Posted on 6 April, 2016 by Richard Grazier

Light at the end of the tunnel for education in India

As India strives to move towards developed country status the delivery of effective education becomes more urgent and the challenges more apparent.  With over 1.4 million schools and 227 million students, India faces one of the most complex education challenges in the world; it accounts for 37 percent of the global population of illiterate adults, and has a burgeoning youth population – by 2020 it will have more young people than any other country in the world (while other countries’ populations are ageing).  Theoretically this gives India a potential economic advantage but it also presents an enormous education challenge, one that with the right conditions, technology can help to address.

In 2001 India’s government introduced the ‘Fundamental Right’ to the constitution, guaranteeing all children the right to ‘free and compulsory’ education between the ages of 6 to 14 years. Today, 60 million children are still not in school. A report for the Asia Programme at Chatham House cites the main problems for education in India as the sheer volume of teacher vacancies and ongoing challenges of recruitment and retention , high absenteeism and drop-out rate, and ultimately poor quality education resulting in low levels of achievement, inadequate funding and infrastructure, and badly managed schools.  With more than 300 languages spoken across the country, ethnic diversity also poses big problems for the delivery of consistent, quality education.

Other issues include gender discrimination, which is still very apparent in India as the number of girls who attend school is pitifully low – in Rajastan, for example, only 36 percent of girls are enrolled in secondary school as opposed to 66 percent of boys.  In many cases, families view education for their daughters as an unnecessary financial burden – girls are destined to marry and bring up children, so their education is cut short.

India is the seventh largest landmass in the world and its 227 million students are dispersed unevenly, with high concentrations in overcrowded urban areas, and then many more scattered remotely in rural communities – each scenario presents a problem for the state education system.  In the cities, where the population is booming, space is limited and the opportunities for building new schools scarce. Quite simply, the density of populated areas such as Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, means that there are many more students than there are schools.  In rural communities, communication and poverty are challenges that education has yet to overcome, and experienced teachers are few and far between.

The class divide in education is very apparent and children are channelled into schools on the basis of ability to pay and social class. The poorly managed and under-funded government or municipal schools cater for the majority of children.  There are English-language government-aided schools offering national qualifications and then, for those who can afford them, English-language private schools, which offer globally recognised syllabuses and curricula.  The cost of education is very high even for those who can access it; private tuition is often seen as the best option to supplement an inadequate state school education – many families will take on extra jobs, and students will often work when they’re not studying to be able to afford this education-top-up.

It is impossible to maintain the quality of education in more than a million schools, faced with a multitude of geographical and financial issues that India has.  So, there is a massive divide within the education system:at the top end, the business schools and universities, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and of Management (IIMs) turn out graduates to rival those of any other country; while its primary and secondary schools, particularly in rural areas, struggle to find and keep adequate teaching staff – attrition rates are up to 20 percent.  It is time for India to revisit the role of the traditional teacher, and their relationship with the student and classroom.

Across the world, developments in technology, the reach of mass media and the proliferation of mobile phones have put information and created learning moments within easy reach of everyone,  this is the light at the end of the tunnel for countries like India.

Technology is already beginning to play a role in the delivery of education in India – in 2015 there was a 55 percent increase in the uptake of self-paced e-learning.  We are also beginning to see a rise in popularity of blended learning, where schools are recognising that technology can become a fantastic teaching aid, especially where space is limited and experienced teachers are few and far between.

Remote learning cannot be totally effective in replacing hands-on experiential learning, which is so valuable in many subject areas – ironically not least the technology sector itself where learning the many languages of programming is simply not enough, and practical experience must be gained.  But by transforming or establishing schools as blended institutions, where technology just becomes part of what happens rather than an alternative, albeit an interesting one, technology can deliver opportunities to study a wider range of subjects, and can provide access to experienced and talented teachers and remote classrooms, staff on-the-ground feel supported and able to better meet the demands of students.

There are also enormous economies of scale within this model which allow schools the freedom to extend the additional activities and services into areas such as sports, the arts, engineering and technology, offering an enriched education experience and enhanced career prospects for India’s young people.

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