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Rohini Nilekani on Technology and Education

Education | Mar 9, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s interview on the importance of digital-led education and early childhood learning, on Pratham’s 25th anniversary.

Every child deserves education as a fundamental right in this country. But even today, we are not able to guarantee that right for all the children in India. The journey of bringing this about is one filled with both joy and despair, and Pratham has been on this path for 25 years. In December 1999, I was asked to join the Pratham network and I’m so grateful for that opportunity. In those days, Pratham was also growing and setting up chapters. The Karnataka chapter became Akshara Foundation, with the goal of putting every child in Bangalore in school by 2000. But it’s 2020, and the work continues. We realise how complex it is to achieve even this basic goal of creating sustainable social change in the field of education. But we are taking what we have learnt and building on that in 2020. Pratham has centred the crucial question of children’s education, and it’s impossible to ignore it now.

A People’s Movement

We can no longer ignore the three pillars of education — teachability, learnability, and accountability. The education system needs to enable all three of these pillars, with parents and communities involved in the learning process while the child remains at the centre. Learning cannot be limited to what a child does at school, it requires having an environment at home that also enables it. We saw this with Pratham Books, which we began in 2004 when we realised that Read India meant that thousands of children were learning how to read but they might not have access to books. We set out to change the paradigm of children’s publishing in India, because democratising the joy of reading was integral to giving agency to children to learn. So the idea behind Pratham Books was to be more than just a publisher. We were trying to think about how to provide local content, in accessible languages, that would be relevant and affordable, as well as fun for children to read. Since those humble beginnings, the digital platform has gone global, with content being offered in 200 languages.

This is a people’s movement, and education is a public good. This is the basic value on which Pratham was built, where everyone is allowed to participate in the movement because this is a societal mission. Educating children and democratising the joy of reading was the mission statement of Pratham Books. And it was reflected even in the operating model that we set up, putting everything under the Creative Commons license so that anyone could access and use these books. As a non-profit, our bottom line was less important than having these books be accessible, and I think today we can all be proud of what has been achieved. We started off with the goal of “a book in every child’s hand,” which has evolved into content in every child’s hand, on any digital device. I think this is the way forward, in terms of thinking about how we can make it a publicly accessible, ever-evolving good.

The possibility of an open, evolvable, technology-enabled system that serves as public infrastructure is something that I have to credit Nandan and the team at Pratham for teaching me. Rather than being technology-led, a technology-enabled system allows for the three pillars of teachability, learnability, and accountability to steadily improve. Technology allows you to gather people with different skill sets virtually, and allows them to learn from each other very quickly. And that means people are able to share knowledge instantly, which is much harder to do across geographies and distances. So I’ve understood the power of technology to help us solve societal problems like education. But we have to be careful not to be led by the technology itself, and to remember to keep it in the context of the distribution of the ability to solve.

Redefining How Children Learn

There is a movement gaining global credibility, that suggests bypassing the teacher by making children agents of their own learning. This is perhaps already happening, with so many devices in the hands of children. But I don’t think we can undervalue teachers. They are necessary to a child’s education, because the goal of learning is to create a better human being, a better citizen, and to allow that person to achieve their potential. Whether you call them a guru, a guide, a mentor, or a teacher, they are absolutely necessary to make that possible future visible to the child. It’s a two-way process that requires that the teacher also be a caring adult with knowledge that they are willing to transmit to the child. However, the role of the teacher remains absolutely critical.

Schools are said to be microcosms of the nation and its future. I hope that we can break down the kinds of social barriers that stop children from being able to congregate, socialise, and learn. But schools need not be the only place where education takes place, and technology definitely allows for that. This extends to the field of higher education as well. We need more universities and colleges in India, attracting the best talent and experimenting in building people’s skills and knowledge. I think this will look like a combination of virtual and physical classrooms, so that access and learning can happen in multiple streams.
In the 21st century, we have an opportunity to redefine how learning happens, and Pratham has been a pioneer in experimenting with education. For preschool aged children, the Balwadi Programme ensured that socialising and learning was a joyful experience. At the Akshara Foundation as well, we thought about what we wanted to impart outside of the curriculum. How do you open up minds and allow children to become more curious, without falling in the trap of exercising authority over them? The cornerstone of early childhood education must be kindness. As children grow up, we need to experiment to see what kinds of environments will allow them to thrive.

Early childhood education is also a Samaaj question, because it begins in the child’s home. We cannot delegate that early teaching role to non-profits or school systems, so how do we enable children’s parents or grandparents to be active in the learning process? This was the question that led to Nandan, Shankar Maruwada, and I setting up EkStep in 2014. We took what Nandan had learnt from Aadhaar and what I learnt from Pratham Books, in terms of how to go about a large-scale experiment, and thought about how to apply it to the problem of 200 million children in India who needed access to learning opportunities. That is how EkStep was born. During these last five years, we have been looking at how technology can enable the public infrastructure of our education system to evolve further. So the tech team at EkStep built Sunbird, which is open-source and accessible to all. This became the backbone of the National Teacher Mission platform called DIKSHA.

As a result of this, we are working with several state governments to see how teachers can work on the platform and improve digital content. We’re also working with state governments to put QR codes in their textbooks so that anybody with a digital device can access that digital content, which will keep improving and responding to what children need. What we have learnt with EkStep is that it is possible to create a unified, but not uniform, infrastructure so that contextual solution-making can keep happening. This means that teachers are allowed the opportunity to innovate using the DIKSHA content and the QR codes, and helping children who might be struggling in the classroom.

School of Tomorrow

My passion in the education sector lies in providing children with the foundational learning of reading, writing, and math skills. Once they have that, a world of opportunities opens up to them. So with EkStep, my role is to think about how to help younger children achieve this goal of learnability. Of course, there are concerns about how much to expose younger children to digital devices before it becomes a kind of addiction. We do have to be careful to see that it doesn’t harm children, but I believe this could play a crucial supplementary role to children’s education. It also grants children agency and freedom, which might allow them to actually learn more quickly, so it’s certainly something we need to consider further. In India, we need to think about the digital divide as well, that could be disastrous for children of certain economic classes who might not have access to those devices.
Finally, we need to take risks and also learn from our mistakes and course-correct quickly. It’s only when we attempt something, that we can take a step back and assess what can be changed and what works. The school of tomorrow has to have this freedom in terms of time and curriculum for these small experiments to be done at scale. That also means taking the big risk out of big reform. Rather than having something either succeed wildly or fail badly, small changes where everyone is altering behaviour to see what works means that we will be able to achieve serious change without the risk of a shock to the system. So if we can begin to adapt, learn from our mistakes, I think we can begin this work of affecting large-scale change.

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