Over a four-year period, we at the Azim Premji Foundation produced the largest single library of digital learning resources (DLR) in India for children. Contained in 125 CDs, these were exciting lessons for children from classes I to VIII. Made in 18 languages—including tribal ones— they were designed to be completely integrated in school curriculum.
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We worked with various state governments to use these DLRs in thousands of schools. But they did not run well everywhere.
This was a big bet, and a lot of investment. It had an even bigger opportunity cost for us—we could have been doing something else in the time that we did this.
After 5 years, when we took stock at a fundamental level, we realized that the whole thing was at best a qualified failure.
Certainly, the children and teachers who used them, loved them. It created excitement and interest in the classroom. But beyond that, there was practically no impact in a sustained, systemic manner on learning.
I will just list the issues, without attempting to explain how these worked in a complex inter-related manner.
First, the limited numbers of schools with computers (today an estimated 14% have at least one) have a very poor uptime. In the studies that we conducted, this was at best 30%, driven both by poor electricity supply and the inability to fix technical glitches. Let’s not even discuss Internet availability.
Second, the school culture, its leadership and the broader system that the school was part of had a determining impact on whether the computer and DLRs were seen (and used) as a new toy, as a piece of furniture or as the crown jewel that needed to be protected.
Third, irrespective of the DLR quality, its use for learning was only as good as the teacher in the classroom. With a few exceptional teachers, it became a useful tool. With an ordinary teacher, it was just a means of entertainment.
Fourth, the DLR seemed to add no value to the dialogic, discovery driven process of actual learning—which was completely determined between the children and the teachers. If it did add anything to the standard rote method, it was not noticeable, and it was certainly not needed.
So, with a rational mind and a heavy heart, we abandoned our focus on DLR. Today we use it in a very limited ways in schools, and continue to share it freely with anyone who wants to use it.
Now, we think of information and communications technology (ICT) as an important tool on the management side of the education system. We continue to explore its potential, but we believe ICT is important, not fundamental.
If you are an outsider (to our organization), and an enthusiast for “ICT can be a big help to Indian education”, you may think of many reasons why we ended up with this qualified failure, including (perhaps) poor design and execution of the DLR and the programs, by us and our partner governments.
We can tell you our view (and that of many independent organizations) —the DLRs were (and are) very good and the programs were executed well, within the reality of the Indian education system (i.e. in most of the rural and semi-urban schools of the 1.4 million in India). Also, consider the fact that organizations usually want to show successes even where there are none. Why would we tout a failure, having given it so much from our side?
The answer is simple. We confess this failure candidly, because we find that innumerable people inside and outside the education system think of technology (always meaning ICT) as something between a panacea and “the-most-important-solution”. A number of them are in influential positions, and these misconceived notions can have a significantly detrimental effect on the national effort to improve educational quality.
This effort must lie in teacher and school leader capacity building, in examination reform (away from rote to assessing real learning), improvements in curriculum as well as accountability, governance and management. All this must happen, not just in intentions and policy, but in actual implementation—in a sustained and institutional manner. ICT would have a role in all this, but not the central role.
At its best, the fascination with ICT as a solution distracts from the real issues. At its worst, ICT is suggested as substitute to solving the real problems, for example, “why bother about teachers, when ICT can be the teacher”. This perspective is lethal.
In the past few months, we happened to meet education leaders from Finland and from the province of Ontario in Canada—two regions with outstanding school systems. Across two continents, they said the same thing – “not a dollar will we invest in ICT, every dollar that we have will go to teacher and school leader capacity building”. Like us, through experience, they have learnt the limits of ICT.
Anurag Behar is co-CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.
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