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ICT in education: Government’s flawed approach

Jul 21, 2008

Founder of IT for Change Gurumurthy Kasinathan agrees that ICTs can help achieve some critical priorities in India’s education sector. Yet he notes the formation of a group to draft a national policy on ICT in school education has more members from IT majors – Intel and Microsoft – than educationists.

Imagine if the Government of India were to invite Airtel to join a group making national policy on spectrum allocation, or Ranbaxy Laboratories for a policy on drug pricing or licensing, or other organisations that have clear vested interests regarding the specific choices that policy would make.

It would be a serious problem since it is clearly recognised that policy formulation needs to be driven by principles of public interest and hence only bodies working for the public interest can have a role in its active framing, though subsequent to its drafting, feedback from all groups would, of course, need to be considered.

A group established recently to formulate the National Policy on ICTs in School Education is packed with as many as five technology vendors, each with a clear vested interest in specific policy choices.

A group established recently to formulate the National Policy on ICTs in School Education is packed with as many as five technology vendors, each with a clear vested interest in specific policy choices.

At the same time, this group has hardly any educationists, excluding even those who were involved in formulating the National Curriculum Framework 2005 (NCF), a landmark education policy document, whose creation was led by NCERT.

Importance of ICT in education

Significant changes over the past decade in ICTs have impacted many aspects of our lives – including booking train tickets and banking, using search engines for information, communicating with friends and colleagues, and participating in virtual professional and social networks.

All these represent the thin end of the wedge insofar as these technologies are triggering structural changes – at least as far-reaching as those of the Industrial Revolution – towards the creation of an ‘information society'.

At a time where the major institutions of our society are in flux, it is important to ensure that these changes, as far as possible, are in consonance with society's priorities, determined through its political processes.

The education system is closely related to society's knowledge processes, which are most impacted by these new ICTs.

It is therefore important to understand where our public education system stands in relation to these changes, both in terms of opportunities and challenges.

Even though computers have been introduced in schools in India , the education system has largely not been influenced by the potential for pervasive change intrinsic to ICTs.

Hence, a proposed increase in the spending on ICTs in school education from less than Rs 1,000 crore in the 10th Five-Year Plan to more than Rs 6,000 crore in the 11th Plan (working group draft report), by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) could reflect an urgency to harness ICTs for systemic change in the education sector.

To guide such huge spending, the ministry has initiated a process to draft a National Policy on ICT in School Education (NPISE).

Though the draft is not yet published and is being discussed in a group with non-governmental and business representatives, the basic direction that it is taking raises some misgivings and concerns.

Though the draft is not yet published and is being discussed in a group with non-governmental and business representatives, the basic direction that it is taking raises some misgivings and concerns.

On the one hand, ICTs can support shifts to desirable learning processes and practices, for students and teachers. This is contingent upon the active application of ICTs across the system by different actors in a participative manner, clearly led by considerations of public interest.

The virtues of constructivism have long been spoken of in education, and the role of ICTs in education needs to be primarily seen from this angle. Such decentralisation requires significant investment in the processes concerning the use of ICT tools and in the capabilities of teachers and students to decide how they want to use these tools.

A flawed approach

If not guided by these participatory and collaborative principles, both in terms of the best educational outputs and optimisation of ICT adoption costs, ‘ICT in school' investments could just as well become another unwanted burden on the school system, with specific hardware, software and curriculum choices being imposed on schools across the board, irrespective of their distinctive contexts, needs and priorities.

Given the risk of an obvious conflict of interest, we are concerned that the small group (called the ‘inter-ministerial' group!) set up to draft the initial policy has as many as five private vendors: Intel and Microsoft, who have near monopolies in hardware and office application software; Educomp and 24x7guru.com, who are large education content producers; and NIIT, the largest IT training company in the world.

It is thus hardly surprising that an initial policy draft that the group came up with does not take note of collaborative and non-proprietary technology processes – like Free and Open Source software versus Microsoft's proprietary software, and Open Content (collaboratively developed content, which is free to access) v/s licensed content.

The lack of consideration of these technology options is more glaring at a time when at least two states in India have announced their preference for Open Source and Open Content options.

Significantly, the school education system itself has more than a million institutions, which could work and collaborate to produce content that can be made available in the public domain, instead of using content licensed by private vendors.

Similarly, common support systems, which are perhaps the primary roadblock at present in adoption of Open Source, could if created for such large numbers of institutions, result in huge savings.

A policy with a Rs 60,000 crore implication can be an enormous incentive for private vendors to be involved. But whether those who directly gain by specific choices the policy can make should design policy, is a moot question.

A policy with a Rs 60,000 crore implication can be an enormous incentive for private vendors to be involved. But whether those who directly gain by specific choices the policy can make should design policy, is a moot question.

What compounds this inclusion of vendors in the policymaking process is the rather complete exclusion of education activists/actors from the broader education community. Why aren't the people involved in the NCERT-led National Curriculum Framework 2005 (NCF) work part of this policy-drafting group?

The NCF 2005 ‘Position Paper on Education Technology' is an excellent document highlighting the relevance and potential as well as the pitfalls in the Indian education context of ICTs, but sadly it has been ignored by the current policy draft.

One needs to be cognisant that ICT in school education is really a ‘curricular' decision, and the absence of those involved in the NCF is indeed an extraordinary omission. Partly this may be due to the policy drafting process having proceeded from a technological rather than a domain-centred perspective. Needless to say, ICT in school education policy is an issue central to education policy and not to IT policy (just as textbooks are a curricular policy and not a printing policy).

ICTs as an educational tool

Another aspect of ICTs in schools is that the exclusive use of certain software platforms without exposure to others will result in the learner becoming dependent on these, and often unwilling or unable to use alternatives.

It is to be noted that Project Shiksha of Microsoft usually has a clause in its Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed with state governments that only Microsoft can determine what applications would be taught in the academies created under these MoUs.

This amounts to equating world-class ICT learning with learning only Microsoft applications. And if a large number of children going to the public school system grow up learning just one set of technologies, this becomes the de facto standard, which means huge profits to its owner, and loss to society both by monopoly lock-in costs as well as innovation losses on one hand, and poor development of local software-building skills, and fewer possibilities of localised and contextual adoption of software for various societal purpose, on the other.

Just as the present policymaking process is silent on Open Source and Open Content possibilities, it is also silent on new possibilities of decentralised radio or video use.

Schools and school support institutions at the block or district levels can use these tools for creating local content in a cumulative and participative way.

Many community-based radio and video-based content initiatives have the potential to combat existing hierarchical networks of ‘learning' with peer networks.

However, an ICT in schools policy that treats children as passive consumers of education content produced centrally, or as users of proprietary applications (that cannot be worked on in a co-constructive manner), and teachers as instruments to promote ICT literacy in the education system without giving them autonomy to make contextual learning choices, can exacerbate the present problems of our education system rather than solve them.

The present policy extols public-private partnerships as fundamental to the use of ICTs in school education. While the participation of both private sector and civil society institutions is important, their role cannot water down the responsibility of the government in providing universal education.

The present policy extols public-private partnerships as fundamental to the use of ICTs in school education. While the participation of both private sector and civil society institutions is important, their role cannot water down the responsibility of the government in providing universal education.

This responsibility includes the appropriation of ICTs for learning, in accordance with the aims of the education system envisioned by our education policies – unless the aim is to convert the education system into what would be the biggest market for technology vendors.

If appropriately applied, ICTs can significantly help achieve some critical priorities in the country's education sector. At the highest level they provide capabilities for full membership in the emerging information society, and strengthen ‘citizenship'.

At the level of our learning systems, ICTs can enable activity-based and collaborative learning processes (suggested by NCF 2005), which can help us move away from the traditional 'rote-based learning' that dominates much of our current education system.

ICTs can also indirectly, although substantially, support education through relevant use in teacher education and education administration processes. To enable such possibilities a greater range of actors from the education sector, and others interested in education policy, need to engage with ICT in the school education policy process.

A consultation with education activists was held at NCERT recently, to discuss the possible shape that such a National Policy could take. There were sharp debates about the nature of ICTs and their potential for both centralised control and networks for democratic spaces, essential for providing autonomy to schools and teachers.

There were detailed discussions about the education contexts, challenges being faced by the Indian education system and lessons from previous programmes in the education arena involving use of ICTs, including those such as EDUSAT. The policy itself was clearly characterised and understood to be an education policy rather than a technology policy and ICTs were seen as a tool, though an important one, for achieving education goals.

While an NPISE is critical to ensuring meaningful investment in ICTs for achieving education goals, it is essential that it be facilitated by a national public body that is working in the education arena, with wide-ranging consultations with all groups, including the active participation of education activists.

The current route of private organisations that do not have a background of working in Indian education facilitating a process and involving technology vendors and excluding education activists is clearly fraught with dangerous implications for the country and its education system.

Source : Infochange
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