Abhisek, 12, a government school student from Himachal Pradesh learnt a new way of education during the pandemic. His school has been shut for over two years because of the pandemic, but the eighth grader continued his studies on his father’s mobile device, using the lessons his teacher sends through WhatsApp.
While mobile and internet reach continue to grow across the country and the education technology market expands, not every child is benefiting like Abhisek. Only one in four students in India has access to digital learning. Though edtech solutions for virtual learning are growing, they are still out of reach for the millions of families who cannot afford a smartphone and high-bandwidth internet. Yet now more than ever, students could benefit from these technologies to close the learning gaps that have widened during the pandemic. An estimated 92% of Indian children have regressed in their language learning, and 82% have regressed in math, according to a study by Azim Premji University.
As students start returning to school, educators will need to provide a collaborative and supportive learning environment at school as well as at home. We need a different approach to edtech that ensures more children can access digital content and continue their online learning.
It’s clear the appetite for edtech in India—where families of all economic levels place a high emphasis on education—is strong. During 2021, funders from around the world invested almost $20 billion into education technology, three times the amount invested the previous year, according to EdWeek Market Brief. India’s investments in edtech totaled $5.6 billion, making the country a major player in the industry. Edtech for primary and secondary schools represents about half of the overall market. Companies claim to be reaching as many as 100 million users, which is about 40% of India’s school-going population. School closures prompted by the pandemic have provided a strong boost to these numbers.
The last two years also witnessed a lot of innovation on removing access and usage barriers for children from low-income families. During the last two years, parents took on the role of teachers at home, while teachers tried to keep their students connected and engaged from afar. Companies like ConveGenius leveraged AI and chatbots to enable remote interactions between teachers and students and to help parents support their children. These companies launched weekly quizzes on materials the students were learning and provided assessment data back to the teachers. This replicated the regular feedback rhythm of physical classrooms for both teachers and students.
Digital access for all is a huge issue that surfaced during this period. To solve this problem, NGOs like Teach For India have created device libraries where four or five children can borrow a device and learn collectively. Teach For India plans to extend this model by creating device libraries in schools when in-person classes resume. States like Haryana are providing personal learning devices to all children in grades 8 to 12. Haryana also launched a digital Saathi (‘friend’) programme for phone-based learning facilitated by community volunteers.
As schools begin to reopen, we need more innovation on the ground to leverage the true potential of edtech. Companies must focus on personalising education, bringing it to the remotest parts of India, and supporting the students who have slipped furthest in their education during the pandemic. Initiatives like Bharat Ed Tech Initiative (BEI) already are exploring how to do this.
BEI, a collaborative of edtech companies and NGOs, is helping 100,000 students learn at home with the support of proven edtech solutions. BEI’s first goal is to increase engagement of children on these solutions by providing ways for parents and teachers to nudge students on their lessons. Large-scale programs like these, and the qualitative insights emerging from them on use cases and usage patterns, will help build the evidence for large school systems to adopt technology with confidence.
Edtech is not a magic wand that can solve the learning crisis in India. Neither is it a replacement for teachers in schools. In fact, the pandemic has proven the pivotal role that teachers will continue to play in education. Their nudges and endorsements of solutions will increase children’s and parents’ engagement.
Yet initiatives like BEI can help to bridge the education divide for India’s 250 million schoolchildren. India has the products, the appetite, and the knowledge to support our kids with edtech. Let’s keep innovating to find ways to reach even more children with digital solutions that can help them learn and thrive now and in the future.
Prachi Windlass is senior director, MSDF India
The views expressed are personal