Photo courtesy: Digital Equalizer programme

Teachers are at the heart of the Digital Equalizer programme, which trains educators in the effective use of technology as a pedagogic tool, helping them bring creativity, diversity and real-life examples into the school curriculum through technology. The decade-old programme, spread over 15 states, has worked with over 89,000 teachers in government schools. DE’s internal assessment indicates that teachers in DE schools use technology in the classroom 2.5 times as much as non-DE schools.

The America India Foundation’s Digital Equalizer (DE) programme leverages the use of technology to bridge the educational and digital divide in India and prepare students to compete in the 21st century economy. DE focuses on improving the capacity of teachers to use technology, to deliver high-quality instruction and promote project-based learning techniques for children in grades 5 through 10, the stage at which students most commonly drop out of the education system. By March 2017, the 10-year-old programme had reached 15 states, 111 districts, 7,359 schools, 89,208 teachers and 2,080,082 children. DE works with government schools, with the exception of a couple of NGO-run schools and some private schools where the programme had been implemented. Eighty-five percent of DE schools are in rural locations.

The DE programme equips schools with a computer centre to enhance student learning, and partners with state governments to scale and sustain the work for the long term. But it is the teacher who is at the heart of the DE classroom.

Figure 1: DE Theory of Change
Source: Impact of ICT in Upper Primary Education, S Sarkar, S Mohapatra and J Sundarakrishnan (2017), Springer International Publishing

The programme trains educators in basic computer literacy, internet research and pedagogical methodologies. It helps them bring creativity, diversity and real-life examples into the school curriculum through technology.

DE’s fundamental principle is that teachers’ knowledge and mastery should go beyond the subject matter they teach, to a deep understanding of how technology can be used to aid subject matter learning. Therefore, the DE class provides teachers with technology and non-technology-based teaching aids, helps teachers locate and design innovative technology-enhanced teaching aids to support the diverse needs of learners and enables them to evaluate these teaching aids for accuracy and suitability. It helps teachers plan instructional strategies to aid student learning in a technology-enhanced environment.

Teacher training, coaching, mentoring, assessment and evaluation is a continuous process. DE tracks the impact of activities at every step—from conducting pre-tests and post-tests for teacher trainees and district resource groups (DRGs) trained as part of the DE programme, to assessments for carefully designed instructional packages, worked out in collaboration with teachers at the school level.

In addition, DE systematically tracks changes in teacher perception on new pedagogic techniques.

Student engagement is also an integral part of DE classes. The introduction of the lesson topic goes from known (familiar concepts) to unknown (unfamiliar concepts). This is done for instance by displaying relevant pictures, showing videos, asking questions, or telling stories relevant to the topic or activities. Teachers explain concepts through the visual medium and reinforce them through detailed explanation and planned exercises using worksheets. Students then move on to project- or activity based learning, a phase in which they assimilate knowledge. They work in groups around designed activities and record their observations. They are given a chance to present their findings at the end of the session. Finally, at the reflection stage students go through assessment questions framed to strengthen the retention of concepts learned during a DE class.

The DE way of teaching also advocates the flipped classroom methodology, which emphasises student-led learning, coupled with peer-to-peer collaboration and individualised guidance. “Flipping the classroom” means that students first gain exposure to new material outside the class, usually via reading or lecture videos, and then use class time to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge through problem-solving, discussion, or debates. This mode of teaching helps teachers optimise the time available and focus on students who need more attention.

Impact on teaching methods

In February 2018, DE conducted a teacher perception analysis in selected Odisha schools where the programme had been implemented to understand teachers’ perceptions about students, teaching methodologies, and overall experience of the programme. The focus was on tracking teaching methods and behaviour, particularly the adoption of technology in day-to-day work and teaching.

Of the 29 teachers surveyed, 12 were male and 17 female. Thirteen teachers were aged 24 to 35, 11 between 35 and 45, and five were over 45 years old.

Figure 2: Adoption of teaching methods

The survey revealed that reading out from the textbook was used “often” by 59% of teachers, and “rarely” by 34%. Asking the students to read the textbook repeatedly was reported as a practice “often” used by 66% of teachers, and “rarely” by 34%. While 93% of the teachers continued to use the blackboard often to explain to students, Figure 2 illustrates that a sizeable 86% of teachers often used visual aids such as PowerPoint presentations to explain topics during class (7% use them rarely and 7% never). Ninety-three percent said they use project-based learning methods in the classroom often while 7% said they rarely use this technique. Sixty-two percent of teachers said they use digital content in the classroom often while 21% said they use it rarely, and 10% of the participating teachers said they never use this technique. Seven percent said they were not aware of this technique at all.

Figure 3: Computer literacy of teachers

Regarding computer literacy of the teachers—MS Office tools, internet and video editing— 97% knew MS Word, but only 24% knew Excel and 55% PowerPoint. Thirty-eight percent knew how to use the internet, while only 3% of teachers knew how to use video editing tools.

Regardless of their variable computer skills, however, 93% of the teachers said they prefer teaching the DE way, and 41% also preferred the flipped classroom approach.

Figure 4: Teacher perceptions of classroom outcomes

Fifty-nine percent of the teachers noted an improvement in their students’ academic performance following the use of the DE methodology. All the teachers noted that students made a conscious attempt to answer more questions in tests/exams, and 100% also noted increased student engagement and participation during class. Fifty-nine percent of teachers noted that student attendance had improved, and 69% said that students had a better understanding of concepts being taught the DE way.

Figure 5: Teachers’ perceptions of programme impact on students

All the teachers felt that the DE way of teaching promotes critical thinking and creativity amongst their students and that the method is more inclusive of slow learners, encouraging them to interact in class. Ninety-seven percent of teachers believed DE builds students’ confidence, 86% believed DE encourages students to become better team players, 86% felt DE improves student presentation skills and 79% felt that DE promotes active teacher-student interaction. Three percent of the teachers reported that the DE programme had not had any positive impact.

An evaluation of the DE programme in Gujarat in 2016 by Samhita Social Ventures also revealed that the DE way of teaching has had a positive effect on teacher attitudes, pedagogy and student learning outcomes.

DE partner schools saw an average increase in attendance from 75% to 81% between 2014 and 2016. Teachers’ reliance on rote learning methods reduced from 58% to 18% after they were integrated in the DE programme. Only 6% of teachers reported using technology on an almost daily basis before the programme, but this increased to 67% after the programme. More DE teachers (33%) implemented project-based learning within their classrooms. Around 71% of teachers felt that the biggest benefit of the programme had been in holding the attention of the class.

DE’s internal assessment indicates that teachers in DE schools use technology 2.5 times as much in the classroom as non-DE schools. Seventy-five percent of the schools participating in the DE programme use technology in the classroom. Only one in four teachers now relies exclusively on the chalk-and-talk method of teaching, compared to three out of four teachers in non-DE schools. Nearly three-quarters of all teachers believe that DE strategies help with classroom engagement.

On average, students scored 10 marks more than their non-DE counterparts, after completing two-thirds of the core DE programme, across all subjects.

Teacher adoption of technology

We need to begin with the basic problem in a country like India, where the focus has always been on procurement and not on output and outcomes. If one looks at education as a production function, what we see is basically an input-driven model. The problem is systemic. Most states have an ICT for Education (ICT4E) policy, but it is generally imported from some other country and does not fit our context. It looks good only on paper. Schemes that are implemented from time to time at the state level tend to be knee-jerk responses to central government schemes. The consequence is an absence of total system planning. Thus, one often comes across schools with computer labs but untrained teachers, or trained teachers without access to computer labs. Teacher training on technology is limited and the focus of such trainings is on computer fundamentals, not on technology integration. These are top-down trainings where the field staff exists merely to implement decisions made at the top. One thus finds the entire focus going towards procuring high-end computers and setting up labs in schools, but little thinking and planning on how to help teachers at the school level integrate them meaningfully in classroom teaching.

As part of the DE programme in Odisha since 2004, apart from our regular model of teacher training and in-school intervention, we have also trained in-service teachers at the three Institutes of Advanced Studies in Education and a couple of District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs). We are also intervening in the DIETs in Delhi and Karnataka. We have observed that in pre-service training, the technology paper for bachelor’s students of education is largely theory. The experiential training component in pre-service teacher training (practice sessions at the school level for pre-service teachers) is not being given its due importance. They have become shorter and are not well planned. This does not augur well for technology integration. Our experience with the DE programme over the years shows that good classroom management is “preventive rather than reactive.” Classroom situations are chaotic and the introduction of a new technology tool heightens the chaos. Students often tussle with one another to get access to the limited number of computers available in the labs. They start playing with computers instead of listening to what the teacher is saying. One also often finds students who are good at computers monopolising them, whereas students who are not good at computers are lost and take the backseat, not knowing what to do. Thus, to ensure that classes are conducted smoothly when technology is introduced, a teacher needs to plan well in advance. They should prepare a checklist to avoid chaos. Thus, prevention in establishing a well-managed classroom is a prerequisite for effective technology integration, underscoring the need for methods classes in pre-service training to help pre-service teachers think through the lessons they plan to teach with technology. Both pre-service and in-service teachers need to remember and verbalise the details of the steps to be followed when planning a lesson with technology. Meta-cognitive reflections are an essential component of technology integration in the classroom, keeping in mind the affordances and constraints of technology—which strategies act as affordances when using technology and which strategies constrain the integration of technology for effective student learning.

In the TPACK model1, classroom management is a critical component of instructional design. Without this, technology integration at the classroom level is superficial.

DE’s success lies in the success with which a teacher uses technology as a pedagogic tool. From this standpoint, we have seen very encouraging results from our intervention in various states across the country. There are divides between urban and rural as well as young and old teachers, with younger teachers in urban locations adopting the practice more successfully, whereas the rural schools have lagged behind slightly. As several research studies point out, older teachers are more reticent in adopting technology tools as far as teaching learning is concerned.

While teachers have been enthusiastic as far as technology integration is concerned, in retrospect I feel that without handholding at the school level, technology integration does not work. I remember the lines of the famous philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said in his classic work Leviathan, “Men are notorious backsliders.” While he said this in a different context (minus authority men will go back to a state of nature, in which life is nasty, brutish and short), it holds true for technology integration as well. The infrastructure and overall culture of a government school in a country like India is not supportive of either innovation or agency on the part of the teacher. Pressing problems, such as teacher shortages, teacher quality and learning deficits, apart from infrastructure issues and the burden of non-academic work throughout the year, definitely set limits to what teachers can achieve. In the absence of support and guidance at the school level after the training, teachers are liable to lapse into the same old environment at their respective schools/work locations, with the same old demands leading to the same old responses.

Conclusion and recommendations

Our experience in implementing the DE programme in Odisha and other parts of India for over a decade now has proved that the following points decide the success or failure of effective technology integration by teachers at the classroom level:

  1. Planning is the sine qua non of teaching with technology. Clear thinking on the overall classroom management strategy makes technology integration successful.
  2. Experience shows that classroom situations are chaotic, especially so in government schools, where we work. Therefore, a teacher needs to plan and prepare to ensure that lessons flow in a logical, coherent and orderly manner. A checklist is a necessary pre-requisite.
  3. It follows then that at the beginning of the class students should be given a very accurate description of all the steps they are to follow. It is necessary to keep checking the understanding of the students when using technology tools to transact a lesson.
  4. How technology tools are introduced (computers in our case) and how students are guided in making use of them to learn, is a critical component of success.

At the policy level, a shift is called for from procurement to output and outcomes. A need has to be created at the school level for technology usage.

Although government has been taking steps to provide computers in schools over the last couple of years, basically through a BOOT (build, own, operate and transfer) model, the focus has been more on setting up infrastructure and hardware. Teacher training is generally limited to computer fundamentals. The content provided with the setting up of the labs at the school level is not updated and internet connectivity, a necessary component of e-learning, is available in only a few schools. The use of computers in regular classroom teaching remains optional.

A more meaningful integration of technology in education at the grassroots level would call for a dedicated team at the departmental level, more comprehensive teacher training, and a resource group at the state and district levels (comprising education department representatives as well as district-level education functionaries and teachers). The Cluster Resource Coordinators should be trained, and the Cluster Resource Centres need to be strengthened by providing suitable infrastructure, including computers, to ensure effective monitoring.

If I were to capture the essence of our experience with teachers, it is the understanding that integrating technology in education is not about how much or what technology you use, but the effective use of technology as a pedagogic tool, with the focus on content and cutting-edge instructional practices.

Subrata Sarkar is Operations Director, Digital Equalizer. Technology and its impact on learning outcomes is his research interest. He has been working in the Ed-Tech space for more than a decade now, and is the co-author of Impact of ICT in Upper Primary Education, published in 2017 by Springer International Publishing, Switzerland.

[1] The TPACK framework was developed by Punya Mishra and M J Koehler as a framework for integrating technology in teacher knowledge. As they say, separating the three components of content, pedagogy and technology is an analytic act and one that is difficult to tease out in practice. In actuality, the components exist in a state of dynamic equilibrium. In the TPACK framework, teaching and learning with technology demands a dynamic transactional relationship between the three components; a change in any one of the factors has to be compensated by changes in the other two.