Digital education push welcome, but not at the cost of institutions

India's digital education focus
There is no denying that digital education is the need of the hour -- but it should supplement the existing system, not substitute it.

Budget focus on digital education: The various lockdown measures announced after the Covid-19 outbreak resulted in an increase in learning deficits across the world. Research by Azim Premji University, survey of Annual State of Education Report, as well as the field observations in the Oxfam report provide empirical evidence which testify this. The asymmetry in access to digital gadgets has resulted in serious learning deficits in different parts of the developing world including India. It needs immediate correction, lest it would lead to a big reversal of some of the milestones that have been achieved towards the Sustainable Development Goals over the years.

The online learning process has emerged as a short-term solution during the pandemic. This was pushed through as a panacea for all the ills in the field of education. The Big Digital Push announced in the Union Budget 2022 towards addressing the problems in the sector gives the impression that the policymakers are totally unaware of the realities on the ground.

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The announcements included a proposal to set up a national digital university with an outlay of Rs 460 crore and the setting up of a number of education channels. Will the technology fixes work? Shouldn’t they take into confidence the students and teachers who have been experiencing the digital mode in the last two years to understand the associated problems before making such big plans?

Digital education, a supplement or substitute

It would be foolish to deny the need for the digital focus. However, people who have experienced digital education during the pandemic will vouch that it should be supplementary, rather than a substitute. To begin with, should there be a national digital university? The Rs 460 crore could have been spent across institutions to create proper digital laboratories that could supplement the mainstream learning environment. The model of OpenCourseWare from MIT is a good example to emulate. Quality assessment of digital resources produced by organisations like NPTEL and upscaling it through soliciting content from scholars could be a useful exercise.

Such exercises alone would be able to serve as a countervailing power to the EdTech players. It would be in the best interest of the country to take a leaf out of the Chinese policies regulating EdTech players, lest the whole sector would be full of start-ups guided least by the larger social interest.

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Setting up libraries of digital gadgets that students could borrow and creation of information kiosks would be good initiatives towards last mile connectivity. It is also important to mobilise resources towards setting up National Mathematics Mission, National Storytelling and Reading Missions and National Literary Missions that would harness youth power and address the learning deficits. All this could work under NCERT for which Budget 2022 did not allocate any additional fund on the capital expenditure front.

There is no dearth of talent in the country. There are people who have worked in literacy missions in the past. Rectification of learning deficit in primary, secondary and college levels should be treated as a national priority.

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The current preoccupation to create new institutions when institutions with due mandate are ignored is not desirable. For instance, when all this digital upscaling is being planned, the national resource centre for school education, NCERT, is largely neglected. Other than an increase of the establishment expenses on the investment grant front, there is no extra amount allocated. The preoccupation with new institutions would serve no purpose in the long run. The government should reassure and restore confidence in its own institutions. Institutions like NCERT should be scaled up in such a manner that they could act as countervailing power to private players and EdTechs.

Another example worth emulating is Hillary Clinton’s initiatives to upscaling science and math education in rural Arkansas through the Arkansas School of Mathematics and Sciences with public boarding school facilities. Could India think in terms of giving a new direction to the Navodaya schools started in mid-1980s? Through infusion of funds, the schools should have monthly camps which cater to aspiring rural school and college learners. Enhancing refresher courses for teachers in this dynamically evolving world should be given priority.

The country needs to create effective digital resources, but not by demeaning the roles of school. There is no substitute to the ecosystem of support provided by these institutions and their role in nurturing a conscientious generation that dares to think, experiment, disagree and question. And that’s what education is all about.

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Krishnakumar S is a New Delhi-based economist. He teaches economics at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.