Nirmal Shah is the co-founder of Countingwell, a dedicated maths learning app built with the goal of democratizing maths learning. Countingwell provides maths teaching to middle school students.
Six years ago, the UN General Assembly had adopted 17 Global Goals, also known as Sustainable Development Goals, as a universal call to action to end poverty and hunger, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.
The fourth goal in this list explicitly focuses on ‘providing quality education to all’. Frequently referred to as SDG4, it exhorts all countries to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. As the UN puts it, “this goal ensures that all girls and boys complete free primary and secondary schooling by 2030. It also aims to provide equal access to affordable vocational training, to eliminate gender and wealth disparities, and achieve universal access to a quality higher education.”
Now, even a casual scrutiny of how school education in India has been disrupted over the last 18 months of the pandemic is sufficient to reveal that we have moved in the opposite direction of SDG4. Far from ‘eliminating gender and wealth disparities’, and achieving universal access to higher education, a substantial number of our 25-crore school going children have accumulated a gross learning deficit on account of school closures. A recent UNESCO report noted that India’s education divide has worsened due to the pandemic, adding that “nearly 70 per cent of students lacked smartphones or other devices to access classes online, while a majority grappled with poor internet facilities, or none, especially in rural areas”.
It is in this context the reopening of schools is critical so that normal education can resume for all. However, even after schools reopen and students return to classes, teachers will still need to grapple with bridging the learning deficit accumulated over the last year and a half. Whether they have the bandwidth, skills, and capabilities necessary to achieve this mammoth task is a moot question.
Here, technology can play a significant role in wiping out the learning deficit and resuming our progress towards achieving the SDG4 targets. We already witnessed how, even as the pandemic spread rapidly and shut down schools all around the world, the edtech startups from different countries rallied to help schools, teachers and students sustain learning – however diminished.
The challenge now is for the edtech industry to focus their attention on improving learning outcomes for school-going students around the world, particularly in the context of several months of disrupted learning through the pandemic. In this regard, we have some specific recommendations to share as below:
Using tech to prevent school dropouts- While there had been notable progress in the students’ enrollment with the dropout figures reducing to half, the pandemic-induced learning deficit has once again provided a hefty trigger for increased number of dropouts. Some edtech companies have developed AI-based models to gauge students’ progress and behaviour, which could be refined further to assess any red flags for dropouts, such as a dip in performance, absenteeism, and others. Transparent and effortless tech-led monitoring could infact prove extremely helpful in a country like India where out of the 196 million elementary school going children, about 146 million are enrolled in rural schools.
Training the teachers – We believe that not enough attention has been paid to the difficulties of schoolteachers in adjusting to the online or remote learning classes. Feedback from teachers often reveals that they received zero to miniscule training to adjust their teaching styles for online learning; even as the transition added substantially to their daily workload. With the reopening of schools, teachers will now have additional demands on their bandwidth to bring students up to speed with their mandated curriculum as quickly as possible. To make their task easier, edTech startups can focus on developing blended learning solutions that combine online and offline learning to improve learning outcomes as a whole, while still minimizing the teachers’ workloads. Separately, there is a huge opportunity in upskilling teachers so that they can maximise the effectiveness of blended learning models.
Catering to the underprivileged – There is no doubt that online learning via smartphones kept the learning going for millions of school students, even as their schools were shut. In many villages of India, school going students took lessons via Whatsapp videos shared by their teachers. However, access to online learning is also a huge challenge in households that cannot afford multiple smartphones. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in October 2020 revealed that about 43.5 percent of children in government schools had no access to smartphones. Other than textbooks, only about a third of students received learning materials through media like WhatsApp, phone calls, recorded videos or online classes. Here again, edtech companies can pitch in and consciously design products and solutions that cater as much to the needs of the underprivileged children as they do for those who can afford a smartphone.
Bring in inclusivity in education – UNESCO’s study “State of the education report for India 2019; Children with disabilities” said that 75% of disabled children in developing countries do not attend school, and their school drop-out rate is also high due to issues like lack of adequate infrastructure and untrained teachers. Technology can play a meaningful role in making education truly inclusive, as we have seen in the case of self-paced learning. But a lot more needs to be done and can be done by the edtech sector to ensure that when it comes to access to quality education, no child is left behind.
Improving literacy and numeracy skills – Even before the pandemic, Indian school students were often found to have poor foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Improving these skills to acceptable standards via tech-enabled learning is perhaps the single biggest contribution that the edtech sector can make towards achieving the SDG4 targets. A beginning has been made in this direction by a handful of startups like Countingwell and Cuemath that are focusing exclusively on improving maths learning among school students.
In conclusion, while the SDG4 underlines how the universal access to quality education can contribute to global peace and prosperity, the targets defined under it provide a powerful blueprint for all stakeholders to focus their efforts in pursuit of the larger goal. By aligning their strategic focus closely with one or more of these targets, the edtech companies can not only contribute significantly towards realizing the SDG4 goal, but also earn a distinguished recognition for themselves in the education ecosystem. The endeavor promises to create a win-win scenario for all.