Opinion and Editorial

Digital lessons will make rural students winners

Shalini Verma (Real & Virtual)
Filed on November 18, 2019 | Last updated on November 18, 2019 at 10.46 pm

Some village schools are providing students with PCs and tablets that deliver digital lessons on all subjects. Self-learning through Edutech is perhaps a viable way to circumvent the problem of poor-quality teaching.

The Annual Status of Education Report 2018 by the NGO Pratham shows that 72 per cent of Grade 3 students in rural India cannot do any subtraction and 72 per cent of Grade 5 students cannot do any form of division. Every fourth child in Grade 8 lacks basic reading skills. What's worse, the percentage of schools where computers were used by children have actually gone down from 8.6 per cent in 2010 to an abysmal 6.5 per cent in 2018.

Learning stops even before it can start. India is home to a fifth of the world's children and a majority of them are not learning at school. Other developing countries have similar stories. Human capital is in a crisis.

It has never been easy being a child from a low-income family. Not in India, not anywhere else. They have to wage many battles each day. Their only hope is education that opens up a passage out of their poverty. But when schools fail them, they are condemned to the same impoverished life that their parents lead.

The ability to earn a decent livelihood feels like a tall insurmountable mountain. How do they compete with children from higher income families? Among the many skills they lack, one skill is particularly glaring. It is technology, a know-how that is so essential in pursuing jobs of the future.

My contention is that even if you were to pursue a career that does not require you to work on a computer, you would still benefit from having a strong technology base. A plumber or a construction worker with technology know-how will likely be more proficient and higher paid than the one who just knew his core vocation. Given that automation and AI are spreading thick and fast across industries, basic knowledge of technology is now, much like multiplication tables in math. Basics like searching for a job will become hard without digital skills.

It is easy to teach underprivileged children basic computer skills. They learn so fast that in a few days, they start to teach their peers. Experiments like 'Computer in the Wall' show that slum-dwelling children who got access to an Internet-connected computer could self-organise and learn very quickly. I have seen with great amazement how children who within hours of using a PC for the first time start to mentor others.

In a perfect world, teaching technology to underprivileged children would be as simple as that. But the Internet complicates digital inequality.

It is not as if underprivileged children do not get a taste of the digital world. Many of them are resourceful enough to get access to a smart phone and the Internet to get their first experience of the digital world.

Yet the path to digital equality is replete with road bumps.

For first-time users, surfing the web is like drinking from a hosepipe. There is so much information that one can hardly expect them to be discerning about what to consume. This includes information that is false and can lead to risky behaviour.

Social media has captured the imagination of millions of teens from lower income families.

Given TikTok's engagement, the short video app could help these children improve their learning. TikTok launched #EduTok, which is leveraged by NGOs to mentor first-time Internet users. It is targeted at six Indian states with lower literacy levels. But the hashtag has plenty of content that is far from enlightening. There are some videos from educational content providers but judging by their delivery style and their limited following, it is easy to presume that not many underprivileged children are following them.

Social media will not bridge the digital divide. Besides, smart phones have their limitation as a learning device. While access to the Internet has turned a few lucky children from the slums into overnight well-paid social influencers, a large majority of them are simply wasting their time on social media. That time could be well spent learning foundational skills or a trade, thus narrowing the proficiency gulf between them and their more privileged peers. The challenge quite simply is to get children to focus on learning. They need guidance on online tutorials for solving math problems or how to research for an essay.

Some village schools are providing students with PCs and tablets that deliver digital lessons on all subjects. Self-learning through Edutech is perhaps a viable way to circumvent the problem of poor-quality teaching. There are horror stories of government schoolteachers who cannot spell simple words, let alone teach them. Those who can, often don't bother to teach. They simply record class attendance and wait for the bell to ring. The students are forced to pay for extra tuition from the same teacher if they are to expect the latter's benevolence of good grades in exams. Technology can help overcome the extreme shortage of good teachers.

Underprivileged children don't need to be taught hard work and perseverance. Life teaches them. EduTech is a viable way to deliver quality education to them at scale. It will at least help bridge the gap. They can then help themselves, and perhaps even find hacks for their daily problems.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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