India’s education market is expected to reach $225 billion by 2025, with ed-tech growing faster (at nearly 27%) to reach $5.7 billion. Digital technology has transformed learning. It helped maintain the learning curve for children during pandemic-induced school closures – many students who couldn’t afford expensive ed-tech products relied on YouTube videos and other free online educational resources to support their learning. Online learning has become a way of life for children across the socio-economic spectrum; witnessing increased participation among disadvantaged communities and democratising content distribution channels.
However, the ed-tech industry has also sparked criticism, such as about the potential limitations of these solutions. For instance, the idea that ed-tech requires students to rely on devices, diminishing personal interaction and negatively impacting collaboration, as well as communication skills; or the lack of face-to-face interaction and human connection with teachers and peers, possibly limiting a deeper understanding of complex subjects. Some also argue that the majority of students who can truly benefit from such solutions cannot afford them and live in villages with limited access to smartphones and the Internet.
As an ed-tech non-profit that works with underserved students in the most rural and remote parts of Maharashtra, we decided to decode the operational realities of our own solution. V-School, our Android app, offers educational content for grades 1 to 10 under the Maharashtra State Board curriculum. The educational content on the app is organised by textbook chapters and each section is taught in vernacular languages like Marathi, Urdu, and Semi-English using audio-visual aids and MCQs. We were curious to know more about how the app was tangibly impacting educational outcomes.
While ed-tech solutions like ours have been complementing traditional modes of education, gauging students’ learning outcomes through tech interventions has been a challenge. Regular student assessments are often not possible for teachers due to reasons such as lack of motivation, shortage of teachers in schools, etc. So, empowering students to assess their learning levels and providing them with resources to fill their learning gaps can circumvent this system-related problem. A 4th-grade student told us that he frequently uses the app for self-assessment. When studying on the app, he often pauses the videos, ponders over the multiple-choice questions asked, and writes down his answers to ensure his understanding is accurate.
Then, asking questions and clarifying doubts in the classroom is rare in Indian educational institutions of higher education, let alone rural schools. Unlike developed countries like Singapore, where more than 2/3rd of primary school students receive private tuition, most children in rural Indian schools have no educational support other than their schools. Hence, when they don’t understand what’s taught in school and can’t gather the courage to ask questions, they are destined to build serious learning gaps over time.
Additionally, we have found that many students perceived the app as an additional teacher whom they can approach whenever they want, as many times as they want. Multiple students reported to our team that they opened the app whenever they wanted to study something they didn’t understand in school.
Many parents feel that smartphones offer too many distractions for children like games, YouTube, etc., and are concerned about screen-time addiction. However, we found that after seeing their children study on smartphones, parental perspectives about balancing mobile usage are shifting. Many parents, for example, now actively try to keep their phones at home as much as possible for their children to study. Additionally, parents with low educational levels now feel less anxious about not being able to actively support their children’s learning.
Teachers, on the other hand, form a more intrinsic part of the system. The World Bank’s Ed-Tech Readiness Index highlights the challenge in the uptake of ed-tech among teachers in rural areas. There is an acute shortage of teachers in thousands of government schools in India mainly due to misallocation. In such schools, teachers have to do administrative tasks along with teaching multiple grades simultaneously, which further reduces the meager instructional time students get with them. Hence, prioritising teachers’ motivations and barriers, and pushing for a broader mindset shift by making them active collaborators will play a significant role in ed-tech for Bharat.
Public-private partnerships in developing ed-tech solutions with localised contexts can resolve critical limitations of ed-tech interventions. Such solutions can be provided either free or at an affordable cost to students and, hence, can enable underserved populations. This can be made possible by understanding the milieu of beneficiaries of an ed-tech platform and partnering with local governments for scale.
While we have progressed towards enhancing the role that tech plays in our solution by integrating AI-based models into our interface, we know that inclusive ed-tech solutions will need heavy contextualisation to be successful. We have found that:
● Incorporating human voices can make read-aloud functions more engaging and natural, improving the overall user experience for students
● Expanding the availability of educational content in additional languages like Hindi can make the app accessible to a wider range of students
● Implementing customer care services within the app can provide users with a dedicated support system to address their queries, technical issues, or any other concerns they may have
● Offering access to resources such as previous examination papers can assist students’ preparedness
● To align with the latest educational reforms and initiatives, incorporating dedicated courses on the National Education Policy (NEP), NIPUN Bharat, and FLN can provide insights into the new educational frameworks and help students and teachers navigate the changing landscape.
Making governmental partnerships may entail overcoming innumerable financial, administrative, and political hurdles but with perseverance and creativity, these problems can be solved to achieve the desired impact while building the state’s capacity. For ed-tech to work for Bharat, it has to be made accessible and affordable and serve students’ learning outcomes.
This article is authored by Prafulla Shashikant, founder, VOPA and Sumana Acharya, manager, M&E, VOPA.