‘Cloud’ may save education in India

By Swati Lodh Kundu 

Nearly four years after implementation in India of the Right to Education Act (RTE) in April 2010, the situation remains as grim as ever. Although India currently spends less than 4% of gross domestic product on education, there has been a steady increase of allocation of funds towards free and compulsory education to the 6-14 age group, especially since RTE came into existence. Yet, a rising proportion of students in rural areas choose private schools over government ones. The dependence on private tuition is also growing, with as much as 26% of students continuing with paid private tuition. 

What is of an even bigger concern is that the learning outcome in

the public schools has not improved since the introduction of RTE. Rather, it has deteriorated, as shown by the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). 

ASER assesses the reading and basic arithmetic skills of students by having them read or do simple mathematical problems that are two or more levels below their current standard. For example, a Standard 5 student is given Standard 2 material to read. Among Standard 5 children enrolled in government schools, the percentage of children able to read Standard 2 level text declined to 41.1% in 2013 from 50.3% in 2009. There is some improvement in the percentage when the performance of private school children is included – thereby providing further evidence of the lackluster learning outcome of government schools. 

The ASER 2013 data indicates that the level of basic arithmetic skills in government school “is lagging behind several years”. Assessing the ability of the student to solve problems that pertain to two to three years lower; a paltry 20.8% of Standard 5 children in government schools could solve Standard 3 problems, compared with 38.9% students from the private school. 

This deplorable quality of outcome does not come as a surprise given the general quality of the public school teachers. Attending school where the teachers’ knowledge level is negligible does not make much of a difference for students other than getting a free meal. With 99% of aspiring teachers failing to clear the Central Teachers’ Eligibility Test (CTET) in 2012 (a test made mandatory by RTE for recruitment in government funded schools), we may end up with no new teachers in the near future. 

Even more worrying is what will happen if the test is conducted among existing teachers? In fact, given this shocking result, the Central Board of Secondary Education could not enforce the bye-laws to make it mandatory for teachers in their affiliated schools to be CTET certified. Hence poor-quality educators will continue to dominate, and an even poorer quality of students will come out of the system. 

In order to bring a balance, the states conduct an eligibility test that is easier than the CTET to ensure a supply of certified teachers even from the rural and tribal areas. Whether this compromise is acceptable is definitely debatable, but for a state that has to take the multiple responsibilities of creating employment, recruiting people, and establishing a basis for developing a capable generation all to be handled simultaneously, they are left with very little room to maneuver. 

Unfortunately, public schools have become virtually irrelevant in India. According to information in the RTE forum, only 8% of schools are compliant with RTE norms for infrastructure and teacher availability. One also has to contend with high rates of absenteeism (25% per cent of teachers at India’s government primary schools absent themselves from work on any given day, and only 50% of teachers present in schools are actually engaged in teaching, says a recent World Bank research project on teacher absenteeism) and poor quality of teachers. 

In fact, while these teachers fail to answer questions based on the primary section syllabus they send their own children to private schools, epitomizing the rot that has set in in the public school system in India. 

Clearly, there is a failure of the mechanisms to provide equitable, quality education to every child. In fact, among the nations with a good demographic profile, especially the South East Asian nations, India not only spends less on education, it has a very high inequality in education. In fact, as per the latest available Human Development Index (HDI) study, India’s HDI loses 40% of the value once it is adjusted for inequality in education. 

According to figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “Countries will need an extra 1.6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015 and 3.3 million by 2030.” The consequences of the deficit are explained well by the 2013/14 UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report. 

What could be a way out? Last November, former education and current Communication and Law Minister Kapil Sibal stressed that reforms in education need to be child-centric. In fact, referring to India’s first mission to Mars, he said that, “When we talk about launching a satellite to Mars, we have more than 220 million satellites in the country, our children and each satellite has its own trajectory. We should help them in finding their orbit and shine.” 

Essentially, he believes that education needs to concentrate on the child and not the curriculum. Its efforts should be to bring out the brilliance in the child. If the government turns toward embracing technology, it may indeed find pertinent solution for all these problems.  

One such solution is the Self Organized Mediation Environment, or SOME. It is an environment wherein experienced teachers from all over the world take sessions through Skype with children in remote areas. Not only has this been practiced successfully in various parts of India for several years now, its usage is spreading fast even globally. 

When the revolutionary idea of a Self Organized Learning Environment (where the students teach themselves with the help of technology), showed success, there was a felt need for someone to encourage and keep the enthusiasm of the children alive. This resulted in SOME where the mediators help these children with reading and navigating through the Internet. 

Seeing the robustness of this educational design and its effectiveness over the years, the Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences – better known as TED – in 2013 awarded the US$1 million annual TED prize for the idea of “The School in The Cloud”, proposed by Calcutta-born Sugata Mitra, now an academic in the UK. This joins the two concepts of SOLE and SOME and surely could be a solution to The Education for All movement, a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults. 

At this point in time, two facilities under “Schools In The Cloud” (referred to here as SITC) are operational in the UK, and India’s first has opened recently in New Delhi. Three more are planned to be opened shortly, one in the UK and two in remote villages in India by March this year.  

SITC’s success can cause a paradigm shift in education. On one hand it can reach every individual who wishes to learn despite the remoteness of a student’s village and scarcity of resource. Secondly it is child-centric, creativity-boosting learning environment that guides the children to learn by sifting information from the Internet. This surely is a leap towards the 21st century learning despite the odds faced by our public schools. 

And why else is SITC appropriate in India? It is free. 

Apart from the cost of the infrastructure, there is no other cost involved. It can work as effectively in the single-room schools (still 5% of public schools have single rooms according to the RTE Forum survey) as in bigger ones. The mediators teach for free. Therefore the focus of resource allocation should shift to an uninterrupted and cheap power supply. Setting up solar panels and towers to catch required bandwidth should become the priority. 

It is also equitable and inclusive. 

India has long consisted of two worlds. One is affluent, tech savvy, gadget-using; the other (for whom there are the public schools) lives on a bare minimum. The increasing preference of private schools over public ones amplifies this dichotomy. 

SOLE and SOME are learning hubs that can be set up anywhere, in schools, at home, in clubs, in affluent schools and in schools with a paucity of resources or in nooks of “teacher shunned” villages. These labs can connect and interact with each other across borders. This way of sharing of knowledge, overcoming geographical borders, social and cultural barriers, is the best possible way to address inequity. 

UNESCO believes that education for sustainable development requires far-reaching changes in the way it is often practiced today. I believe that SITC can be a potential solution to India’s perennial problem. However, for this, the government needs to shift the focus towards learning, critics stop prolixly discussions on road-map for RTE while cynical academic administrators permit a change from fossilized to a technology enabled system. This can help produce self-sufficient generations – the real demographic dividend that India aims to reap. 

Swati Lodh Kundu is an independent consultant in New Delhi. 

To know more about SOLE and SOME and SITC, seeschoolinthecloud.org and solesandsomes.wikispaces.com. See also Facebook and the TED address by Sugata Mitra. 

2014 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd

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