Photo courtesy Digital Empowerment Foundation

The foot soldiers of technology in education—including policymakers and bureaucrats—believe that the introduction of technology by itself will transform education. At the other end of the spectrum are teachers who are resistant to change. This article draws on the author’s field experiences in Chhattisgarh, Odisha and other states to discuss the enablers and barriers to implementing a successful ICT at School programme on the ground.

The foot soldiers of Technology in Education—including policymakers, bureaucrats and teacher educators—tend to believe that technology by itself will transform education. Not many of them are aware of the pitfalls of such an unquestioning faith in the power of technology to transform the quality of education.
At the other end of the spectrum are the teachers I have observed in government schools, many of whom are sceptical about technology, and quite resistant to change. At best, in the early years of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education, teachers would accept the importance of teaching children how to use computers. Using ICTs to make teaching and learning joyful, interesting and easy to understand was still, for these teachers, a glimmer on the horizon.

This article, about the enablers and barriers in implementing a successful ICT@School programme on the ground, draws on my experiences with an ICT in Education research project in government schools in the states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Puducherry, as well as my experiences with quality of education projects in government schools in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

ICTs in education were introduced with the Computer Aided Learning Programme (CALP) in December 2004, which mandated the establishment of Computer Aided Learning Centres (CALCs) in middle and high schools. These centres were set up by a third party, usually a computer training agency with expertise in teaching software application tools. The state governments would bear all the set-up and operational costs. The agency was responsible for setting up the computer lab—usually 10 networked computers and a server—with, for the first three years, a full-time instructor to train children in computer applications. In select cases, these agencies would also provide digital learning materials (audio-visual lessons on compact disks, based on the school textbooks). The Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Puducherry governments hired different programme implementing agencies. Puducherry also set up CALCs in primary schools.

Each state had its own model for computer deployment, annual maintenance and teacher training. Generally, just one teacher from each school would be trained to take the ICT class. Unfortunately, most schools already had a shortage of teachers and the CALP added to their burden. Frequent power outages and lack of timely support in maintaining the computer lab compounded the schools’ challenges.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, drafted the more holistic ICT in School Education policy in 2009 (revised in 2012). This policy provides a broader definition of ICT in school education, going beyond computer training to computer assisted learning (CAL). It provides for in-service and pre-service capacity-building of teachers, heads of school, and education department personnel. States are expected to customise and adapt this policy framework to local needs.

This leap, from computer skills training to computer aided learning to make the teaching-learning process joyful and interesting, has not been easy to accomplish. Teachers and education administrators have had to learn that ICTs must go beyond computer application tools. They have also had to “own” the new teaching-learning process, a major departure from the earlier “outsourced” model of computer education. An entire belief system and pedagogical practice has had to change as part of this process.

Of the three states I have worked in (Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Puducherry), Chhattisgarh stands out as a model in terms of reach, teaching practices, and scale-up of teacher education practices.

The bifurcation of Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh had left a huge vacuum and deficit of teachers in the government school system, necessitating a large-scale refurbishment of school infrastructure, teacher recruitment and teacher training. The new teachers were relatively young and unqualified, and the existing qualified and experienced teachers found it difficult to accept the influx of young untrained teachers. Some brilliant bureaucrats in the education system, with a deep interest in investing in ICTs in education and a willingness to experiment and learn, have been driving the transition. Today, almost a decade after the ICT in Education policy, a majority of Chhattisgarh’s teachers are enthusiastic about the benefits of ICTs in education for children and consider it a personal learning opportunity.

The situation in Odisha is different. Teaching largely follows the old “chalk and talk” method, with only a small percentage of teachers showing an interest in newer methodologies. Many teachers continue to believe that traditional teaching practices yield better results. Sadly, they also believe that children studying in government schools cannot learn and excel in education. Efforts to implement ICT in education have therefore faced resistance, and the transition has been much more challenging on the ground. ICT in education is perceived as an additional burden by teachers, one more problem to add to others such as power failure or breakdown of computer systems.

Puducherry’s public education system stands out in national surveys for the best physical infrastructure, highly qualified teachers, and sufficient learning material. It was one of the earliest governments to provide the requisite physical infrastructure for ICT in education. Almost all the teachers I met owned a smartphone, or desktop or laptop. But these were largely for personal use, not translating into classroom practice. It is revealing, however, that physical infrastructure and teacher qualifications do not guarantee improved teaching-learning outcomes.

Confidence tends to be low amongst teachers at the beginning of ICT in education programmes, regardless of their qualifications, whether in Chhattisgarh where there is no pre-service teacher training, or in Puducherry, which has qualified teachers fluent in English. Every policy change means that teachers are subject to fresh training, and their initial resistance is understandable.

The challenge is to ensure that technology is not introduced as the panacea for every problem in the public school system, but as a pedagogic tool to enhance classroom practices, a stepping stone to improved pedagogy. One teacher from an interior school in Ranpur block of Nayagarh district in Odisha discussed how thrilled she was with computers in her school because they elevated the school’s profile. The head teacher of the school also acknowledged that technology helped the school work as a unit to provide enriched classroom experiences with digital learning materials. The teachers had begun to generate and exchange digital content, increasing the pool of learning resources.

There have been several small successes for education functionaries in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, particularly block and cluster resource persons, as they demonstrate and showcase the use of the computer as a pedagogical tool to teachers for the first time. Teachers are given a free hand to experiment with technology, going beyond creation of supplementary learning materials to assessment and tracking tools for grading. As they begin to curate digital content themselves, there is larger ownership, and teachers begin to rectify and tweak the content according to classroom needs. For many teachers, the exploration of technology in education represents not just professional success but personal and social success as well. Several teachers become champions of technology, and many, over the last eight years of CAL interventions in the state of Chhattisgarh, have set up online teacher forums to disseminate information about government orders and teaching practices.

Saravanan Palani, a teacher educator for the ICT@School project in Puducherry, says: “It was my personal passion to learn, coupled with the opportunity to experiment, that made me fearless about using technology in the classroom. It was natural for me to expand my professional exposure to personal learning and I am now quite comfortable with computers, mobiles and internet. This has given me a new identity and set of skills in social media engagement to help the teacher community. Apart from using technology in my classrooms for teaching, I use it to aid assessment and manage the dissemination of information about the teacher fraternity, whether it is teacher rights or government orders and notifications.”

In the CAL project we were rolling out, we decided to transact pedagogy in the local language, for ease of understanding, acceptance from the teaching fraternity, and easier process documentation. However, there was no alternative to English in teaching computer skills, since proprietary software tools were being used and teachers were keen to learn computer applications in the original form. Besides, the arrival of affordable smartphones with internet has made basic fluency in English inevitable and essential. Nevertheless, we found that language, particularly English, is immaterial to the success of technology interventions. There were initial hiccups in Chhattisgarh, where teachers were untrained and Hindi is more prevalent than English. However, this did not deter teachers from adapting to technology training in English. It was the same with teachers from Odisha. Interestingly, there was resistance to English from Puducherry teachers, but this waned with the passage of time. Language does not seem to matter as long as the focus is on pedagogical practice that treats the computer as a learning aid.

Keeping technology simple and relevant

It is critical to know who is driving the change, more so in technology-led interventions, which call for the deployment of human resources for capacity-building as well as huge investments in procurement and maintenance of technology assets. There is a lot at stake and the political economy of technology interventions cannot be ignored, with vested business interests driving investments.

The position paper of the National Focus Group on Educational Technology also emphasises that “the lessons emerging from the analysis of successes and failures are immense. Equipment-driven programmes do not work.” The success of ICT in education is not about the number of computers procured and the percentage of teachers trained. These are mere indicators of programme expansion and outreach. They cannot be the sole qualifiers of success.

Equipment manufacturers, computer training agencies and private digital content creators may have a stake in measuring the success of technology in education by the number of computers and devices in schools. Teachers across Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Puducherry assumed that the greater the number of computers the more their impact. The one-computer-per-child idea is deeply ingrained in the teaching fraternity. The political economy of technology in education has to be addressed immediately. Otherwise we are in danger of the government machinery exhausting its financial resources in procurement of technology, with little left for other critical factors such as teacher capacity-building.

The technology adopted must be scalable, accessible and affordable. Basic hardware and software tools should suffice to drive educational reforms in state-run schools. There is no need for advanced and expensive computing systems. However, education software applications for school education are mostly available in English and are proprietary in nature. This makes technology tools and applications expensive, unsuitable and inaccessible in public schools. I have observed that a number of senior education administrators and decision-makers are themselves quite confused about the technology specifications suitable for primary schools, and it would be appropriate to have tangible guidelines for this in education policy documents. Open source software, of course, can keep costs low.

With the entry of smartphones, phablets and tablets, we also need to remember that ICTs in education have to go beyond computers. Easier access to the internet, interactive televisions and direct-to-home services have made e-learning content available to greater numbers. The State Councils of Educational Research and Training, Institutes of Advanced Studies in Education, portals set up using Open Educational Resources and Free and Open Source Software have made good progress in building a repository of content in local languages.

Syed Sarwar Hussain, a primary school teacher and resource person with CALP, presently a panchayat teacher at the Government Middle School in Chhota Karaunja, Jashpur district, Chhattisgarh, has some valuable suggestions. First, he says, teachers have to be oriented to the pedagogy of technology in education and learn to recognise the difference between technology in education and education technology. Technology in education is a fairly new subject, and pre-service teacher training gives limited exposure to technology. Training in the basics of computers and application tools is generally passed off as technology in education. Second, teachers’ capacity in pedagogy needs to be strengthened. Third, the myth that technology in education is the panacea for all classroom challenges must be busted. Fourth, technology in education is not a package that is served up on a platter. Teachers must understand that it also needs investment of their time, effort and creativity, just like the creation and use of any other teaching-learning material.

The support scaffold

Given that technology in education is recent, and support systems are yet to mature fully, the public education system lacks human resources to support such initiatives. Therefore, it is extremely important to have thought leadership with a keen eye on building pipelines of resources and monitoring mechanisms. “Installing computers and equipment in classrooms will not have any impact on learning or improving classroom processes,” says Ramesh Verma, a teacher from a Chhattisgarh school. “They will only become an unnecessary burden for teachers and school management unless guidance, monitoring and evaluation become an integral component of ICT in education programmes. These mechanisms need to be built in much before programme execution. They cannot be an afterthought.”

“Guidance and support from senior education functionaries is critical as it exhibits the seriousness of the programme,” says Saravanan Palani from Puducherry. “It also shows the system’s commitment to the programme and ensures collective ownership from the top leadership and constant support from education functionaries at the bottom of the pyramid.”

Systemic upheavals such as transfer of teacher and educator functionaries and lack of belief in such initiatives could, of course, topple the monitoring efforts.

“Technology in education has huge potential to scale-up and address the quality of education challenge in government schools,” says Sarita Satpathy, District Pedagogy Coordinator, Right to Education – Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, who was deputed to oversee and support the Odisha Primary Education Programme Authority’s ICT@School project. “Given the nature of technology and lack of teachers’ preparedness to adapt, it is critical to have senior leadership at the state level to scaffold programme implementation in the initial stages. It is equally important for the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) to support and earmark dedicated academicians to handhold project implementation. It would be ideal for the District Institute of Education and Training (DIET) to collaborate at the district level for close monitoring and support.”

“It is wise to seek the support of non-profit organisations with prior experience in implementing technology-led projects for infrastructure, research and documentation,” Satpathy continues. “These organisations can extend support in monitoring. There is a need to create a resource pool at the state, district and block level as a backup for resources and technology. These contingent resources help in case the cluster resource centre coordinator or block resource centre coordinator fail to address teacher and technology issues. They create alternative approaches to strengthen teacher support systems. The teacher is critical to the success of ICT@School. The key to success is constant monitoring, timely classroom support and availability of content in local languages. Otherwise the ICT@School project will fail the moment it falls off the radar of senior education bureaucracy, state academic institutions and local education functionaries.”

Nirbhay Lumde is associated with a corporate house that manages several education initiatives for state-run schools in India.