While the pandemic has been difficult for all of us, its impact on students, particularly young learners, is undeniable. After having to stay home amid multiple lockdowns, education continuity, scheduled learning, and access have suffered across the world. According to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021, the pandemic has set back education globally. The report states that the pandemic might cause 101 million children to fall below the minimum reading proficiency threshold and might wipe out the progress achieved in education over the past 20 years.
In India, however, the limited access to quality education dates to pre-pandemic times. According to an assessment by the World Bank and UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics, only 44.2 per cent of all students in government schools in Class V in India can read a Class II text. The rise of the private sector was one of the earliest outcomes of Indians seeking better education. According to the State of the Sector report on Private Schools in India by Central Square Foundation (CSF), almost half of the students attend private schools in India for want of better education. However, reduced incomes during the pandemic have reversed this trend.
According to the School Children’s Online and Offline Learning Survey (SCHOOL survey), 26 per cent had switched to government schools due to a lack of funds. In a country where education is one of the top three expenditures in an average household, financial uncertainty, and crippled educational prospects can be devastating. For a large chunk of Indians, education is the only vehicle that can move the trajectory of their life forward.
In this context, technology-enabled learning can be the answer that solves the problem of providing quality educational solutions at scale. Indian policymakers have been trying to address this issue through efforts like NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning) and SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) which provide access to quality digital education to Indian students. These platforms further improve the quality of their content to benefit students. A larger volume of quality online content in regional non-English languages would also help in increasing the reach and learning outcomes.
The Union Budget for FY23 has clearly established an intent to improve digital education methods and delivery to make education more accessible and inclusive. Addressing the efforts needed to bolster the education sector post-COVID-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an inaugural address at a conducted by the Ministry of Education on “Implementation of Budget 2022 Education Sector” highlighted the integral role played by digital learning in countering the effects of the pandemic.
The prime minister discussed the role of digital education in enabling learning to millions of children stuck at home during lockdowns and delineated his vision for more inclusive and integrated education solutions in India. He also insisted that the Indian education system must move beyond the objectives of achieving basic literacy and numeracy and focus on ensuring that students are equipped with skills that can have industrial application.
This is where the Indian startup ecosystem has the potential to bring about a disruption that can permanently alter the education paradigm. India’s edtech sector is poised to be a world leader and has seen entities like BYJU’S, Unacademy and Vedantu achieve unicorn status in recent years. These platforms have successfully disrupted the education sector through evolved pedagogy and innovative learning methods. Moreover, the mobile and data penetration in India has enabled edtech players to bridge the geographic divide, another huge barrier to education in India, while ensuring that every child has access to quality educators.
There is a need for greater participation from private players and start-ups in the education sector. One such successful model is the Future Skills platform developed by NASSCOM in collaboration with MEITY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) on which several private companies have hosted their education content.
To further aid this digitization, effective microfinance solutions are key. They can make the proliferation and adoption of technology-enabled solutions quicker. With a pandemic that has impaired both household incomes and educational progress, easily accessible microfinance solutions can help families remedy the latter. What India needs is a partnership between the government, banks, cooperative banks, and NBFCs along with the edtech sector to come together and provide cheap, affordable, and secure microfinance credit schemes to families to pursue better quality education.
Multiple studies have indicated that the variability of income determines whether a child attends school or not and microfinance credit can bring comfort to this fluctuation. A strong empirical argument in favour of microfinance can be found in our neighboring country of Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) introduced an experimental microcredit programme for non-formal primary schools (came to be known as the Non-Formal Primary Education, or NFPE, Programme,) in 1985. Since its inception, over 12 million students have graduated from BRAC-run schools and 93% of the students who graduate from this program enter the formal education system.
The time is now! Governments – Centre and states – should support and coopt the edtech sector to take quality content to students across the country. When we are increasingly seeing excellent and effective partnerships between industry and government in many sectors including infrastructure etc., why can’t the edtech industry along with the existing education ecosystem and government come together to consolidate and support the greatest asset of Indians – our knowledge – to create India’s knowledge corridor of the 21st century?
We’ve heard it time and again that a young population will form the backbone for India’s thrust to become an “aatmanirbhar” $5 trillion dollar economy. However, the country needs a robust solution to ensure that the children are provided access to quality education to upskill and enable India to become a more mature economy. As evidenced by the unicorn boom, India is creating an ecosystem that will generate many high-skill jobs, it is our responsibility to come together and educate a workforce skilled enough to perform those roles.
The author is Faculty – Data, Technology and Policy, Indian School of Business. Views are personal.