As schools wear a haunted look and desolate playgrounds await the return of about 25 crore students across India post the coronavirus pandemic, one industry has seen a startling upsurge.

The Education Technologies or EdTech sector has over 4,500 startups foraying into the education space, offering disruptive solutions, yet also creating a confusing and overwhelming array of choices for schools, teachers and even parents.

The rapid proliferation of technology in education is a supply-side push, leading to a systemic overload – a simple search on Google Play Store reflects hundreds of applications for K-12 learning content.

There are simply way too many companies doing the same thing with overlapping objectives, demarcating a clear divide between the pace at which the industry is growing vis-a`-vis the capacity of the system to effectively leverage and integrate technology.

EdTech has significantly polarized the opinions of stakeholders in the sector. Opponents, haunted by visions of robots leading classrooms or children glued for prolonged durations to computer screens, fear technology is dehumanizing education, trying to replace the teacher.

Meanwhile, proponents, who advocate for its ubiquitous implementation, tend to view technology as a sort of magic bullet, which can solve every problem. However, both these views are erroneous. Understanding and implementing technology in education requires clarity on its role, its effectiveness and the context.

A tool, not a miracle drug

Even though research on EdTech is fairly limited, it offers insights into the role of technology. First, technology is just a tool.

Smart boards, virtual classrooms, digital content or the provision of computers to every student, do not automatically improve learning outcomes. One simply cannot dump hardware in school and expect magic to happen.

Second, a tool is only as effective as the person who uses it.

Here, the teacher matters most. Improving learning outcomes is near impossible if solutions don’t help address her problems or if she is not equipped to navigate technology.

Third, sequencing is important – one has to focus on the learning model followed by the technology in service of that learning model.

Initiatives that start with the technology first almost always fail. Fourth – there are no significant differences across media types. This is consistent with the theoretical position that the medium is just a carrier of content and reiterates that instructional context matters.

Despite the peril of cramming technology into existing analog learning models, it holds promise. It can improve educational productivity by enhancing learning time beyond school hours, lowering the cost of instructional materials, and better utilizing teacher time.

In addition to this, personalized learning holds a lot of potential. While the origins of personalized learning can be traced to the tutor-student model in ancient Greece or even the Gurukul system in India, technology can help with proven approaches to make it scalable and cost effective.

The emphasis here is on the keyword – “proven”.

Evidence matters

Currently a lot of EdTech solutions are being rolled out without any scientific evidence on whether they work. A majority of products in the Indian market are developed and purchased with no evidence of efficacy.

The learning design that goes into developing a product is critical. For example, product development for a digital learning application must focus on key questions – How is the content generated? What standards is the content mapped to? Is the content translation across multiple languages appropriate? Is content across languages of the same rigour (a lot of times content gets diluted in translation)? Is the pedagogy actually effective to the learner? Does it enhance the teacher’s classroom instruction? However, till date, there is no set framework for product development at a national level.

And instead of adopting technology in education solely based on its marketing, there must also be higher standards, derived from rigorous evidence based evaluations – for it is the content and not just the container which matters. Our collective failure to know whether implementing technology is helping or hurting learning is perhaps one of the largest impediments to the delivery of quality education today.

However, there is a way out. The education sector can look to learn critical lessons on scientific rigour from the health sector.

As corroborated by drug trials for the coronavirus, systemic medical trials are conducted based on established protocols, and only those treatments which demonstrate proven impact, are scaled. One must remember, EdTech developers like most drug developers will have faith in their own products till its effectiveness is proven.

If a drug fails, the cost is an individual’s health and life. If technology fails, our children pay the price, and this cost is worse for children from vulnerable groups.

Decoding the context

Multiple EdTech interventions are flogging the Indian market and are currently being implemented in an environment crippled by challenges. First, access is poor – only about 60 per cent of the schools have electricity; less than 35 per cent of schools have computer laboratories; internet connectively is still poor in rural regions.

Further, implementing EdTech is not cheap. It requires huge investments in infrastructure, data connectivity and registration for access to products. Second, the Indian education system is not equipped to fully leverage technology. There are inadequate investments in capacity building of human resources (like teacher training).

Experience from other countries show that it takes at least three to five years of intensive training to enable stakeholders within the system to effectively use of technology. Third, there are issues with procurement.

There are no guidelines for stakeholders on what devices etc. to buy and how to maintain them. In addition, there is no method for stakeholders to choose which the best product is among multiple products, due to the lack of evaluation protocols for various EdTech solutions.

The market is burgeoning; the system is ill equipped; there are no clear guiding standards; evidence-based decision-making is missing; and confusion is galore. What’s worse is India is reeling from the Mathew Effect.

Derived from the Bible, the phrase translates to “the rich get richer”, reflecting worsening inequities. Mathew effect tends to confer benefits on the already advantaged.

As is evident from the Covid19 lockdown, children with educated parents, good or well-equipped teachers, and those who live in prosperous communities are the ones benefitting from the sprout of EdTech. Learning poverty is rampant in India, where over 50 per cent of the primary students, lack basic proficiency in reading. With ineffective EdTech solutions, and inequitable access, the country faces a credible threat of worsening its learning poverty.

The way forward

Technology is here to stay. Shortterm product-oriented solutions, that offer a quick fix to ensure the learning process continues, may end up causing more damage than good.

Therefore, the need of the hour is for India to develop a long- term system-oriented strategy for technology in Education.

Other successful countries in Europe and even USA and Singapore have executed well-thought of plans in phases, logically sequencing- universalizing access; developing techintegrated content and pedagogy; investment in teacher training; research and innovation; and the development of guidelines and standards for product development, evaluation of efficacy etc. (Scaling EdTech requires a clear vision and strategy that is articulated at the highest level of government, backed by suitable legislation and delivered through effective implementation.

In fact, the Draft National Education Policy envisions the creation of a National Education Technology Forum (NETF) to drive the vision, adoption and implementation of EdTech as well as ensure capacity building in the system.

It is imperative that this vision translates to action, at the earliest. The Covid-19 crisis underscores the urgency for its strategic operationalization. This is essential for a well-oiled education system that is effectively able to leverage technology as an enabler, while also ensuring equitable and high- quality learning. We owe it to our children; we owe it to our future.

The writer is a young professional at NITI Aayog. The views expressed are personal.