What’s the right medicine for learning? One tablet please

At some point in the near future everyone will have a smart digital device. The new digital divide will be of those with access to interactive digital content and those without


R Swaminathan | December 12, 2012

Reaching the pinnacle is always easier than maintaining your grip on it. Kerala is learning it the hard way. Popular imagination tends to be static; often hanging on to a perception that might have long lost touch with reality. With some justification, Kerala can proudly claim to have scaled new heights in the empowerment of women, land reforms and in achieving a quality of health that’s seen more in advanced nations than in emerging ones. The crowing glory has always been seen to be the state’s 100 percent literacy.  That’s the popular imagination. True, the state once had all the people, at least all above the age of seven, who could read and write. Not anymore.

NSS data from 2008 puts Kerala fourth in the literacy chart. Mizoram, the Andaman archipelago and the Lakshadweep islands are better than God’s own country. Some experts thought it was either a momentary lapse or a calculating error. But it was neither. The Kerala State Literacy Mission (KSLM), which is the nodal agency for the state’s highly successful literacy programme, did an evaluation study and come to the same, even if preliminary, conclusion.  KSLM director Dr. M. G. Sasibhusan admitted as much to a local newspaper saying ‘many neo-literates may have lapsed into illiteracy’. The Centre for Development Studies (CDS) estimates that at least 1.2 million people have lost their ability to read and write. In all, CDS says, there are 2.4 million people who are technically illiterate today. Measure it with the state’s population, and the literacy rate works out to slightly higher than 80 percent.

No doubt, Kerala’s slip ups are alarming. Yet that’s just a symptom of a larger malaise. An internal audit of National Literacy Mission finds that every Indian state, in varying degrees, is grappling with the issue of freshly minted literates sliding back into illiteracy. It’s also a problem not particular to adult literacy.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), which conducted reading and numeracy tests on over 700,000 children in the age group of 6-14, apart from surveying nearly 300,000 households in over 16,000 villages, finds that more than half the students in the fifth grade cannot read a book or solve numerical problems of the second grade. Yet the report surprisingly finds that school attendance has dramatically increased to 97 percent in rural areas. Even the attendance of hard-to-retain 11-14 year-old girls from rural areas went up to 95 percent. The teachers are also more regular, with an all-India average of 87 percent and over ten states having a teacher attendance of over 90 percent.

Then why are so many of our fellow Indians slipping back into illiteracy? And, why is education such a sub-optimal experience for a lot of us? Most of the reasons, right from the lack of quality teachers to poor state of infrastructure in many government and private schools, are well-documented and valid. Yet, all these reasons still do not explain why children and adults alike forget what they had once learnt. The same children and adults, for instance do not forget – in fact improve and improvise – what they learn in real life from tilling the land to using their mobile phones. The critical differentiator between the experience within the four walls of a classroom and the one outside is the intuitively immersive and organic nature of learning afforded by daily life.

Classroom teaching, at least in the majority of the schools in India, is rote-based, abstract, written, formal and has negligible to non-existent interactivity. In short, you are, in a manner of speaking, taught something, like history, but never get the opportunity to practice and hone it in the real world, like cycling. With no direct relevance to the real world, the teaching remains confined to the classroom and its perceived value is, at best, linked with a job and the relative security that it may afford. 

This is where digital technology is stepping in, and transforming the content, curriculum and the ability to create a sustainable delivery model of educational services that is as interactive and as it is intuitive. For several old school experts – pun unintended – the critical part of the new world that was sought to be created by the intersection of digital technologies and the methodologies, pedagogies, courses, curriculum and teaching styles was the lack of access to digital devices. It was critical a decade back, but is no longer so. With capacitive touchscreen tablets based on open platforms, like Android, and having good processing power available for as little as Rs2500, hardware is no longer a puzzle. Whether it is Aakash 2 or several of the affordable and good quality tablets from the likes of Micromax and Karbonn flooding the markets, the traditional definition of digital divide as one of differential access to devices will have to change. 

The new divide will be of differential access to intuitive and interactive digital content. As with most market-driven initiatives, e-learning companies have already evolved business models around interactive content that’s integrated with learning engines, secure testing and evaluation systems. Tablet manufacturers, mobile service providers and even digital TV platforms have all jumped into the bandwagon. There has been a slow and steady uptake of interactive educational content across multiple digital devices. So much so that Micromax has a dedicated tablet, Funbook, that comes preloaded with educational applications. But all developments cater primarily to the urban market. In doing so, the contours of a new digital divide are emerging. For large part of rural India the puzzle that needs to be solved is how to make appropriate educational content that is interactive, intuitive and local in character available to all in an affordable manner. It’s here that the government needs to puts its money, power and muscle in bringing together interactive gaming companies, digital designers, open source and open platform professionals, subject experts, national and international digital companies and communications professionals to repurpose existing textual content and create new content for the digital medium for all age groups, from children to adults wanting to learn their alphabets and numbers.

India has a shortage of half a million classrooms, just a single teacher for every 42 children and only 47, out of every 100 who start off in Class I, reaching Class VIII. That’s the real world and it’s not going to change overnight. A loaded tablet with the right content in the right format and in the right language, in the hands of a child or an adult, can surmount the real challenges of the real world. That’s the potential of the digital world.  Only our lack of imagination and collective will can shackle that potential. 



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