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An Opportunity To Reimagine Education Systems

Among parents, 90 percent responded to WhatsApp messages by teachers and checked on their child’s progress.

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“I need your phone, Papa, it’s time for my online quiz. My teacher would have sent it on WhatsApp, based on my lessons for the day.”

This could be a conversation in any household that has a child studying in a government school in India. As people adjust to this ‘new normal’, there is an opportunity to reimagine education and how the whole ecosystem can evolve toward a ‘better normal’.   

Governments in Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh very quickly embarked on the road to digital learning, through an innovative format of creating WhatsApp groups with parents for sharing content. In Himachal Pradesh, over 70 percent of the children were connected though WhatsApp groups and sent daily lessons. Of these, over 25 percent responded and sent back their daily worksheets. Among parents, 90 percent responded to WhatsApp messages by teachers and checked on their child’s progress. This data is a positive indicator of the potential of online teaching and learning.

Online teaching should not be a replacement for classroom teaching. There is simply no replacement for the benefit of face-to-face interactions between teachers and students. But its benefit in providing some normalcy to children during the lockdown has been substantial and has helped to finally establish a link between teacher and parents, which has been missing for first-generation learners in government schools.

In addition, the speed of response by these states has been another welcome change. All three launched their efforts within two weeks of the lockdown, which included mapping of content, forming of WhatsApp groups, and extensive outreach by state political leadership. This would not have been possible without the administrative and communication changes that have been undertaken over the last few years. For example, Himachal Pradesh has been systemically transforming its schools for the last three years under the Samarth program. Forty percent of their teachers were already connected to parent groups in the pre- COVID days. The availability of real-time data on student and teacher engagement has energized educators, giving them the inspiration to use creative solutions such as TV and radio lessons to reach students with daily material.  

The uptake of technology, the level of parent engagement with teachers, and the speed of execution by the government gives us a great deal of excitement as we reimagine the shift in education. Here are a few ideas to ensure the learning curve continues:

1. Accelerate the use of technology for teachers and parents to connect: The connection between teacher and parent is one of the most important changes we’ve seen from this new normal. Teachers have had to be available for parents in a different way, and in many cases, more often, than they did within the traditional model. We need to ensure we’re continuing to make it seamless and easy for them to connect with parents on an ongoing basis. Programs like TeacherApp, Diksha, CENTA and ChalkLit are already making this possible and can be adopted at scale.

2. Deploy innovative technology nudges to enhance learning: As more and more children become comfortable with remote learning, we need to focus on not just the quality of these solutions, but also innovate on technology nudges to keep them motivated to learn. Companies like ConveGenius are leading the way in this thinking by leveraging bot-based quizzes for engaging students throughout the day and processing data to provide insights to teachers.

3. Redesign curriculum: As schools will be shut down for an extended period, education departments are planning to reduce the syllabus for this year, and potentially the next academic year. With this change, now is the time to rethink curriculum, ensuring students are learning essential material and dropping non-essential material. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is reviewing the 14- year-old National Curriculum Framework (NCF) in accordance with a new National Education Policy (NEP), and states should use this as an opportunity to collaborate and provide their input.  It is essential that the changes reflect not only the basics of numeracy and literacy, but also equip students with social and emotional learning skills to thrive in a post-COVID world.

4. Overhaul the digital infrastructure of education systems: There is a need to rethink the infrastructure for digital learning in our schools. This will require work on many fronts above and beyond just hardware provisioning in schools. It involves creating a suite of contextualized learning solutions that can work in resource constrained environments, ensuring there is an evidence base for what works, and finally, procuring and governing these solutions. In addition, and just as importantly, it’s essential that the communication and administrative infrastructure of education departments are updated. Use of modern methods of communication like email/messaging/remote meetings might sound basic, but we have a long way to go in establishing their usage in our government systems.  

Now is the time to reimagine our education systems, not just to minimize the learning gaps during the next few months, but to build the positive changes we’re seeing into the system for the future. Education specialists in the government and private sector must work together to ensure the pandemic does not derail the objective of education-for-all. We need to solve for the immediate crisis and also embark on bold transformation to enable the system to leapfrog to a new normal, empowering our future generations. Let’s work together to get ahead of this!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Prachi Windlass

Director, India Programs, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

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