This is an edited version of a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Madhav Chavan and featuring Mr. Ashish Dhawan from Central Square Foundation, Rohini Nilekani from Arghyam, and Vineet Nayar from Sampark Foundation.
The ASER 2020 survey is particularly important because it is not only concerned with learning outcomes, but also the process of learning. To me, the results allow us to hear the heartbeat of a nation desperate to keep its children learning at all costs. It’s what resilience sounds like. As a nation, we have to take stock of the digital divide and do whatever we can to address it. There is absolutely no doubt about the fact that this is an urgent need for India. This pandemic will not be the last crisis we will face, and probably not even the last pandemic, so schools may not be as stable as they have been for all these decades. So we have to do something for the children left behind because the future of education will be a combination of the physical and virtual.
The good news is that this report has confirmed what we knew to be true – that education is too important to be left to educators alone. We saw this in real time, as the Samaaj came together from parents, siblings, cousins, and communities helping children learn. 70% of schools said that communities had come forward to help, which is fantastic news for our school systems. It’s clear that the aspiration for education is internalised, and now we have data demonstrating that parents have the will and motivation to help their children learn. We have a fantastic opportunity now, to build their skills to engage with their children, which can be done through many creative ways.
The dream that we are all waiting for, after 25 years of Pratham, is that we will finally have a generation of children who are not first-generation school goers. The ASER survey shows us that this is the moment we’ve been waiting to capitalise on. The digital age is here to stay, so it’s no use being technophobic. We have to make technology work for us and for our children, and now we must develop a digital pedagogy. This doesn’t mean that children should stick to screens all the time, but that we open our minds to the possibilities that digital allows us – giving access to children anywhere and at any time, who may not otherwise have access to learning. It’s a call to action to develop a digital pedagogy, and that’s different from just a textbook being shown on the screen. It’s as different as a light bulb versus a thousand candles. There are so many exciting opportunities here and we can unleash a lot of creativity now.
As Anish Dhawan points out, this year has been a terrible one for children being left behind due to the pandemic. It’s a difficult situation and we may also think about how to create an accelerated learning program, and remediate children as they get back to school when schools are reopened. The survey tells us how deep the digital divide runs, with only a third of children accessing some material other than their textbook. Anish proposes WhatsApp as a viable medium, given that there are 400 million WhatsApp users in India and the household penetration of smartphones and WhatsApp is quite significant. As parents are getting more involved in children’s learning, we need to think about developing a home-based curriculum as well. The positives are that fathers are as involved as mothers and elder siblings, and so we need to harness this going forward.
Smartphone penetration can also be harnessed to help teachers. Anish mentions examples like TeacherApp, an organisation that created 75 courses for teachers. Over a million teachers have taken more than five courses each now and many states are embedding this. So there could be a blended way to do teacher professional development, create professional learning communities, and make resources available to teachers. Now that we have databases of parents, and many teachers are now connected with parents, Anish suggests also considering how to keep parents engaged and involved, whether it’s through text message, WhatsApp, or IVRS on an ongoing basis. In terms of platforms like DIKSHA, quality content is getting created or stimulated in vernacular languages right now. For example, Anish mentions a project he worked with Google, Tic Tac Learn, which quickly got 7 million viewers per month on YouTube and 2 million on DIKSHA, proving that there are very real opportunities now.
Vineet Nayar notes the good news from the survey – 36% mobile penetration has gone up to 62% in one year. This means that the penetration of the mobile revolution, which has been accelerating, is continuing to accelerate despite COVID. The government also reached 80% of textbooks to schools, which is phenomenal especially because the sample size of 52,000 households is not small and this is across all 30 states. However, there is a concern that if 62% have access to mobile but only 33% got some learning material, that means that the quality of learning material is perhaps not good enough. The other issue is that 67% say they have access to WhatsApp but they don’t say they got any learning material from it.
Vineet disagrees with Anish in the potential for WhatsApp in this regard. WhatsApp may be a good attempt to try and expand reach, but a one-way communication of distributing content doesn’t result in learning. This is also true of broadcast media which only saw 20% learning although the government put a lot of resources into it. Just broadcasting content, whether through Doordarshan or digital platforms, is not going to result in learning outcomes. Learning means engagement, and we need to develop technology where we engage in a two-way process that replicates the classroom as much as possible. Larger trends according to Vineet will see a drop in girls’ enrollments, migration from private to government schools, and urban school children moving to rural schools. As populations migrate from metro cities to rural schools, it will have a further negative impact on learning outcomes.
What this phone-based survey has shown is that we need a way to monitor children’s learning outcomes, working with state governments and thinking of how to do this in an efficient way. Ashish mentions that although state governments and nonprofits did their best, there are also a lot of lessons learned. By compiling their best practices we can create a plan, for which this data is incredibly helpful. He proposes creating a structured, home-based curriculum, where parents are more involved and there’s a link between the school teachers and parents. Reimagining teaching and teacher professional development seem like the two biggest opportunities. And structured learning apps for children like Chimple can be developed, which Ashish believes will improve learning outcomes. Although Sampark Foundation is working in six states, Vineet says that they need to reach more children as fast as possible, especially in states that are not doing well according to the data. He believes that we need to be more hungry, more unhappy, and more dissatisfied, to make the investments that are required and can be adopted by state governments to improve the lives of children.
ASER has always been a portal into a national conversation. It took so long after the first ASER, for people to understand the problem of learning outcomes and start doing something about it. People went through a journey, from opposition, to acceptance, and finally to action. We may see the same thing now, with children out of school and the kind of learning loss that is taking place. So we have to come together as a society to stem that loss and strengthen the children for the next academic year. All that will happen, but in the meantime, let’s focus on the opportunity that we have. Let’s use this data to begin a robust conversation on blended learning, using digital and the home, using things out of school and in school together. We have to reach every child, and I see this as a serious opportunity for inclusion and for the Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar to work together.
This survey also shows something great – teachers have been using this time to acquire new digital skills and to learn themselves. There have been 640 million learning sessions on DIKSHA and they have continued to grow at a very rapid pace over the last six months. 2 million teachers have been trained just using the DIKSHA platform of the government. There is content on that platform in 30+ Indian languages. We need to develop a digital pedagogy and come together better, but this the start of a journey and it can be a great journey to fulfill Pratham’s goal of every child in school and learning well.