Digital Equalizer Uses Technology for Long-Term Empowerment

“A tablet-shaped classroom?”
Daily News & Analysis – December 2, 2012

Last month, president Pranab Mukherjee unveiled Aakash 2, the second iteration of the low-cost tablet that the government wants to put into the hands of students in the country. Unlike its predecessor, the Aakash 2 has a better screen, processor and memory, making it a viable tool for the classroom.

It’s difficult not to get excited. Tablets have the potential to transform education. First, since they are cheaper than computers, students can own individual tablets, instead of having to share a computer in a lab. Second, video lectures by good teachers, can be beamed to students in rural areas, improving access to good teaching. Third, interactive textbooks using animation and internet resources, are more engaging. And finally, tablets open the window for adaptive learning. For instance, Acuity, developed by McGraw Hill in the US, tracks how students interact with digital textbooks. Teachers can then help out students with concepts they’re having trouble with.

However, researchers across the world haven’t yet come up with a definitive model that taps into the tablet’s potential. Some educationists in India feel that the government should have tackled issues of pedagogy rather than the hardware. “A successful education initiative is not hardware-specific,” said Sharat Chandra Ram, faculty, Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, Bangalore. “We need to study digital pedagogy first. What are the effective ways of using tablets? What parts of syllabus should be on tablets? The government should initiate research to answer such questions.”

Chandra’s point of view was echoed recently by Microsoft founder Bill Gates who in an interview said, “You really have to change the curriculum and the teacher… The device is not the key limiting factor at this point. If we ever get the curriculum to be good, then the access piece, which is the most expensive part, will be challenging.”

Convincing teachers to use tech
India’s track record with ‘schemes’ that distribute hardware for free in schools is not promising. If today’s flavour is tablets, yesterday’s was PCs.

According to Arundhati Chavan, president, PTA United Forum, Mumbai, PCs donated to municipal schools under various schemes simply lie underutilised. “Teachers need to be motivated and trained to prepare study material and lesson plans using technology. In our experience, teachers don’t want to do extra work.”

However, with enough time and effort, teachers can be convinced to incorporate technology in their lessons. The Digital Equalizer Programme, run by the American India Foundation, trains teachers to integrate technology and teaching in public schools, once a week, every week, for three years. “I don’t believe in intensive training where teachers are trained for 15 days and then left alone. You need to follow up with them to ensure that the training is applied,” says J Sundarakrishnan, director, Digital Equalizer Programme. It takes nearly a year to build rapport with teachers and convince them that new technology can be useful, says Sundarakrishnan. They are then given smaller goals that are achievable. “The idea is to empower teachers so that they can be the judge of how computers can be used to explain concepts to children.”

No estimate on adoption
The government seems aware of the problems that e-learning has faced in the past. Which is perhaps why Aakash 2 is first being rolled out in select engineering colleges, which have a comparatively tech-savvy faculty. The distribution of the tablets is being overseen by IIT Bombay, which will also train the faculty at these colleges.“We conducted our first two-day workshop in November which was attended by faculty from around 250 colleges,” informs Deepak Phatak, who is heading the Aakash project at IIT Bombay. The workshop focussed on the apps developed by IIT Bombay for engineering students, and gave pointers on how the tablet can be used in the classroom. By December, teachers will submit a proposal for their plans. The implementation will take place between January to April. This programme will be run by IIT Bombay for two years.

But there is no estimate on when the tablet will be fully integrated into the classroom. “India has 300 million people who are under 19. That’s more than the population of the US. You cannot make any predictions. The usage of Aakash tablets could take 2-3 years. It could also take 10 years. It’s not something that the government alone can do. We need the private sector to step in,” says Phatak. The Aakash programme, he hopes, will encourage private players.

Smaller content developers, however, see the Aakash 2, as yet another mega project, full of bureaucratic procedures such as submitting tenders.“Marquee investments like Aakash only make headlines. The government needs to create an ecosystem which includes smaller content developers,” said Rupesh Kumar Shah, CEO and co-founder, InOpen, which develops e-learning solutions for schools.

Clearly, while Aakash is an ambitious project, it is just a small part of digital learning. We need to realign the entire education system if we are to derive the true benefits of tablets — from teachers to teaching methods to syllabus, and assessment practices. It’s high time government schemes tackle this challenge.

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