digital: Evolving digital education in rural India: The role of society, government and supply chain

School education in rural India has always struggled to keep up with its urban brethren. And then the pandemic struck. Overnight, schools were forced to go online. Majority percentage of schools in India whether urban or rural struggled with digital deliveries as they were not 100% digitally enabled, some barely. Other than money, time and will be two major factors for large-scale digital enablement, neither of which could be supplied overnight when the sudden digital only need arose. Yet again then, it was a losing race for most government schools especially for the rural ones. The pandemic induced need widened the digital gaps in the school system leading to huge learning gaps in the students.

But the crisis has served to brutally awaken all stakeholders to the fact that all our schools need to undergo rapid digital transformation. Educators, parents, and government, all have been forced to fast-think on how to make learning more inclusive and more intuitive. The realization has set-in that the future of education needs to be digitally enabled in order to keep pace with the world.

No doubt technology is making our lives easy. But the stark reality remains that it is very difficult for millions of people in rural India to have access to technology before they can begin to use it. Also, the digital learning systems in India are highly complex and dominated by edtech companies who offer complex and expensive solutions. We need simple solutions to solve this complex problem on a ‘rural scale’. Complex mechanisms are not suitable for all parts of our country; we need simple and easy solutions to achieve inclusion.

Three key contributors (facilitators), only if working in tandem, can solve the problem of technology access and adoption in rural areas. These three are Samaj (Society or Ecosystem), Sarkar (Government), and Bazar (Market or Supply Chain). Looking at the scenario, the role of government, corporate and civil society organizations is crucial. The three together and collectively need to focus on Access, Adoption, and Assistance.

The facilitators need to focus on device accessibility by providing subsidies for smartphones for marginalized communities and come up with affordable smartphones for education purposes. Furthermore, there is a strong need for low-cost / subsidized internet for these communities to connect them with the digital world. The school or facilitators also need to focus on spreading awareness about the internet usage and its benefits to students in rural communities because many parents are digital-illiterate and not able to help their children. Sometimes even if the students and teachers have access to devices and the internet, they still struggle to use the system for teaching and learning purposes because they need strong assistance to use the device and the software at least in the initial days.

With access to technology, students in remote locations get the option to learn from tool kits thanks to the launch of digital learning spaces. The number of students opting to learn can only increase because of the ease of learning through devices. For the digital sessions, pupils are urged to return to school. Digital tools are being employed as a substitute for instructors in some schools. Not only the students but even the teachers benefit from digital learning.

Teachers are an important buy-in in the scheme of any evolution in schools. The pandemic disconnect has made teachers realize the importance of digital learning and readiness. Teachers are also renewing their instructional methods, according to the devices used. These resources are especially useful in some cases like for example the last few hours of school often deemed tedious and difficult to hold the attention of the children in the classroom, such methods can keep them engaged and attentive.

Many non-profit organizations are tirelessly working to bridge the digital divide by empowering teachers with technology through a blended approach. AI enabled WhatsApp Chatbot helps teachers in adopting and learning digital skills for teaching and learning purposes.

Technological inclusion at school level is crucial as technology is no longer a privilege, it is a necessity. It helps build future-readiness in students thereby widening their career choices and livelihood opportunities by preparing them to handle rapidly evolving market and skill needs.

(The writer is Co-founder, Muskaan Dreams)

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