Computers in secondary schools: Whither India?

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CC-licensed photo courtesy of World Bank via Flickr, SDM-IN-097The German scholar Max Müller famously remarked that "If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions, I should point to India."

No doubt there are many other countries also deserving of similar sorts of accolades, but the challenges that India currently faces related to providing universal access to a relevant and quality education for everyone -- and the solutions it deploys to meet such challenges -- are of increasing interest and relevance to people around the world.  This is especially true as it relates to the use of ICTs to meet a variety of educational and developmental objectives.

All education systems are complex and varied, and India's is as complex and varied as any education system in the world.  Only China rivals India in the vast scale of its education sector.  While it is true that many schools in India are just now being introduced to computer use, India's first formal educational technology scheme started way back in 1972, during the government's fourth five-year plan.  Radio has been used effectively for many years to reach tens of millions of learners throughout India.  The EduSat program to deliver educational television content by satellite officially launched in 2004, and, from its first use in schools in the south Indian state of Karnataka, EduSat now reaches over 100,000 secondary schools.  In the state of Punjab alone, there are positions in schools for over 7100 dedicated ICT teachers!

For two days this past week, representatives from national and state governments, civil society, international organizations, academia and the private sector met in New Delhi as part of an on-going consultation process to help inform the development of policies and implementations arrangements related to ICT use in secondary schools in India over the next decade.

Subhash Khuntia, the Joint Secretary for Secondary Education in the Ministry for Human Resource Development (MHRD), set the stage for the two days by outlining the potential relevance and use of ICTs within the government's ambitious new 'scheme for universalisation of access to and improvement of quality at the secondary stage', formally known as Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA). 

[Please note: Links to the event web site are not currently working; they will be reposted once the site is back online]

Depending on one's definition, the ICT component of RMSA may well become the world's largest ICT/education project (a title currently bestowed by many on the 'Distance Education to Eliminate Rural Povery' initiative in China).  There are currently over 169,000 secondary schools in India, a number that will increase as the success of the government's push for universal primary education results in geater and greater demand for secondary school education.

One recurrent question discussed over the two days of meetings sponsored by MHRD and the World Bank centered on the relevance of the school computer lab model for ICT deployment to India.  To a notable extent, some presenters and commenters called into question the appropriateness of creating special 'computer labs' within schools.  Better, these people felt, would be to have a smaller number of computers introduced directly into classrooms -- at least if the goal is, in the words of one participant, to 'transform teaching and learning through ICTs'.  The fact that the impact of ICT use to date on learning outcomes is negligible in most places, or at least a matter of much debate, is (according to this line of thinking) at least partially attributable to the fact that, in most places, computers are only used to teach 'ICT literacy'.  Putting computers into computer labs, overseen by computer teachers, pretty much ensures that they will *not* be integrated into normal teaching and learning processes.  (A recent world Bank paper on school computerization in Colombia was cited in support of this argument.)

Notwithstanding some notable cases where computer labs are used regularly and creatively in direct support of a variety of subjects (like I have seen done well in schools in Thailand, to cite just one example), this argument has some very real merit.  Indeed, one consistent message emerging from OECD countries is the importance of providing ICT access to learners within their learning environment, and not segregating computer access to special parts of the school building.  (This sentiment is prominent in many educational initiatives promoting things like '1-to-1 computing' and 'ubiquitous learning', although these terms can mean different things to different people.) 

That said, ambitious, complicated programs like RMSA typically have multiple goals.  One counterargument to the 'no computer labs' sentiment goes something like this:

"Broadening access to ICTs, especially in rural areas, can be an important goal as well.  In fact, this is not an either/or issue, and there is not one model of computer use in schools that will be relevant for all of India.  ICT deployment into schools might be more usefully seen to happen in stages.  In rural areas where there is currently little or no explosure to computers, and/or where there are not teachers competent in computer use, it would be inappropriate to simply put computers into classrooms immediately.  Only once teachers and students (and school administrators) get more comfortable and adept at using computers does it make sense to begin to introduce them directly into classrooms.  A very efficient way to achieve this sort of level of 'comfort' is through the delivery of ICT literacy courses.  And it is important to note that putting computers directly into classrooms is an expensive deployment model!"

This discussion -- and many others -- will no doubt continue to pick up steam in the coming years as India makes increasingly large investments related to the use of ICTs in its education sector.  If the high quality of discourse at this week's event is any evidence, there will be much from this experience from which all of us can learn.

Documents and presentations from the event are beginning to be posted on the World Bank's eDevelopment Thematic Group web site.

For addition background information on the related consultation process that concluded last year in India, you may wish to visit the National Policy on ICT in School Education web site.

The event kicked off with a screening of the latest version of the popular short "Did You Know?" video that presents a series of provocative statistics related to education, technology, economics and demographics.  If you haven't seen it, you may wish to view the latest version on YouTube.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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