Empowering teachers and trainers through technology

By Anu Madgavkar and Shirish Sankhe

While technology is not a panacea there are excellent opportunities to harness digital technologies to make teachers more effective, writes Anu Madgavkar and Shirish Sankhe on LiveMint.com.

India needs to create some 115 million productive jobs over the next decade in order to raise its people to a minimum acceptable standard of living. But productive jobs need skilled workers, and India’s schools, colleges and polytechnics are not geared to the task. While technology is not a panacea, we see excellent opportunities to harness digital technologies to make teachers, trainers and school administrators more effective. By empowering human teaching talent, rather than replacing it, technology may hold the key to addressing India’s education challenges.

Overall, India has to raise both the throughput and quality of education at all levels. Primary school enrolment is nearly universal in India, but less than four out of 10 students graduate from secondary school. The nation is projected to contribute some 27% of the world’s new college-educated workers between 2010 and 2030. However, the quality of the education that these young people leave university with is a universally acknowledged problem. Young people want hands-on learning opportunities, but not many skills-training providers are geared to deliver this. Schools struggle with inadequate teacher training, significant teacher absenteeism, weak assessment and monitoring processes, and poorly trained administrators. Skills training institutions are hampered by high costs and variability in the quality of trainers.

This is where technology can make a huge difference. A set of what we call disruptive technologies—the mobile Internet, the cloud, and automation of knowledge work—can help reshape India’s education and training systems. Other disruptive technologies such as digital payments, verifiable digital identity, and advanced energy storage systems (to provide uninterrupted power for the digital technology) will enable the digital transformation. Adoption of these disruptive technologies is rising at an astonishing pace globally, and in the coming decade India, too, will reach a tipping point on many of them. For example, by 2025, India could have 700 to 900 million users of the mobile Internet, all of them using smartphones capable of bringing intelligent cloud-based applications wherever mobile service reaches. 

How will these technologies transform education? With universal connectivity and access to intelligent apps, will education become a completely individualized, self-learning, virtual experience? We don’t think so. The school will most likely remain a physical place, where teachers, students and school administrators all use technology seamlessly to engage with each other and achieve a set of well-defined learning goals. Sometimes students will work alone, using intelligent computers to guide and drill them. Sometimes the best teachers in the world will reach classes remotely using online courseware while other teachers supervise the class watching online lectures. Such blended models are proving capable of delivering better learning outcomes at low cost.

A leading practitioner of the blended model is Bridge International Academies, a for-profit chain of schools in Kenya, where more than half its students are from families who live below the poverty line. Technology is used to take cost out of every process. All payments, including fees, are cashless, made using mobile payments. So, just one non-teaching employee is required in each school. The school is run off smartphones—students use them to take tests and submit scores. Teachers use them to maintain records. Smartphones gather attendance data and automatically generate monthly school performance reports, which are sent to Bridge’s head office. In the classroom, teachers follow teaching scripts loaded onto tablets; the devices track the actual time spent on each lesson to reduce variability in quality and approach across classes. Interestingly, there are no student iPads—preschoolers work with clay or blocks, while older children learn math with bottle caps and recycled egg crates. Using this hybrid person-led, but technology-intensive, education model, Bridge schools have achieved basic reading and math scores 30% to 100% higher than those of peer schools.

In higher education too, the blended approach holds promise. India is the second largest country of origin for students taking MOOCs (massive open online courses, that bring world-class education remotely to millions) offered by Coursera and edX. The problem with MOOCs is few students stick with them: globally only 7% to 10% of students complete an MOOC class. Lack of interaction with peers, teachers, and facilitators is a major reason why. In response, assisted or facilitated MOOC models are emerging, in which students are required to listen to lectures online, but then attend classes, where professors use face-to-face time to discuss the material and work on problems. In some universities, HOOCs, or hybrid open online courses, allow online students to listen in on campus-based seminars and participate via Twitter.

Blended models for skills training are already in place and will gather momentum rapidly. Students at Anhanguera, a distance-learning programme for working adults in Brazil, and visit a learning centre one or two days each week to watch lectures via cable TV. Local teachers then lead the students through exercises and discussion. Students spend the rest of the week working online on their own. The company says it can offer courses for 60% less than the price of conventional training.

In the longer term, adaptive learning systems will make education much more tailored to each individual student. These systems use artificial intelligence to customize lessons that match the individual student’s progress. The online system assesses and analyses the student on a continuous basis and shapes learning content based on the assessment. Companies such as Knewton, CogBooks, Smart Sparrow, and Cerego have instituted adaptive learning systems at colleges and universities such as Arizona State University. Results are encouraging: adaptive learning courses have achieved double the pass rate and half the dropout rate in conventional programmes, in many cases.

Looking ahead, another transformational technology application will be immersive-learning software, capable of simulating the on-road experience as part of a driving lesson, for example, or the structure of matter for a physics lesson. Hospitals in the US and the UK already use dummies with sensors to teach nursing and surgical procedures. Realityworks and International Business Machines Corp. provide simulation modules, combining software and advanced robotics, in areas ranging from entrepreneurship to welding and even infant care. By 2025, these technologies could be widely used in India’s schools and colleges.

The higher educational attainment and job-specific skills that students would get with disruptive technologies could lead to immense productivity gains in India. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that if such approaches were adopted in India’s schools, colleges, and vocational training institutes, the incremental economic impact could be $60 billion to $90 billion per year by 2025. This value would be generated by the output of 14 million to 24 million additional workers with more years of formal education and 18 million to 33 million more workers with formal skills.

The enthusiasm about using technology in education is high, but one critical barrier is the limited flexibility that schools and colleges have to innovate. Government guidelines and rules for curriculum, administration and assessment tend to be rigid, while school staff members have limited technology capabilities and capacity for change. Bringing broadband and e-books into India’s schools will not automatically change traditional teaching and school administration methods. The government urgently needs non-governmental organisations, foundations, and technology companies to help reinvent education—from core content and instruction, to student and teacher tracking and school or college administration.

This article originally ran in LiveMint.com.

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