Former HCL vice-chairman and CEO Vineet Nayar, who heads the NGO Sampark Foundation, believes that learning outcomes in primary classrooms will not improve unless attention shifts to teachers, who they continue to be burdened with administrative work. Nayar tells Sourav Roy Barman that the findings of the National Achievement Survey, which has shown a drop in learning levels across grades compared to 2017, should alarm the authorities more, as it shows that ” classrooms seem to add very little to learning outcomes.” Excerpts from the interview:
🔴 What do you think of the NAS-2021 findings showing that between 2017 and 2021, students’ literacy and numeracy skills worsened considerably across subjects and grades?
Although we don’t have a very sophisticated measuring tool, these are all indicative measures, it will be seen that the learning outcome has only gone down over the last five decades despite the manifold increase in investment in education. Unlike 2017, when classrooms were fully functional, the 2021 data represents learning at home, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced children out of school for nearly two years. So if we take the 2021 data as non-classroom learning and look at the 2017 data as in-classroom learning, we can begin to understand the incremental value added or lack of going to school. It seems that classrooms only added 3-9% to learning at home, which is quite surprising. Indeed, it is a simplistic argument, but it raises a number of questions that we need to ask. If we don’t see this data from that perspective, we’re missing something pretty big. We’re looking at the wrong survey data. We should be a little more alarmed by the survey data.
🔴 Where are we going wrong?
It is a fact that education happens in the classroom. It passes between the teacher and the child. Learning levels are improved by the teacher. So we need to enable the teacher, not disable it… Our current system is disabling the teacher. Be it record keeping, electoral duties, something today, something else tomorrow.
🔴 So you’re saying that teachers are missing from the core learning and learning outcomes debate?
Can the learning outcome be improved without the teacher? The only person who can improve is the teacher. It is also a fact that the teacher is not the most educated person in the country today. All cultured people have moved away from the villages. And the only person available is someone who doesn’t have a job outside. Therefore, there are limitations to a teacher’s capacity building. I think the NIPUN Bharat mission (scheme of centers for enhancing basic learning) is a great statement of intent, but the execution part is where we are faltering. Implementation is being done the old fashioned way, while you need disruptive innovations. The articulation is visionary, but there is no innovation in the implementation, as, for example, in the case of the ‘Har Ghar Jal’ scheme.
🔴 As a leading name in this field, what are you doing to push the government in the right direction?
I am part of some of the bodies such as the National Technological Mission. We are driving the adoption of low-cost technology tools. This is why we are converting old TVs into smart TVs using low-cost Android devices in 1 million schools as a pilot project. A smart TV in the classroom will help teachers review the lesson plan of the SCERT chapter they are about to teach. A teacher can show children the concept video of the lesson on TV and can use creative teaching methods such as a song or dance based on songs for each lesson. Teachers can conduct a group assessment of students by playing interactive games on television. Before smart TVs, we started with specially designed kits for maths and then moved on to audio devices. The possibilities offered by these technologies are truly endless.
🔴 Which states have adopted the technology so far?
We have signed up with eight states: Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh on a limited basis, and we have just started Maharashtra and Rajasthan. But this has less to do with the Sampark Foundation. We have reached 1 million children. At the end of two years, we would be touching 2 million. But this is a small percentage. The reason I left HCL and committed $100 million to try to do this was to be a catalyst for change. We are engaged in this to try to demonstrate innovative experiments and skills for states to adopt. My hope is that once we finish this experiment in these eight states, it will be adopted nationwide and free for anyone.
🔴 You are also part of the national focus group (revision of the national curriculum framework) on technology in education. As part of the group, what are the key suggestions or recommendations you shared?
There are many ideas. It is very easy to put computers in all schools, but is this the right thing to do? My suggestion to the group has been that we need to be innovative. That we should take advantage of audio technology. We should take advantage of the ability to turn dumb TVs into smart classrooms. We must take advantage of artificial intelligence. We should take advantage of an entirely new way of building teaching capacity. They are very innovative programs that require less effort and generate a great impact. When we look at ideas, which require a lot of effort, like computer labs, like giving tablets to every child, they sound good on paper, but they would not make an impact because the effort required to implement them is heavy in resources. Therefore, my emphasis has been to find frugal innovative technologies, which create a big impact and bring the NIPUN Bharat mission to life.
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🔴 Did the group consider digital inequality in India?
Yes, we did. The reason I pushed audio and television technologies is because of this problem. Not only is the digital divide in India very large, it is also set to widen. The mistake we are making is to believe that everyone will have a mobile phone, but when everyone has a mobile phone, education will have moved from mobile devices to another device. Digital devices will only increase, not decrease. Therefore, our solutions must take this into account. And this is the reason why I recommended solutions such as audio devices, TV solutions, offline AI tools, off-the-shelf solutions, frugal in nature and off-the-shelf solutions.