Tuesday, December 01, 2015

EdTech for The Poor?

One promise of EdTech that gets talked about is about its ability to reduce the cost of education delivery, and thereby, expanding access.

This is a powerful notion that drives many business plans and policy decisions. Information Technology has changed a lot of things, but changing the lives of the poor is where it becomes truly transformational. The quest for efficiency and better management have impacted healthcare significantly, and enhanced its impact and extended its reach. We have seen similar transformational change in Banking and Retail. This is the model we now expect EdTech to follow.

Already, we know something about its impact. When I was with NIIT, I saw first-hand the impact of The Hole-in-the-Wall experiment that Professor Sugata Mitra, now a TED fellow, carried out. One big outcome of this was to put an end to the patronising notions about the intellectual capacities of the poor that we all secretly held. This idea of making a computer available, unsupervised, for children to play with and figure out, and eventually to learn from, brought out evidence of agency, curiousity and engagement is not the sole preserve of middle class children (or as Prof Mitra would put it, they don't have the monopoly of genius!). This is indeed one benchmark for what thoughtful use of education technology could do to transform education.

There is also another thing about using technology this way. Professor Mitra installed one of his computers in a remote island in the Sunderbans, in the midst of forests in Southern West Bengal, the home of the Royal Bengal Tigers. I got a close-up view as I was coordinating the technology activities of the Rotary District 3290 that particular year (2002), and it was one of our clubs that facilitated the experiment. The Hole-in-The-Wall was installed in a very remote village (though there was no wall there, only mud houses) with high salinity - which is why the spot was chosen - where one could only go by boat with a requirement to get out before the evening to avoid being eaten by a tiger. I was told by the local Rotary members how this transformed the approach of the local children. In a few months, they were confident and they treated the computer as their own. When Dr Mitra visited, some of them told him that they wished he could design a better navigation tool, a huge transformation for village boys who would not even make eye contact with city-men only a few months ago! This transformation in person is the holy grail of all education, and that unmediated access to technology could initiate such transformation was reason enough to think seriously about its potential.

I would often contrast this with the experience of government funded literacy missions. Its logistical challenges and costs are comparable (the Hole-in-Wall required the computer, the pod to house it, solar power and monitoring mechanism), and yet, its impact is as uncertain as it would be in case of this unmediated Hole-in-the-Wall. We know that teachers are often absent in government schools and the education is not just poor, but counter-productive. A teacher, coming from town, who took up the village teaching job not as a mission but as a choice of last resort, could indeed do enormous harm to the pupils self-esteem and interest in learning. 

However, at the same time, a lot of EdTech is also very poorly used. It is a fashion now to be culture-blind and to create one-size-fits-all model of delivery in search of scale. Hole-in-the-Wall was, and still is, a research project, with the objective of learning about learning behaviour. It did not claim to change everything, at least not in short term or without experimentation. But the usual culture of EdTech, either venture funded or for Government projects, is not to seek to learn, but to solve. All those preconceptions about the poor that a project like Hole-in-the-Wall tries to dispel, make a comeback at this point. The whole conversation - in case of Government funded projects - becomes one of pleasing the minister, who do not care either about the poor or about the learning. In case of private venture funding, the quest for scale trumps everything, leaving no room for customisation or learning from the poor.

If we contrast these two approaches, the key issue about employing EdTech for the poor perhaps become apparent. In banking, healthcare and retail, the examples I cited earlier, what one is seeking to do is to make available a model already available to the middle class to the poor, extending the business model to the so-called bottom of the pyramid. Education, however, is different. To be effective, education for the poor is not about co-opting them into a structure already made up for the middle classes - that is exactly what the government funded programmes seek to do - which may allow them to compete for low-level jobs, but at the same time, steals their agency and confidence, and undermine their ability to solve their own problems. Technology can help change this, but not if it misses the first step - that of learning from the poor!

The key difference between the approach of Hole-in-the-Wall and the EdTech that we talk about is this - that the former seeks to learn from the poor and enable them to learn themselves, whereas the latter seeks to teach. In fact, in most EdTech projects, the notion of learning from the poor would be a ridiculous concept, not allowed for in the business models (though it is a standard part in business models built for products for the rich). And, it would go against one of central assumptions of all the bottom-of-the-pyramid models - that customisation is only for the rich! It fits our assumptions elsewhere, consider the tailor-made suits versus the supermarket ones, but education is not a bucket to be filled, but a fire to be lit, and failing this is failing to educate and failing the poor, and doing more harm than good in the end.


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