Going beyond Zoom for Education

Technology tools exist to improve the quality of school education. But most of the discussion on the subject has been quite superficial.

For a very long time, politicians, bureaucrats, educationists and technology advocates have talked about harnessing technology to improve the quality of school education. They have also talked about using technology to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, between the facilities available in the cities and the villages.

Most of those discussions have not led to any comprehensive plan to improve the overall quality of our school education. The pandemic has once again rekindled the discussions. But so far, most of these have not gone beyond superficial issues or the most basic technology tools. A lot of the chatter has been on how to use Zoom or other video conferencing tools better. Some have focused on the lack of mobility devices for the poorer students. The inability of many teachers to give proper video lectures has received some attention. The problem of conducting examinations has got a little attention. And a lot of interest has been generated by the models of the Edutech start-ups which impart better coaching to students whose parents can pay for the privilege.

But to find a comprehensive solution that goes beyond those — one needs to look at the individual links or pieces that go into imparting school education. And also understand the many technology tools already available, those that will shortly be available, and the hurdles in the way to their adoption.

There are certainly enough hurdles – including lack of inexpensive, smart, mobile devices, broad band connections, as well as the lack of reliable power supply in non-urban areas. And also the issue of the yawning gap in the educational standards between urban and rural areas. None of these hurdles are insurmountable however.

Let us look at digital tools available first. Currently, almost all schools in urban areas and a lot of schools in rural areas have started holding classes using video conferencing software. The issues with these classes are three. First, the quality of teaching is still dependent on the ability of the teacher and a bad teacher does not become good just because s/he is teaching in a Zoom classroom and not a physical class. Two, this still does not address the problem of curriculum, which is boring and static. Third, there is really no way to bridge the gap between a student who knows a subject well and another who is falling behind in the current way classes are conducted.

Yet, even now, digital tools and solutions are available for all three. For example, a good teacher can reach out to many more students in a video class than s/he can in a physical classroom. Using a combination of live and recorded lectures can help students learn at their own pace. On tap recorded lectures that are followed by quick digital tests at the end of it can measure whether the student has learned properly or not.

More importantly, digital tools allow us to easily benchmark with the best in the world. Quality of teachers can also be boosted by digital tools and their efficiency also measured through them. Good recorded classes and lessons can help standardise the quality of teaching being imparted in urban and rural areas.

Allowing private investments, both domestic and global, and allowing global schools and colleges to offer classes in the country can be a great help in improving education standards and improve the quality of education very rapidly, if properly regulated.

More importantly, there are Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning tools that can constantly evaluate the progress of weaker students and allow them to be given special attention, which can be done by teachers in remote locations. Artificial intelligence solutions for personalised learning for example could both bridge the gap between students in the same class in the same school as well as between urban and rural schools. Smart games that help school children get familiar with coding and other subjects is another way to improve efficiencies at the ground level. Artificial Intelligence tools can equally be applied to retrain and reskill teachers and measure their improvements.

But are these utopian ideas that cannot be implemented on the ground? At the current level of development, I suspect these are entirely possible. A cheap mobile smart device, stable electricity connections and a cheap reliable broadband are the pre-requisite.

Currently, at Rs 10 K plus, our cheapest mobile devices are still too expensive for the poorer students – both rural and urban. But there are two ways that problem can be solved. An organisation similar to the EESL (Energy Efficiency Services Ltd), which used bulk buying power to crash prices of LED bulbs and is now using the same tactics to bring down prices in other consumer durables could be used.

Other options include working closely with hardware manufacturers of both Laptops and Mobile devices to buy their older generation devices which are perfectly capable of the educational requirements and bring prices to the sub Rs 3 k level. Loans by public sector banks designed for educational devices or microfinance institutions can also be used to ensure upfront costs are not big for the poor parents. Our huge population of school going children does allow for economies of scale.

Broadband too is not a problem. Mobile data prices are already extremely low in the country and some incentives for the troubled telecom sector could ensure low prices and better investments into technology creating a win-win situation for the industry and the government. Equally, a number of global players from Cisco to Google and Microsoft have offered Wifi connectivity to select villages. If these could be expanded, it would provide a quick way of getting off the ground.

The biggest hurdle probably in terms of infrastructure is reliable power connections. Despite multiple claims, a large number of villages and cities for that matter do not enjoy reliable, low priced power. Outages are quite common even in smaller cities and towns, and villages can often count the number of hours they get power in the fingers of one hand. A number of global studies have linked availability of power, especially at night, with better educational outcomes in developing countries.

The other problem that the state governments would need to take care of is the mid day meal scheme which was an incentive for students to be in school. If a large proportion of learning in future takes place from home, there has to be a way to replace this – perhaps by using DBT to families which can show children are enrolled and passing out of formal educational systems.

The current technology hurdle will crop up in teaching science where the importance of laboratory facilities plays a huge role. While some tools – mixed reality, augmented reality or virtual reality with devices such as Occulus Rift and Microsoft Hololens – to impart practical training remotely, they are still too expensive and the practical applications are still being rolled out and not mainstream yet. These will probably become ubiquitous and cheap a decade down the line, but there is a lag before these can be rolled out to solve problems in rural areas.

In higher education, the tools exist but the biggest problem is lax regulators who allow a great many sub-standard institutions to flourish. The tools to radically improve educational standards in the country exist – but they exist around the globe and they need proper political and administrative action. But if we continue to ignore education, we cannot hope to advance as a nation at the pace at which we should.



Prosenjit Datta

Prosenjit Datta is former editor of Businessworld and Business Today magazines

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