Technology and the Teacher

The education deficit in India is undebated. The ASER report put out by Pratham, while highlighting improvements in enrollment, also consistently highlights the poor learning levels of these students. While we no longer have a quantity problem, quality is clearly an issue. This is despite enormous CSR, VC, PE and government spending (albeit driven in different directions, and insufficiently aligned towards common goals). Saying that innovation is required feels like stating the obvious. All these years and all these interventions, and we’re still searching for the solution.

Technology has long been posited as the silver bullet. Businesses have been built on a number of hypotheses — technology will give students access to world-class content, personalize learning, assess on an on-going basis, motivate through gamification, and essentially make the traditional, currently ineffective teacher-student structure redundant. These hypotheses might have resulted in sales and scale, but also in unclear learning outcomes.

In this blog, we attempt to understand why certain solutions have not worked.

At the K-12 level, particularly at the bottom of the pyramid, we are still searching for strong student-driven technology models that demonstrate the holy trinity — learning outcomes, sustainable business model and impact at the BOP. The reasons:

  • Access — Despite improvements in connectivity and the widely quoted availability of smartphones in every household across the country, accessibility continues to be an issue. Even with Jio, the questions remains -how many children from the BOP are using their parents’ phone for education apps?
  • Student Motivation — self learning is still an unusual concept in an ecosystem reliant on teachers for answers, tuition teachers for reinforcement and parents for monitoring. A very thin slice of students is taught to think. Self-learning is morphing into another frantic reiteration of learning-to-remember and endless practice sessions with leaderboards and elaborate point systems. Tuition teachers also tend to teach for memory — they’re from the same training and it’s a hard habit to cut. We need innovations that avoid this obvious intervention and create real disruptions in teaching
  • Parent Markers — at the BOP-level, markers of quality education continue to be examination-driven and incentives to use products that are outside the school-assessment ambit are low. Denial of parent markers of success, can only result in low adoption at the BOP. If you can’t address my biggest concern — the performance of my child in a crucial exam — why would I invest in your solution?

The solution, as we see it, is working through the institute of education — the school. Essentially, for a solution to have consistent and steady usage at the bottom of the pyramid, the teacher has to be core to the delivery.

In-school Ed Tech solutions are not new. Why they haven’t gained real traction (excluding the obvious infrastructure plays like projectors and equipment) and created learning outcomes, though, are:

  • Teacher motivation to use — Incentives to use a disruptive and new method of delivery are still unclear to a teacher at the APS/ Government school level. Why would a relatively untrained teacher actively seek out a new methodology with no significant improvements in his/ her workload?
  • Teacher- disintermediation — Too much technology created for schools has been focused on student-delivered models with the teacher a mere facilitator. This is disempowering and ultimately disincentivising.
  • Real infrastructure constraints — It still isn’t a given that schools will have enough functional computers and charged laptops for all children, or for that matter teachers, to access. We’ve been in schools where the “computer lab” comprises of an enterprise-size printer and a UPS. The teachers themselves have asked for “computer training”.

What do we think is the solution? As I said earlier:

  • Working through the school system — the only consistent space of education in a child’s life and therefore this also needs to be the area for our solution
  • Work with the existing/ available infrastructure — think mobile delivery, rather than desktop; think teacher access, rather than student; think SD cards, Raspberry Pi and mobile/ low cost infrastructure
  • Start where the teacher is and move up from there. Create a teacher progression, similar to student progression, in the language of comfort. Even in schools where the language of instruction is advertised as English, to assume that the teacher will be comfortable being guided/ instructed in English is a risk
  • Factor teacher support into the business model — either directly or through partners
  • Provide teacher-guidance/ support/ training in a manner that is acceptable and helpful. If teachers insist that in-person training is what they need, find innovative ways to support that through hybrid technology models and on-the-ground partners
  • Identify areas of challenge, academically or administrative, for the teacher and remove friction. For example, working within the timetable structure and completing portions is a crucial teacher issue. Adoption of any solution will really depend on understanding and building around these constraints/ requirements
  • Design the solution to solve the teacher’s regular problems, making it integral to regular use
  • Understand and address parent markers of success — ultimately the value of a solution with be assessed through many different markers and parents are a key stakeholder

There is no silver bullet, and by-passing the teacher is not the solution. Technology is a part of the solution, but only as a teacher — catalyst. The real role that technology can play at the bottom of the pyramid is more transformative in teacher capacity building.

In summary, make the teacher the focal point of user-design, start where the teacher is, hand-hold him/ her on the climb, make the solution accessible in various ways, create a steady progression with small wins and reasons for stickiness, help teachers level the field between themselves and their more technically savvy students, and teach them in a way that re-ignites the joy of learning in teachers. This will then permeate the classroom.

Authors: Maya Chandrasekaran (Principal, Menterra Venture Advisors) and Jyoti Thyagarajan (Founder Trustee, Meghsala Trust (meghshala.org))

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