India has no strategy for technology in the classroom, but entrepreneurs and nonprofits are braving the odds in the sector
theguardian.com, Wednesday 7 May 2014 09.30 BST
Students in a computer studies class at school in Hazira, India. Photograph: David Gee 5/Alamy
In 2012, engineer Raghav Gajula moved to an east Delhi slum to work as a teacher at a private school for low-income families. Most of his students’ parents are labourers in local factories but have paid 300 Indian rupees a month, about £3, for their kids to attend a school with busy staff and no computer resources. Gajula, who found the teaching position through a Teach For India fellowship, spotted an opportunity. He lent the kids his laptop and started setting up mentoring sessions for them with his friends, via Skype.
Many of the slum kids come from the Bhagwanpur Khera neighborhood where one of the main landmarks is a toxic sewage drain. Yet Gajula’s idea meant they were soon scheduling their own Skype sessions with their mentors, and talking about their ambitions in the arts and sports. Gajula now works with two activists on setting up a local after-school centre with the aim of expanding the mentoring programme. They have 25 students and five donated laptops, though they aren’t sure how the nonprofit centre is going to survive financially.
Gajula’s innovation could be transformative for India’s fragmented education system, but there is no overarching strategy for how to incorporate these kinds of projects into the sprawling Indian school system. According to government estimates, there are about 254 million pupils in primary and secondary schools both in the private and public sector, but there’s no overall technology policy for schools. Internet penetration is around 12%, and average connection speeds are slow.
Schools aren’t using equipment
Recognising the increasing importance of technology in education and employment, the Indian government has a scheme that grants every public school district, regardless of the number of schools it contains, of Rs. 5m [£49,700] every year to invest in educational technology. Districts have to submit a proposal in order to be granted the funds. The government estimates that 22% of primary schools have a computer, but the reality is that many schools aren’t using the equipment they have.
“Of the schools I visited, maybe 10% of the computers were working,” says Swati Sahni, a consultant who worked for the Indian government on education from 2010 to 2012. Five of Gajula’s students at a local government school know their school has a computer centre, but none of them can remember using it.
In India’s booming private education sector, technology is being adopted much more quickly. As many as 400 educational technology firms have launched in the past 10 years, yet the quality and longevity of their products is far from uniform.
In August 2013, India’s most prominent educational technology company, Educomp Solutions, laid off 3,500 workers. Educomp had done a great job selling digital learning materials and a multimedia whiteboard to as many as 14,500 schools, according to a company brochure. But some schools were unsure what to do with the technology, and critics say the firm failed to train teachers to use the equipment. Some cancelled orders, and in other schools the equipment went unused, according to an investigation by Forbes India. The company’s value dropped by nearly two-thirds between May 2013 and April 2014.
Personalised educational content
“Now, the customer is very sceptical,” says Neil D’Souza, founder and CEO of Zaya Learning Labs, a three-year-old ed tech company based in Mumbai. “You have many schools which have bought solutions or been donated solutions which don’t add any value to their learning.” Zaya has 15 in-school learning labs, where students share tablets and computers that stream personalised educational content.
Companies has previously focused on delivering services to India’s high-end private schools, says D’Souza, where teachers were more technologically literate and where the revenue model was proven. But Zaya focuses on the growing number of low-income private schools, where many teachers aren’t regular technology users. “The teacher is the key person to deliver,” says D’Souza, who says Zaya offers teaching assistants and spends hours on training.
But Zaya faces challenges when it comes to profits. Affordable private schools charge fees between Rs. 300 and 1,500 [£3-£15] per student per month. In order for an ed tech solution to be viable in this space, it should ideally be priced at less than Rs. 50 [50p] per student per month, says Shabnam Aggarwal, founder of the ed tech advisory Perspectful. She says that’s a very difficult target for most companies to meet.
Educational philanthropies and nonprofits may be able to provide a bridge, finding ways to make technology interventions affordable and scalable for lower-income students. One such philanthropy is the Central Square Foundation (CSF). It has been developing a library of free and open-source educational content in Indian languages, something that founder and CEO Ashish Dhawan says private companies have little incentive to do.
A product for the low-income segment
A former private equity investor, Dhawan says India is now at an inflection point with educational technology, as internet and hardware penetration are set to explode in the next few years. Inspired by this belief, CSF has also invested money and time in trying to find revenue models for ed tech in the low-income space. “We thought: why don’t we give a grant to create a product for the low-income segment?” says Dhawan.
A year and a half ago, CSF tied up with MindSpark, a company that already provides adaptive learning tools in elite private schools, to test the company’s software on low-income and government school students. The students come to the centres for an hour a day, six days a week, to learn Hindi, maths and English. They spend half their time working with a personalised adaptive computer program, and half working with a teacher.
When the pilot started, the students were about two years behind their age group, says Dhawan. Although they’ve now improved, it’s still a struggle to get them to the point where they’ll perform well on tests. Dropouts are common and the pilot still hasn’t proven a revenue model, Dhawan says. The parents, who pay 200 to 250 [£2-£2.50] hard-earned rupees a month for the program, want results in grades, viewing education as a path out of a life of hard manual labour for their children.
But for the students, technology offers a window on a different world. The students in Gajula’s class type messages and paint pictures, dreaming of the day they will start using the internet. Twelve-year-old Parsunath Sahoo describes his father’s long days working in a factory that makes pots and pans, but Parsunath dreams of joining the police. “On the internet, you can do anything,” he says.
Link to the article published in The Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/07/technology-transform-india-education-system/print