Shamini Murugesh, Honorary Chief Mentor, WNS Cares Foundation (WCF)

Shamini is the Co-founder and Honorary Chief Mentor of WNS Cares Foundation (WCF). She has years of hands-on experience in community development and has helped establish two noteworthy organizations in the area of corporate social responsibility – S’Prayas and WCF. Shamini began her career in journalism with Business Standard (India’s leading business newspaper) after her M.Phil in Economics from Madras University. She has also worked as a freelance journalist but has focused on CSR for the past two decades. She is an avid reader, a passionate traveller and an action movie buff. 

 

The passage of the Right to Education Act of 2009 marks the most groundbreaking change in the evolution of the Indian education system. The year 2020 brought about yet another significant event – COVID-19 – that catalyzed the re-imagination of the education system, as we knew it. In fact, COVID-19 turned classrooms into digital spaces and textbooks into clouds as students, as well as teachers, re-calibrated to the new normal of e-learning.

The digital or the e-learning sector that was slowly, yet steadily, growing as an ancillary to the traditional learning ecosystem has now taken center stage. The advances in digital technology have further accelerated the growth of various digital learning platforms, Ed-tech startups and innovations in the field. In fact, India’s Ed-tech industry is poised to grow to USD 30 Billion in size within this decade. Therefore, it is not surprising that a Bangalore-based technology and online tutoring firm is now the world’s highest valued Ed-tech company.

The Government of India has consistently been a crusader of online learning, calling it a ‘game-changer’ and encouraging its adoption in the new National Education Policy (NEP) announced last year. It also aligns seamlessly with the vision of digital India.

What has this shift to digital learning meant for the millions of students? What challenges and disparities has this sudden transformation brought to the front and how do we combat these? How will new-age tech and innovation play a pivotal role in this transition?

As we move to a digital-led learning world, these are critical questions we need to answer. More so, if we want to ensure that this change bears a successful future for our children. Here are a few important aspects that will determine the impact of this massive transformation.

Bridging the Digital Chasm

Globally, more than 1.5 billion students were forced out of a typical school setting according to UNESCO. The rapid transition to online schooling also exposed the disparity in households with respect to access to the internet and a smartphone. Despite the jump in smartphone ownership in India, in 2020, only one third of India’s school children were pursuing online education. A smaller cohort of this, 32.5 percent, are attending live online classes, according to ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).

This situation demands a systemic change that will not only be sustainable, but scalable as well. The government and the private sector must collaborate and invest in extending the reach of both online and offline modes of digital learning. Implementing policies that support digital learning with adequate infrastructure – platforms, devices and connectivity – will be imperative. Some welcome steps have been implemented such as the Government of India’s Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA), which aims to bridge the social divide in digital learning.

Innovative approaches such as digital / tech libraries, which can reach the last mile to provide devices to students are already being experimented with in some countries. If we are to adopt e-learning as the new normal, policies must also take into consideration the diversity of dialects, social and cultural aspects, and go above and beyond to address equity in the delivery of quality education. There is also an urgent need to facilitate training and engagement for teachers across schools by integrating technology into their training modules, and also encouraging collaborations between schools and institutions.

This will eventually pave the way to a digitized national curriculum, which can be easily accessed by the students. In schools, self-contained micro-cloud learning environments, which allow students and teachers to access cloud-based learning management systems, curricula, content and resources even with no connectivity or power, can be created.

Integrating New-age Tech into Learning 

This new, re-invented education system with the integration of technology can ensure that children leapfrog to a successful future, opening up opportunities to build digital and real-life skills they need. As 9 out of 10 jobs in the future will require digital skills as per the UN, this will equip them with new skills and make them ready for jobs in the future of work.

Digital reforms will also mean that new-age technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Learning Analytics (LA), Gamification, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) will also be integrated in the education system.

Global Ed-tech organizations are already using AI, such as Kunduz, who have launched a mobile platform that uses AI along with their tutor network to help students with their queries online. Many firms are now using the cradle-to-grave approach as they use new-age tech to analyze their online learning data and trends, and further conceptualize products and initiatives to address the concerns and challenges the students face.

Online learning also provides students the opportunity to learn at their own pace, go back and read / understand concepts, thus building critical thinking and adaptability, two of the most crucial skills for success in the future.

Ensuring a New Cohort of Cybersmart Children

With online learning meaning more screen time and significant access to the internet, we are also exposing our children to an unfiltered digital world where they can be prone to cybercrimes, cyberbullying, sextortion and the dark underbelly of the internet. As per the Global Risk Report 2021 of the World Economic Forum 2021, ‘Cybersecurity Failure’ ranks as the 4th most critical threat to the world. Therefore, it is most critical to provide a safe learning environment for our children.

The need for education and dialogue on digital citizenship, Netiquette and cybersecurity has assumed highest importance in today’s scenario. The government, in collaboration with the private sector, will need to devise plans to tackle threats on-ground. The NETF (National Education Technology Forum) envisaged under NEP 2020 can look at hosting Ed-tech tools on open-source platforms with in-built cybersecurity resilience.

Stringent cybersecurity policies and quick redressal systems need to be in place. Educational platforms for capacity building with modules on screen time to cyberbullying to privacy will help equip children with ‘Digital Intelligence’ – including digital etiquette – and empower them to be independent thinkers and assess the risks, to make the right choices online.

Even as we gradually return to pre-COVID normalcy, the technology transformation of education is here to stay. Digitalization is the key to democratizing education. Hybrid models of education will emerge, integrating the traditional and the new-age.  Integration of technology in education will be further accelerated with ‘smart’ learning with the help of AI and ML being the norm.  A new era of digital pedagogies will forever find place in the school education systems, creating a new generation of learners well-equipped for the digital-only world.

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