Screenshots from EkStep Community Platform

EkStep, Diksha and ShikshaLokam are three emerging societal platforms in education that work on a single digital infrastructure, addressing the needs of children in K-12, teachers in schools, and school administrators and leaders. These platforms have the potential to reduce digital inequalities and increase teacher agency and autonomy of technology use.

In recent years, technology and the digital intensification of education have been positioned as the biggest drivers to improve quality of education in India. This is evident in the proposed new education policy (Rao 2017) as well as in schemes, programmes and policies in various states that have allocated budgets and programmes for the introduction of smart boards, computers, and animated resources in public schools. For example, the central government’s e-Kranti programme for digitising education has included provisioning of broadband for government schools, free wi-fi to schools, soft skill courses on computer literacy for teachers as well as students, and the development of MOOCs for students in higher education. Private sector organisations, corporate social responsibility (CSR) foundations and philanthropists have joined hands with the central and state governments to make the infrastructure and technology available to schools.

This has been the noisier discourse on technology in education. The quieter, more critical voices expressing concern about the nature and types of digital inequality in the country, have been ignored by policymakers.

This second discourse pays more attention to the extent of digital inequality amongst those who have access to technology, the quality of digital use, the levels of autonomy and agency that users have in their use of technology, and its accessibility for those who need it most. This discourse asks whether providing digital access to teachers and students is sufficient to change the quality of education. In doing so, it focuses more attention on the agency, empowerment, social support and autonomy of digital use that teachers require if technology is to become a meaningful driver of quality student outcomes.

Dimensions of digital inequality

The public policy focus on technology in India continues, to a large extent, to be on bridging the digital divide between the haves and have-nots. Therefore, the broader policy and programme focus has been on the provision of infrastructure and technology solutions to schools and teachers. The dominant assumption is that providing teachers and schools with computers, some training and standard pre-formatted solutions (such as classroom lessons, or digital curriculum content) will provide the digital technologies needed to change classroom learning. While it is important to ensure access to suitable digital technology for all as a first step towards reducing digital inequality, DiMaggio and Hargittai (2001) have argued that digital inequality must also include an exploration of the inequality that exists between all those who do have formal access to technology and the internet. The exploration of this form of inequality focuses on the question of what people can do when they have access to technology, the extent to which they are empowered to take meaningful education, and whether they have the agency to do so in a manner that makes a real difference to teachers and students.

The increasing access and penetration of mobile technology, tablets, laptops and other digital devices in India seems to suggest a country with a high potential for people to access the web and other internet-based services. However, in order to respond meaningfully to questions about the purpose and power of ICT in education, we need to examine whether users’ access to the internet is accompanied by autonomy of use, and whether users have the skills and knowledge to fully tap the potential of the internet. We also need to examine the social support structures and networks that internet users can draw on, and finally, the purpose for which individuals use the internet and other digital devices. It is worth examining three of these dimensions of digital inequality in the context of the Indian education system.

  1. Autonomy of use: How much autonomy do teachers have in their use of the web and other digital devices? How much flexibility does a teacher have to determine when she can use the web or download learning materials? Where is the technology available to her—only on computers in schools or on her mobile phone and tablet? To what extent is her use of technology circumscribed and prescribed by regulations, time limits or technical features and impediments in school? How stringently is the use of specific digital technologies enforced and monitored? Studies show that resolving questions around autonomy of use and providing individuals with greater autonomy of use increases the benefits that users derive from digital technologies. The lower the level of autonomy of use, the lower is the ownership of the digital device, and the less the influence of digital technology on the user and her actions.
  2. Inequality in skill: Hymes (1974) referred to the capacity of individuals to respond both practically and intuitively to the challenges and opportunities of digital technology, particularly the web, as “internet competence”. In that sense, the competence of teachers to use digital technology and the internet is dependent on their capacity to use these technologies for the purposes that seem to be most meaningful to them. This competence is related to the satisfaction that users gain from the experience of using the digital technology, the extent to which they find its use rewarding or frustrating, and consequently the effort that they are willing to put in to persist in its use and develop additional skills to navigate the technology and its use. Inequality in digital skills does call for the training and capacity-building of teachers. However, it also requires teachers to be provided with the ability to navigate the technology in a way that is meaningful to them, acquiring skills that are relevant to them rather than the prescription of standardised capacity-building programmes that do little more than mandate what is to be taught using prescribed digital technology.
  3. Inequality in availability of social support: Developing skills and competencies to use digital technologies in ways that are meaningful to individual teachers is necessary. Yet studies have shown that newcomers to digital technology often develop advanced competencies in its use, while existing users may stagnate in their understanding and limit their use of these technologies to their basic and prescribed formats (Scrimshaw 2004). One reason for this is that users who develop greater competencies and agency in their use of technology draw on social support from other users of the same technology. Access to social support is therefore an important element of digital inequality. Embedding teachers in dense networks of supportive peers who provide technical assistance, advice and opportunities for experimentation is fundamental to enhancing the digital capabilities of teachers. It increases their motivation to use the technology, and to develop their own digital competence and use it more meaningfully for educational change and quality outcomes.

A meaningful reduction of digital inequality amongst teachers in the Indian public school system necessitates technology approaches that address the above issues of digital inequality. Without these, the potential of digital technology to bring about any meaningful change in education is suspect.

Some additional fundamental challenges that require immediate attention when discussing the relevance of technology in education are:

First, the complexity of providing quality, equitable and meaningful education for all children has proven beyond a doubt that educational solutions cannot be one-size-fits-all, but must be contextual and relevant for teachers as well as learners. Technological solutions are often standardised (the standardisation enabling scale of use), but such standardisations can make the solution irrelevant to the particular user. For example, software solutions that help prepare standardised lesson plans for prescribed textbooks, or instructional lessons on how to teach fractions or multiplication may not be as relevant for teachers teaching migrant children as they may be for teachers teaching second- or third-generation learners in city schools. Therefore, while technology may enable a large number of teachers/learners to access digital content, the content itself may be irrelevant or of little use to them.

Second, research and knowledge solutions that are useful and relevant must be made available to a large number of teachers and students such that the value of these solutions can be amplified. In India, innovations often remain restricted to pockets, with little dissemination of the innovation. Also, there is very little active dissemination of knowledge on what works and what does not, how technology is making a difference and where it is failing, so that useful ideas can be made use of faster and in more relevant ways. This has resulted in isolation of technology innovations, rather than acceleration of solutions that could help a much larger number of teachers, students and schools.

Third, users of technology often have very little agency in deciding when, and in what way, they can use the technology available to them. A large number of technology-based solutions are mandated for use by central authorities (such as curriculum boards, or educational departments), which leaves teachers for whom the technology solution has been created in the first place with very little autonomy of use. For technology to work, users must have the agency to use technology in ways they deem most appropriate and not be dictated to or standardised by a central authority.

Finally, in a country like India where the resources required to build and sustain technology infrastructure and development is scarce, markets often monopolise and marketise technologies, with the result that those most in need of the innovative technologies are often the ones with minimal access to them. Therefore, what is a scarce resource must be made abundant and a public good, freeing educationists to focus on the creation and dissemination of knowledge around best practices in teaching and learning rather than worrying about the resources required to build technology architecture.
Societal platforms or open digital infrastructures are a new idea to address the complexities listed above. This idea seems to have the potential to make digital technology and its use more relevant for education in India.

Open source digital platforms

Societal platforms are open digital infrastructures that are available to a large number of users to build contextual solutions to problems in the education domain. The platforms provide a digital spine that is architecturally constructed as open and extensible digital and data services. This spine supports a co-creation hub that can be used by innovators and creators to design and build a range of solutions to complex educational problems. The third and final layer is an amplification network, consisting of public, private and social enterprises and actors that contextualise the solutions provided by the co-creation layer and deliver these services and solutions to targeted segments—teachers, schools and communities.
The platform approach suggests the following:

  1. Creating robust digital spines or infrastructures that are open and a public good allows scarce and expensive infrastructural technology to be made available to all.
  2. Such an infrastructure allows a wide range of public problem-solvers to work with each other to create solutions using tools provided on the platform.
  3. A wide range of users can contextualise and re-purpose these solutions to their own contexts, thereby increasing the agency of users (such as teachers) to reimagine the solutions in ways that are meaningful to them.
  4. It enables greater choice and transparency in problem-solving and fosters cooperation and trust between the creators of solutions and their users/adaptors. Data can be used to empower decisions and solutions rather than merely to monitor and sanction.
  5. It amplifies and shares scarce resources and disrupts the one-size-fits-all paradigm of education in India. Innovations, ideas and empowering solutions can be amplified through the network of users who can contextualise the solutions to their own contexts.

This platform approach to complex educational challenges is being experimented with in India through three interlinked societal platforms—EkStep, Diksha and ShikshaLokam.

EkStep provides a fundamental digital infrastructure on which multiple solutioning layers can be built. The platform focuses on improving literacy and numeracy amongst K-5 children in India. Innovators and creators can use EkStep’s authoring tools to create content, a large repository of learning content, videos, lesson plans, assessments and courses. A number of organisations in India whose work focuses on literacy and numeracy for children in this age-group and state governments such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have begun using the EkStep platform to create content in various languages that teachers can adapt for their own classrooms. In addition, EkStep has created a mobile app (Genie) that is available to teachers, parents and students to download and access learning resources and courses.

Leveraging the EkStep infrastructure is the National Teacher Platform or DIKSHA (Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing) that has been launched by the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). DIKSHA focuses on the development of content, resources and materials that serve the capacity-building needs of teachers. Like EkStep, DIKSHA has partners from both private and public sectors, including NGOs, foundations and CSR foundations, as well as curriculum boards such as the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) and teacher education institutions including from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. The idea of DIKSHA is that teachers must be able to access content relevant to their own training needs, be able to chart their own learning journeys, and have access to a community of learners that functions as a scaffold and support in their learning journeys.

Leveraging EkStep and DIKSHA further is ShikshaLokam, a platform that aims to provide resources and learning opportunities to build the capacities of school and school system leaders. Like DIKSHA, it seeks to build partnerships with private and public sector actors who are focused on school administration, school leadership and system administration, to develop meaningful content and resources for school and school system leaders and administrators to enable them to improve schools and consequently student outcomes.

Thus, the three platforms, built on a shared digital infrastructure, seek to enhance resources, learning opportunities and contextualised solutions for children in K-12, teachers in schools, and school administrators and leaders. Their current structure involves partnerships with the government, other public institutions (such as NCTE, state education bodies, curriculum boards) and private organisations (social purpose as well as for-profits) to collaboratively build solutions and provide resources to children, teachers, school leaders and administrators.

Some challenges and potential pitfalls

For ideas such as societal platforms to work to reduce digital inequalities and make technology a more meaningful driver of change, there are certain prerequisites. The first is funds. The creation of open and freely available digital infrastructures requires large capital. There is, therefore, high-risk capital involved in their creation, which requires philanthropists and foundations to partner with government agencies. It requires such investments to stay the course with a long-term approach and consistency of commitment to the funding. While government policies change with changes in the ruling political party, philanthropists and foundations can continue to fund such infrastructure. In India, with a slowly maturing philanthropic ecosystem (Sheth et al 2017), consistent funding is a key challenge.

Second, societal platforms are based on the fundamental idea of distributed leadership and collaboration. Clearly, they are meaningful only when there is widespread acceptance that a single entity (such as a governing body or a state institute) cannot drive the change in the ecosystem. Mandated solutions and one-size-fits-all approaches are antithetical to platform beliefs of collaboration, multi-solutions and contextualised repurposing of ideas and resources. In a top-down centralised bureaucratic education system such as India’s, there is a cultural and structural predisposition to solutions that are mandated by institutions in authority and adhered to by others in the system. This culture and mindset within the educational bureaucracy, teachers and administrators must change. Enforcing the use of societal platforms for teacher training or the use of resources will defeat the very purpose of these platforms and make ideas of agency, choice and empowerment redundant.

Third, societal platforms themselves are agnostic about the ideologies and types of solutions that are populated in the platforms. Teacher data on course completion, use of resources, acceptance of specific solutions, student data on learning levels, improvements and progress, and school data on performance will all be available and visible on the platforms. The Indian school education system, with its poor student learning levels, problems with teacher competencies and skills, and unreliability of data such as U-DISE, may not value such openness of data. If data itself is used to monitor and penalise teachers and students instead of being used for meaningful data-led conversations of how to bring about change, its relevance and use dramatically shifts. This may result in the erosion of trust between teachers and administrators on the platform, and lower levels of openness and collaboration, ultimately defeating the purpose of innovative solutions and collaborative problem-solving that the platform advocates.

Fourth, it is important in the Indian context to ask questions around who would own such societal platforms. Against a background of suspicion about private sector investment in public education, changing government policies and structures and uncertain global pressures for educational reform, consistent development of the platform is uncertain. There is a very real possibility of the education bureaucracy usurping such societal platforms to mandate use of specific resources, courses and materials by teachers and administrators. Changing policies may result in confusion and inconsistencies in the platform in terms of access and use for all stakeholders. Data may be misappropriated for private gain at the expense of meaningful teacher and student improvement. Involving key actors in the education ecosystem to debate and answer questions of ownership of these platforms is necessary if they are to serve the purpose for which they are created.

Finally, in a national culture of power differences, with positional authority claiming expertise, it is important to ask what will incentivise teachers, administrators and other stakeholders to use the platform in a manner that is democratic and collaborative instead of mandated and individualistic. The digital tools to enhance collegiality, and the embedded community features of these platforms will not be accessed and used meaningfully unless the platforms foster trust and openness amongst stakeholders, all of whom are working towards a common goal of quality education for all. Teachers accessing the platform as part of mandated rules and regulations, the use of the platform being monitored and controlled, and data being made opaque and used in regulatory fashion are all dangers from an inherently formal, mechanistic education system. Within such cultures, how can teachers find agency and meaning in the use of these platforms? This is a fundamental challenge that would need to be addressed if the potential of societal platforms to unlock teacher agency and empower their use of digital technology for accelerated learning is to be realised.

Conclusion

Digital inequality is more than inequitable access to technology. Digital equality is also about meaningful access, agency and autonomy of use, the competency and social support needed to make use of digital technology in a way that addresses the complexity of education. The idea of societal platforms—open digital infrastructure, co-creation hubs and amplification networks—seems to have the potential to reduce the digital inequalities mentioned. In India, three societal platforms in education that work on a single digital infrastructure addressing the needs of children, teachers and school leaders seems to be a promising mechanism for reducing digital inequalities and increasing teacher agency and autonomy of technology use. The impact of these platforms, however, depends on fostering conditions in the education ecosystem that enable their fundamental characteristics of open access, collaboration, existence of multiple solutions, adaptive technology and contextualised problem-solving to flourish. Superimposing bureaucratic top-down controls and reducing the agency of actors to participate fully in the platform are real dangers that can prevent these platforms from achieving their intent. In India, with its cultural and structural preference for a standardised one-size-fits-all approach in education and limited opportunities for teacher autonomy, the potential of such platforms may not be realised unless mindsets change and more formal structural changes in the way schools are administered and teachers monitored are made. A promising opportunity for reducing digital inequality may be squandered away.

Sujatha Rao works in the areas of education, technology and organisation development for social purpose organisations. In particular, her interest lies in school leadership, technology and organising schools such that all children flourish in schools. She teaches at Azim Premji University and at the Indian School of Development Management. She is also Founder-Director of Viridus Social Impact Solutions.

References
DiMaggio, Paul, and Eszter Hargittai (2001): “From the ‘Digital Divide’ to ‘Digital Inequality’: Studying Internet Use as Penetration Increases,” Working Paper Series 15, Centre for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.

EkStep Foundation (2017): “Societal Platforms: Resolving Societal Challenges with Speed, at Scale, Sustainability,” https://societalplatform.org/societal-platforms-a-new-way-to-resolve-societal-challenges/

Hymes, Dell (1974): Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rao, Sujatha (2017): “Management, Administration and Governance of School Education in India: Proposed National Education Policy,” Learning Curve, No 27, August..

Scrimshaw, Peter (2004): “Enabling Teachers to Make Successful Use of ICT,” Becta ICT Research, June.

Sheth, Arpan et al (2017): “India Philanthropy Report 2017: The Individual Philanthropist’s Path to Full Potential,” Dasra and Bain & Company Inc.