be that of a facilitator of smooth delivery of quality content to pupils, greater focus is needed to curate relevant content, promote student engagement, and provide customised support. While conducting classes on web-conferencing platforms, it might be challenging for teachers to gauge student attention, ensure participation, and evaluate mastery. Technical competencies like subject expertise and formative assessment design might be increasingly valuable in meeting those challenges. By utilising virtual tools like polls and surveys, teachers can gather feedback consistently which can help modify instruction.
Teachers might require extensive support and upskilling in areas like instructional design, research, and ICT tools. State Councils of Educational Research & Training (SCERTs) and District Institutes for Education and Training (DIETs) can focus on strengthening training modules, and modes of delivery and assessment. Widely acknowledged frameworks like CENTA standards, for instance, can be digitised and used to design and inform teacher training. By standardising these modules and optimising resource-sharing through cloud storage, the quality of digital training and collaboration systems between networks of SCERTs and DIETs across the country can be strengthened.
Professional development opportunities through online learning communities, courses and certification, layered with the right set of incentives can foster a sense of purpose, and allow for mastery. Blended learning models can be tested to allow for more flexibility and convenience for teachers. For instance, Maharashtra SCERT in partnership with Leadership for Equity has conducted several virtual professional development forums for government officers and teachers since the start of the lockdown.
While we look forward, it’s also important to acknowledge the administrative burden teachers currently deal with. Technology can help reduce time spent by teachers on non-teaching activities. Appropriate institutional processes might also need to be developed to regulate homogeneity and quality of teacher education institutions.
Strengthening institutional capacity and administrative systems
Given that the learning time of schools for the next academic year might be severely hampered, there’s an urgent need for institutions to improve delivery mechanisms, and ensure effective implementations of assigned programs. During such lockdowns, it might be difficult for governments to physically sign papers and exchange files. By adopting digital signing technologies and database management systems, there might be long-term merits like reduced paperwork and swifter decision-making. Other processes like officer recruitment, fund utilisation, scheme implementation, and community mobilisation can also be streamlined, accelerated, and tracked efficiently.
Government bodies like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) can focus on building comprehensive educational MIS that can help enhance administrative efficiency by creating strong channels of communication and data collection mechanisms. By integrating these systems with existing state programs and structures, through effective monitoring, corrective action can be taken quickly. In Gujarat, for instance, a command and control centre has been set up to bring about transparency and accountability at the ground level.
As schools are shut, different states have chalked out plans to ensure mid-day meals reach students. In such situations, the decentralising effects of technology can ensure both speed and quality in service delivery. Strong institutional capacity and administrative efficiency become paramount for meeting essential needs of families, which is where the private sector and civil society alike can play a major role.
Unprecedented times are also opportune moments to propel structural transformations in the existing way of doing things. Limitations that the outbreak poses and the consequent democratising power that technology has, could make learning more inclusive and accessible. However, this requires positive intent and action on the part of all the stakeholders involved, especially the public education system, to undertake institutional reforms to ensure continuous and efficient delivery of education to all.
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