Growing up digital — navigating the world of ed-tech

At the International Village School in Chennai, students pick up agricultural skills from a tech-enabled aquaponic system. Founder Chairman Rajesh Shankar lists some of the technology that has the classroom hooked: sensors to monitor water levels and trigger motors, custom- programmed boards to sequentially water the plants, the list goes on.

Meanwhile, Bengaluru-based Amar and Mrunal Deshpande, a husband-and-wife duo who have a story-based podcast for children, are relying on simpler, everyday technology to disseminate their audio stories in rural Indian villages. “We plan to do this via tools like WhatsApp — as simple audio files that will be easy to download even on smaller bandwidth,” shares Amar.

Applications for technology in the education sector (ed-tech) are vast, and often, overwhelming to parents and educators. As parents, we try to reduce screen time for our kids, but seek to stay updated about all the new options entering the market, scrambling in our attempt to understand what the role of technology in our children’s education should be.

“Technology is merely a tool in education, but an important one,” says Shankar. “Its use need not be limited to playing a video in class on a projector.”

Superlearning

While some schools have kept up with technology, they are also trying to understand the new challenges it brings. “Technology has informed our knowledge of how the brain learns, even as digital reading creates opposing challenges to the capacity of the brain,” says Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, founder of the Bengaluru-based Neev Academy. “To quote Charles Dickens: ‘It is the best of times, it is the worst of times’.”

Rote learning — always a contentious method — has become even more redundant today. Why memorise, when the Internet has made information easily accessible? “We now need to help children build the skills necessary to evaluate information (what sites should they go to, how should they search, how do they determine what’s true and what’s fake) and then help them analyse and use the information they find,” says Maya Thiagarajan, Director of Education at TREE, a Chennai-based educational outfit.

With the advent of new jobs in the education sector such as ‘media specialist’, ‘digital librarian’ and ‘technology integrators’, some schools are responding to the changing tides. And tech experts are not far behind. According to start-up tracker Tracxn, there were over 2,400 ed-tech start-ups in India in 2012 alone. That number is estimated to grow by about 200 every year. To some, this might be an indication that the robot takeover may come sooner than expected. But the many creative ways of using technology in the classroom are only increasing.

“Transforming education in India is done by integrating technology into it,” says Byju Raveendran, founder and CEO of BYJU’s, the math and science digital learning app. In 2016, BYJU’s was backed by big tech players such as the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and Sequoia Capital, making it the subject of envy from hundreds of other start-ups working in the same field. The range of services offered by these various tech companies is dizzying: from personalised learning and assessments, to Virtual and Augmented Reality content, gamification, digital libraries, learning analytics and real-time scenario engagement.

Teachers lead the way

How much of this technology filters down to schools? How can teachers keep up-to-date with a swiftly-evolving education landscape? These are some of the issues that will be discussed at an upcoming event on November 17 in Chennai, organised by TREE, Teaching Reimagined.

Bringing together a wide range of educators from schools across the country, the event will comprise of a group discussion followed by a panel, featuring Andrew Hoover (Head of School of the American International School), Gowri Sivashankar (principal of Harishree Vidyalayam) and Nirmala Sankaran (founder and CEO of Hey Math).

“Are the subjects we’re teaching today still relevant? Should our students be learning different kinds of skills — like analysing big data, or focussing on learning skills that cannot be automated? These are some of the questions we hope to tackle,” says Maya Thiagarajan. “What should a 21st century education entail?”

A word of caution

While the ‘Googlification’ of the classroom (where the company provides tech resources to schools, obtaining vast amounts of information about them in return) is less pervasive in India than in the US, it is still a concern. Accompanying this phenomenon is a growing body of academic research that seeks to understand how effective these solutions actually are. “Introducing technology to classrooms has to be a slow process that should not take away from what students can learn through reading textbooks in their formative years, and the dexterity that they practise with science experiments,” says Lewitt Somarajan, CEO of Pune-based Life Labs, which works with schools to make science learning more engaging in schools. “We are keen to copy development in western pedagogy but even in several states in the US, the use of digital teaching aids are now being stopped for children under the age of 12 and strictly regulated from the ages of 12 to 16.”

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