Incremental innovation using ICT: How an education operation in Bihar, India inspired the online application and admission systems

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Students in a classroom in Bihar, India.
Students in a classroom in Bihar, India. 
image: courtesy Government of Bihar

Effectively integrating technology into large-scale educational systems is a challenging endeavor. However, incremental innovations – where technology is used to substitute routine tasks – are more likely to succeed given their non-disruptive nature.

One such smaller-scale innovation was led by the Directorate of Research and Training (DR&T), Department of Education, Government of Bihar (India), with the aim to transform the application and admission process in teacher education institutions across the state. There are 66 teacher education institutions in Bihar offering pre-service teacher training programs for primary schools. Each year, these institutions attract more than 300,000 applications from youth aspiring to become teachers; the annual number only increasing every year. These applications used to be on paper and processing them posed several administrative challenges. After receiving applications by post, administrators would need to engage all teaching and non-teaching staff to transcribe the information from application forms into physical registers, drawing teachers and principals away from their core academic tasks. Manually copying the information and calculating applicants’ scores and merit lists used to be fraught with errors, leading to complaints. Applications would often be lost in transit or reach the institutions after the submission deadline. There were also allegations of corruption that the administrators had no means to verify.

To solve this, the DR&T undertook a series of reforms over several years. To begin with, data entry operators were enlisted at the institution level to enter the information from paper applications into a spreadsheet on the institution’s computer. These spreadsheets took on the role of not only the register, but also the calculator, and improved efficiency by simplifying calculations. Additionally, the data could be arranged, searched, and easily corrected, making publication of the list of selected applicants simple and efficient. As this approach saw some success, the administrators took it a step further. 

As part of its Enhancing Teacher Effectiveness in Bihar Project, the World Bank has supported several ICT initiatives in the state’s teacher education system, including an online system for applications and admissions implemented at a smaller scale for online distance learning courses for in-service teachers. Taking a cue from this, the teacher education institutions worked with local website developers to build simple websites allowing applicants to apply and pay application fee online. "Since, we were accustomed to filling online forms for our school matriculation examinations, we did not face any challenges in submitting online applications. We also did not need to worry about the application forms not arriving on time because of postal delays", a student at a teacher education institution testified. In addition, the application fee for students reduced to one-fifth, due to the overall cost savings at the institutions after technology introduction.

For the institutions, a clear application deadline enforced through the online system meant that administrators could easily maintain the academic calendar. The online applications were shown to applicants for correction before final submission. Accuracy and transparency increased with data collection and correction owned by individual applicants as opposed to data entry operators. Automated publication of merit lists helped build trust in the process and reduced the influence of local patronage networks in admissions. Online fee payments enabled the government to partner with commercial banks to seamlessly validate payment information across the state.

This transformation offers two key lessons. First, integrating ICT in education requires highly contextual technology. ’Imported’ solutions are less likely to work. It is critical to understand the problem from an end-user perspective, develop ideas and re-imagined processes that may be enabled or expanded/scaled with the use of technology, and ensure that the end-users are part of the exercise. In the case of Bihar, the institutional websites were developed by local providers, who worked directly with the users (teachers, principals, and applicants) to develop the most satisfactory user-experience within the existing context. The changes were also incremental, with first the data entry operators ‘digitizing’ the tasks, followed by a redesign of tasks into an online format. The principal of a teacher education institution summarized the first lesson rather succinctly, “The best part of individual teacher education institutions (TEI) leading this process was that there was space to make mistakes and learn from them. As we encountered challenges, we could work with our team and website developer to solve them right then and there.”

Second, transformations at scale require aligning all actors, so that reform initiatives gain traction and sustain. In Bihar, the DR&T played an enabling role, by offering support and autonomy to institutions to acknowledge the problem and develop local solutions by putting users (institution heads) in the driver’s seat. 

In the spirit of incremental innovation, several improvements to this effort are under preparation. First, the institution heads have started to collaborate to develop a process flow that would allow applications for all institutions on a single system, instead of each institution managing its own admissions process. Second, there is an effort to improve user experience by enabling some interactions on the website, provide answers to frequently asked questions, or collect applicant feedback on the process. Given the diverse population these websites serve, they may be made available in multiple languages and made accessible on mobile devices, thereby further improving access.

This initiative illustrates the promise that a series of small, incremental reforms hold in enabling administrators to focus their energy on improving the quality of education provided by their institutions. Such initiatives take on more importance in a post COVID-19 world, as we transition towards increased ICT use in education systems. This reform and the leadership that supported it can serve as a useful template for large-scale ICT transformations in education in other parts of the world.

[This is the third blog in a series focused on technology initiatives under the World Bank supported Enhancing Teacher Effectiveness in Bihar Operation. The first blog on improving service delivery in education through community participation can be accessed here. The second blog on building better accountability systems can be accessed here.]


Binodanand Jha

Director, Research and Training in the Department of Education, Government of Bihar

Kumar Vivek

Education Specialist

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